One of the best things about being a cinephile in Chicago is the wealth of informed, passionate fellow travelers who are in a position to bring the best from the world of cinema into our theaters week after week. I have mentioned the Northwest Chicago Film Society here before as one of the best of the programming outfits around town. The NCFS has had a rough time lately, first losing the theater that housed the 40-year-old classic film series they took over; then facing a battle with a Christian congregation that wanted to buy and convert their new home, the Portage Theater, into a church; and now with the theater’s current owner, who abruptly locked the doors of the Portage over a dispute regarding the theater’s liquor license.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing quite like the solidarity of the film community here, as two other movie palaces helped the show go on by lending their facilities to the NCFS to continue their summer schedule—and what a schedule it has been! With the addition of the estimable Kyle Westphal, late of George Eastman House, as a partner and programmer, NCFS has learned of and been able to secure prints of rare films and restorations that have flown under the radar of most other venues. I was fortunate to be part of a packed audience at the Patio Theater to see High Treason, an extremely rare British talkie made on the cusp of the conversion from silent to sound pictures, with both silent and sound versions created and released. The restoration of the spotty nitrate and badly damaged soundtrack was funded by the Library of Congress/National Film Preservation Foundation and The Film Foundation, but the new print has only been shown once before at the Library of Congress Packard Campus Theater. Thus, we were only the second American audience in more than 80 years to see the sound version of High Treason on the big screen.
High Treason, an ambitious production that clearly was influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), is set in the future—1940!—when, after the horrible destruction of World War I, individual countries are now formed into federations throughout the world to work in harmony. A sustained period of peace, encouraged by a worldwide organization called the Peace League, has caused an economic downturn for those in the business of war. Thus, a cabal of monied industrialists plots to inflame passions and start the war machine rolling again. The peace is disturbed in Europe by a border incident instigated by the cabal in which a vacationing couple and a slew of border guards are gunned down. When this first incident isn’t enough to shake the peace, a train traveling through a tunnel beneath the English Channel from England to France is bombed, killing all aboard. When the decision to go to war is considered, President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) breaks a tie vote and casts his lot for war. His soldier son Michael (Jameson Thomas) prepares to mobilize, while Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), Michael’s sweetheart and daughter of the leader of the Peace League, Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), tries to dissuade him and eventually breaks with him in bitter anger. As men and women all over are called up to fight, Dr. Seymour makes a last, desperate bid for peace.
What may strike you from this brief synopsis is how eerily accurate this film was in predicting the European Union and the Chunnel, and how the idea of a military-industrial complex, which was criticized by progressive movements during the 1960s, is presented here credibly, not as some delusional conspiracy theory that would be ridiculed today. High Treason, however, stays very much of its time in celebrating the Jazz Age. Michael takes Evelyn, in full flapper mode, out on the town for an extended and very enjoyable scene in a nightclub full of fashionable Gatsby-esque extras dancing and drinking the night away. The parallels to the nightclub scene in Metropolis are obvious, as the first vision from inside the club is of a gigantic nude statue of a woman overseeing the revelers. While there is no actual nudity in this or any other scene, as there is in Metropolis, there were enough long takes of women in their silk undies that the film was actually banned in New York.
Elvey produced another fine set-piece in the train sequence. A first train goes through the tunnel, and the conspirators on board drop a time bomb out the train window and onto the tracks. With the dread of the inevitable gripping the audience, he then offers a scene of high comedy, as the doomed second train teems with lively characters, particularly a rich, elderly woman doting on a small puppy, which she puts in her bag and hangs on a hook while she and her husband have their supper. The sweetness of the scene contrasts suddenly and violently with the explosion that upends the train and collapses the wall of the tunnel, sending cascades of water in to drown the passengers. Again, the parallel with the flood scene in Metropolis is hard to ignore, but the scene has a drama and integrity all its own.
The critique of the idle rich that was present in Metropolis is absent here, as the message of the film is not so much about class struggle as about maintaining a lasting peace in a world programmed for conflict. This perspective is another unique aspect of High Treason. The film takes its pacifism—itself a rarity in world cinema—to a logical, if extreme conclusion. Dr. Seymour is as influential a figure on the world scene as any warlike world leader might be today. President Deane allows him to make a statement before Deane announces over the radio that war has been declared; Seymour uses this time to kill Deane and announce that the nation will remain at peace, but he has destroyed another human life and refuses to defend his action as necessary for the greater good. Elvey frames Seymour as a Christlike figure, with a circular window in the background surrounding his head like a halo at his trial. However, Seymour is no martyr, simply a man who sees moral relativism as the greatest danger to the common good, to peace, by suggesting that one life is more important than another. This Eastern notion of the godhead in all of us put me in mind of another utopian vision put to film, Lost Horizon (1937).
Aside from its status as a rarity and important transitional film, High Treason has other qualities to recommend it. While the acting is generally overwrought, particularly from Thomas, the film perfectly exemplifies the transition of acting styles from the broad pantomime needed in the silent era to a more naturalistic rendering of dialogue and expression. The ramp-up to war that has young women lining up to work in an aerodrome factory, guarded by Deane and his troops, is offered in a high crane shot as a moving tableau not only of the legions of lives hanging in the balance, but also of how war reduces human beings to little more than identically uniformed ants marching in line. This impression, however, is mitigated by one woman who begs an intake worker not to accept her; the worker guesses that she has children at home and stamps her orders with an exemption, offering the possibility of mercy against the tidal wave of violence. In perhaps the most compelling scene in the film, the women, led by Evelyn, are prepared to defy Michael and his troops. Seeing the two sides square off in deadly earnest is a genuinely tense moment perfectly staged and paced by Elvey.
Gaumont British had high hopes for High Treason, a prestige export they hoped would put them on the map. Unfortunately, its lackluster box office and complete absence from New York doomed it, and High Treason vanished quickly from view. Thanks to the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, High Treason is back. Urge an arthouse in your neighborhood to book it today!
I know modern movies are essentially treated by many viewers as dialogue filler between action sequences: certainly young audiences in movie theatres act that way. But I’m still stuck back in the age of storytelling, antediluvian-hearted animal that I am. When I wrote about the first entry in J. J. Abrams’ cycle back to a retrofitted version of the original Star Trek in 2009, I commented that although the USS Enterprise was back boldly going where no one had gone before, what it seemed likely to find was far more limited and generic than in Gene Roddenberry’s epochal, probing, often weirdly poetic TV classic. To a great extent, Star Trek: Into Darkness realized my expectations, provoking schismatic reactions in me.
Abrams offers fun and derring-do with only a thin veneer of the inquisitive humanism and speculative eccentricity that was the point of Roddenberry’s creation. This edition provokes suspicion, reinforced by Abrams’ own admissions, that he uses the superstructure of the Trek mythos in service to space opera malarkey whilst ignoring the richer and stranger texture of the source, the patina of flower-child idealism emphasising the multitudinous possibilities for contact and communication in the universe. Of course, that tone coexisted in a vision of the future with corny politics, guys in polyester stockings wrestling with men in plastic lizard suits, and storylines synthesised to justify whatever spare costumes and sets were lying around the Paramount backlot, from Nazi uniforms to gangster threads. The best movies in the Trek cinematic strand are essentially fast-paced pulp yarns that play ably on the fact that with all of the elements of essential drama long in place, it was easy to whip through worlds and ideas.
A greater problem that Abrams courts here is having his take compared to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a gold standard of scifi and franchise filmmaking. The stature of The Wrath of Khan lay in the near-perfection of its balance of character, theme, action, and plot rather than in its wobbly production, making it the complete opposite to so much big-budget fare today. The older film’s balance came to a certain extent from the accumulated affection for its cast and the substance of its repeated motifs, something a relatively callow franchise can’t swing nearly so confidently, especially one that has to fight for space on the multiplex screens and win over the popcorn crowd. Into Darkness doesn’t compete in regards to storytelling skill or provocation of wistful emotion. On the other hand, Meyer invested a depth into the characters that they’d never really had before, and played up their aging, worrisome quirks to deliver that rarest of creations, a zippy pop-culture work that grazed the edges of tragedy and myth. Therein lay a contradiction: Meyer both fulfilled and reinvented the brand. Abrams does the same thing, by dealing with a version of the characters defined by youthful volatility and the struggle to learn who they are, rather than the warhorses of the older movies and the crisp professionals of the series. Abrams’ signature touch at the start of his first instalment, one indeed he’s finding hard to top, was an epic sequence of generational loss and birth, signalling his intent to annex Star Trek as a place for genuine character drama. With its early reliance on broad stereotypes and the later series’ generally flaccid placeholders, the human element has always been the weak point of Trek, ironically only really gaining urgency through the perspective of characters who were not human, but who sought to understand that state, like Spock and The Next Generation’s Data.
Never mind the old show: some of the best qualities Abrams and company instilled in their revision aren’t really done further justice. John Cho’s butched-up Sulu, Zoë Saldana’s substantial Uhura, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley-by-way-of-Robert Newton take on Bones McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s comedic Chekhov, all ripe for expanded roles, get odd moments of action, but are all somewhat left holding the bag. Abrams concentrates again on the Kirk and Spock Dioscuri, though the tricky relationship dynamic of Spock and Uhura—sage and communicator—pays off with a satisfying sop to the strength of mutual care. Klingons make it into this entry, but they’re just swarthy menaces who provide story fodder and a fight scene without much chance to show off their weirdly specific, perverse warrior pride and intelligence. Okay, one could wax lyrical about how Into Darkness doesn’t encompass the old Trek brand. It’s still a very enjoyably, impeccably made action flick that follows its predecessor and outdoes it, standing up with John Carter (2012) as a rocking yarn that breathes life back into the near-asphyxiated field of mainstream scifi spectacle, purely through the vivacity of its visuals and pacing and the energy of its conceptual universe, coming at a time when scifi spectacle has seen entertaining entries like Avatar (2009) and Oblivion (2013) that are nonetheless dispiriting in their derivativeness. Rejigging Trek for the umpteenth time is also derivative, I’ll grant, but Abrams, having jolted the timeline of the series into an alternative reality for the sake of giving a shock to the material (and to the inertia of fan-obsessive continuity), at least has a sense of purpose, glazed in a sense of colour, light, humour, and movement that approximates the best of the old popcorn flicks we all watched as kids.
However, Abrams’ screenwriters, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, having proven themselves gifted at harvesting the tropes and ideas of other, better writers and remixing them into superficially clever narratives, have benefited greatly from the annexation of scifi properties by blockbuster cinema. Lindelof’s incoherent screenplay for last year’s Prometheus pointed sadly to just how much artisanal love and craft have deserted the medium. Yet Star Trek has a strong, but malleable, bedrock of lore that can accommodate almost any mode of storytelling, whilst Abram’s gusto and love for his medium is reliable. Abrams dumps the audience into an extended fusion of Indiana Jones adventure and the TV show’s cheerily tacky evocation of the alien as James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones distract a hostile aboriginal tribe on a far-flung planet long enough for Spock (Zachary Quinto) to drop a cold fusion device into an erupting volcano that’s threatening to wipe the planet out. Spock takes a tumble into the volcano’s mouth and expects to die. After escaping the natives, Kirk violates the Starfleet Prime Directive of not interfering with the evolution of species, and reveals the Enterprise in order to beam Spock aboard. Spock officiously reports the incident to Starfleet: Kirk is dressed down by his mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and fired from his captaincy. Pike takes over the Enterprise and rehires a chastened Kirk as first officer. But a mysterious schemer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has engineered a terrorist attack that decimates a Starfleet facility in London, and a meeting is called of senior commanders to consider the danger.
Evoking The Godfather Part III (1990), Harrison assaults the meeting with a hovering attack ship, killing Pike and other Starfleet grandees. Senior commander Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) survives and gives Kirk the Enterprise to chase Harrison to where he’s fled: Kronos, the home world of the ever-ornery Klingons. Marcus equips Kirk with a number of drone photon torpedos to decimate the remote region in which Harrison is hiding. Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock argue the foolishness of such an act when relations with the Klingons are so fragile, and Kirk relents, choosing instead to capture Harrison with the help of Spock and Uhura. The Klingons are less than welcoming, and the trio are forced to fight, only to be saved by an awesomely talented warrior who proves to be Harrison. Harrison surrenders to Kirk upon learning of his strange cargo, and reveals his true identity: he’s Khan, a genetically engineered, super being exiled from Earth three centuries before. He was reawakened when the spaceship taking him and his fellow genetically engineered savants into exile was rediscovered in deep space, and Khan’s intelligence had been put to use by Marcus. The torpedoes actually contain his shipmates, held hostage to the Admiral’s nefarious designs.
The opening sets a template Abrams follows efficiently: essential Star Trek tropes are employed in a witty style that doesn’t forestall serial-like escapades, paying off in a boiled-down version of many an episode’s lesson, as the natives have an epiphany, drawing the image of the Enterprise in the dirt as a new sky-god. Abrams’ attempts to dovetail the TV show’s traditional themes with a good-humoured, spring-heeled approach are at their most successful here. The consequences of Kirk’s brazen style, in saving Spock who had been entirely willing to die according to the limits of his role, are also followed through in a way that the series rarely required of Kirk. This rule evoked the similar ones holding Superman and Doctor Who at bay from dabbling in social engineering. A hesitation here is that Kirk’s actions are only reprehensible from a strict rule-book perspective: he saves a native species and his first officer both from annihilation at the small expense of providing the natives with a glimpse of things strange and wonder-provoking, a possibly mixed blessing. Kirk’s disgrace puts in motion a drama about the inefficacy of always obeying seniors, even as Kirk has an extended crisis about his own leadership capacity clashing with his tendency to buckaroo improvisation: “I don’t know what I should do,” he says to Spock at a crucial juncture, “I only know what I can do.”
The original Star Trek asked questions redolent of the era’s concerns regarding race, war, and society: what constitutes “humanity” and life worthy of respect? How does one maintain a balance of peace against inimical opponents? Does one intervene in societies beset by growing pains or keep hands off for fear of playing god? What indeed is “god” in such a universe? Stirring and engaging as these questions were in such a medium, they were already pretty old-hat for science fiction by the 1960s. Whilst ethical and scientific inquiries are far less important in the context of Abrams’ films, here the questions are manifested in the push and pull of the Kirk-Spock relationship, with a new third corner in Khan, relating to morality and responsibility in leadership, whilst the larger story almost too obviously seeks to channel anxiety over terrorist blowback, manufactured war-justifying threats, and drone warfare. This “dark” slant of terrorist supervillains and warmongers is actually thematically similar to Meyer’s other Trek film, The Undiscovered Country (1992), which reconstructed the Cold War endgame into scifi argot. Into Darkness’ assumptions about institutional power are, at least before the plot cleans up neatly, far from the semi-utopian assumptions of the old Trek. But it does give a new urgency to Kirk’s desire to puzzle out how to do the most good when the responsibility is his, one Spock reiterates in the classic formula from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Roddenberry’s patina of idealism was also always inseparable from the surprising rigidity and old-fashioned quality of its space-age notions of hierarchy and responsibility, something Meyer recognised when he played up Starfleet’s Hornblower qualities, and which Abrams tweaks here to more menacing purpose. Starfleet’s attitude and costuming are becoming distinctly more militarised: Kirk and his crew now occasionally wear peaked caps, which hint this future is now only a stone’s throw from the overt fascism of Starship Troopers (1997), and Scotty quits the Enterprise crew in protest of this creeping militarisation. Here, much of the leadership of Starfleet is exterminated, except for the very head honcho who proves to be a ranting General Ripper-esque psycho. Thus, Kirk and company find themselves caught between two different versions of the same evil. This narrative is definitely more sceptical than the traditional Trek story, but not necessarily more cynical. What’s more frustrating about Into Darkness is that where Abrams proved with his extended movie brat homage Super 8 (2011) that he could replicate the careful unfolding of narrative that made the brand of Spielberg et al. so powerful back in the day, here he’s still at the mercy of the lazier reflexes of the contemporary blockbuster. Khan’s motivation, history, and perspective aren’t gradually and effectively revealed, but dumped in an exposition speech delivered in the now-compulsory interlude where the villain is briefly imprisoned, as per The Dark Knight (2008), Skyfall, and The Avengers (both 2012).
The story is complex, but all of its elements are essentially in place already as the film jumps into it. Khan is awake. His crew are already stowed in cryogenic chambers hidden in photon torpedos with no convincing explanation for this strange choice of hiding place, nor how Marcus found them. Marcus’ plot has already largely progressed, and he chooses the least sensible patsy imaginable to deliver his Pearl Harbor/Gulf of Tonkin/9-11 on the Klingons. Khan and his crew’s backstory begs so many questions, most of which remain unanswered, that it could cause your forehead to turn inside out if you think about it too much. Into Darkness exacerbates an ever-more apparent problem with a lot of contemporary screenwriting—a story that is at once dense but also essentially treated as baggage. The story has already happened: Kirk and company are roped-in patsies who have to mop up the debris. What is left, then, is basically an extended third act of chase and battle. Whereas in The Wrath of Khan, the war to control the Genesis device was beautifully contoured into the story on several levels, providing thematic gravity, motive, and payoff, here Khan himself is turned into a variation on the device—apt as he is always associated with cyclical destruction and rebirth, which give the Vedic overtones of his name some coherence, with his blood possessing incredible healing properties. At the film’s outset he gains himself a suicide bomber (Thomas Harewood) by saving his deathly ill daughter with a transfusion, whilst this element bides time to provide a deus-ex-machina in the finale. The larger drama in play—Marcus’ attempt to force a war between the Federation and the Klingons—is timely, but not forceful, a significant idea dismissed as mere plot device.
But there I go again comparing, and to a large extent that’s unfair. I can only illustrate why it’s unfair by example: it’s akin to faulting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for not concentrating on the same elements of an evident inspiration like Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Whilst definably linked by aspects of character and image and genre, the older film is an exotic adventure movie, but also a situation-comedy about character, whereas the later movie is a full-throttle action film built around linked set-pieces. There’s still room for character and thematic depth in the action film, but it’s subordinated to an ethic of rolling cliffhangers. The problem here is that we already have so many would-be roller-coaster rides on modern cinema screens, making one ache for a more considered brand of genre delight. The positive aspect is that so many of those rides suck, whereas Star Trek’s rigid place in the pop cultural firmament helps give this style rare integrity and power. The day when Kirk and Khan could not only trade physical blows, but also blows of wit and ego laced with literary references seem sadly gone. One of the reasons Khan made such an impact on Trekkies and casual fans alike was because his leonine intellectualism, as well as great physical strength, made him a rare kind of villain befitting a show with a penchant for cerebral stimulation. Khan’s genius is stated, but scarcely given real scope: the film is filled with products of his brilliance, like the souped-up warship he’s designed for Marcus, but again, they’re already present and ready for use.
In its middle third, Into Darkness does shift into the kind of strategic gamesmanship The Wrath of Khan did so well, once again forcing the heroes to take on an enemy who seems to have all the advantages. A seemingly impossible situation is set up, which must be solved with both grit and smarts—a common quality of all versions of the series. Caught in deep space, sabotaged by Marcus in his plan to make them magnets for punitive Klingon action, the Enterprise crew first have to get their ship going, but then are chased by Marcus in the massive and lethal new Dreadnought-class spaceship Vengeance Khan designed. The Vengeance knocks the Enterprise out of warp close to Earth, and only the fact that Scotty has smuggled himself aboard prevents the Enterprise’s complete destruction. Kirk forges a brittle alliance with Khan to take out their mutual enemy, and the two make a thrilling, high-speed flight through a debris field to plunge into a narrow airlock that Scotty has to pop whilst under guard. Khan unleashes unvarnished, megalomaniacal rage, crushing Marcus’ head with his bare hands in another movie nod (to Blade Runner ) and forcing the Enterprise to beam over the torpedoes containing his frozen friends. However, Bones and Sulu pull off a (not too) malicious switcheroo, allowing them to blow Khan out of the sky just as he fires on them.
Into Darkness pulls off something that some other recent films, like the awful Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes series, have tried but not quite swung: putting characters better known for brains into situations requiring brawn, whilst not entirely asking them to abandon the former. Casting Cumberbatch, who plays a modernised Holmes on television, as Khan suggests a move towards embracing the intellectual as well as violent kind of villainy and in keeping with Ricardo Montalban’s characterisation of Khan as a wily, chess-playing, Moriarty-ish kind of enemy as well as a bristling he-man who delighted in his prowess and competitiveness but could only find the satisfaction of exercising his gifts against challenging opponents. That promise doesn’t really eventuate here, in part because he’s bestowed with a new trait that makes him less Nietzschean but also a more apt, shadowy doppelganger to Kirk: he’s consumed by his sense of care and duty toward his fellow mutants as a crew equal that dampens his capacity to act according to the ruthless predatory instincts of his genetic programming. This is a clever exacerbation of the basic theme flowing throughout Abrams’ Star Trek: finding drama in two inimical versions of the same sense of duty. The Kirk-Khan death dance takes on new dimensions, then, as each is forced into positions and choices that test their essential makeup. Cumberbatch invests Khan with pride and an exclusive variety of empathic feeling reserved strictly for his fellow übermensch, but also apocalyptic anger when offended. The “otherness” of Khan, with his distinct ethnic identity, has been removed, relying rather on Cumberbatch, with a mop of black hair and a deep, mordant voice, to embody malefic brilliance. That voice is capable of the same purr, redolent of a panther starting to think about its next meal, that made a star of Alan Rickman. Cumberbatch, whose early roles mostly stuck him playing swots and bluebloods, was hitherto best used for villainous purposes in Atonement (2007). I half-hoped he could find someone on the Enterprise to enjoin, “You have to bite it!” Even if Khan can’t be all that he should be in a modern multiplex blockbuster, Cumberbatch still inflates himself to fill Montalban’s large shoes.
Likewise Quinto, who doesn’t possess Leonard Nimoy’s lode of abyss-throated gravitas, makes up for it with his poise. Some have said that the new Trek has essentially become Spock’s series, and there’s a lot of truth to this, if only because the contemporary sensibility finds the internally divided, outwardly stoic figure much more compelling than the squarer Kirk. This seems to be the season for digging up fallen ’80s heroes, following William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s contributions to Iron Man 3; Abrams goes one much better in giving former Robocop Weller a lip-smacking bad-guy role. Rounding out the cast is Alice Eve, playing Marcus’ daughter Carol, a scientist who gets aboard the Enterprise to find out what her father’s up to: according to Trek lore, of course, she’s destined to be the mother of Kirk’s son David and supply a dash of silly cheesecake to a Peeping Tom Kirk, suggesting sexuality in Hollywood hasn’t progressed beyond the 1950s. Also, why Admiral Marcus has an American accent and Carol a British one is left sadly opaque.
Chris Pine’s performance is stretched in ways here that threaten to reveal its limitation: Shatner’s Kirk was always smug, but supremely competent, a man who wore his captaincy naturally. Pine’s, on the other hand, still feels a bit too much like a high school football captain suddenly beset by existential angst about life after graduation. But he and Quinto do still pull off the propulsive aspect of mutual reliance and affection in spite of violently contrasting temperaments. The harum-scarum rush of bluff and double-dealing, mixed with intense, vivid, physical action, is pretty tremendous stuff, and once Abrams is in his action element, Into Darkness rips and roars. The major set-pieces of the finale see Abrams trying to one-up the crashing spaceship sequence of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), first by having the Enterprise go into free-fall in Earth’s atmosphere, the heroes caught inside what amounts to a colossal tumble-dryer, and then Khan crashing the Dreadnought into San Francisco Bay in a suicide run at Starfleet Headquarters.
Abrams revels here in the scale and detail and force of what the contemporary special-effects palette can do for him, rejoicing in assaulting the prim environs of the Enterprise and the whole idea of colossal battleships in space, and subjecting them to violence on a grand and entertaining scale. Abrams, a famously transplanted TV talent, has been displaying ever-evolving cinematic gifts since his debut, the strong Mission: Impossible III (2006), a film driven by a peculiar tension between his grasp of kinetic pace and the sense-battering editing endemic to contemporary Hollywood. Abrams has been conquering the latter trait, and though his first Star Trek still displayed those bad habits. The classicism he forced on himself with Super 8 has paid dividends here: the spectacle is gorgeous and the fighting mostly comprehensible. But what really keeps Into Darkness humming is the clarity of Abrams’ focus on emotion that, in spite of the whiz-bang elements, still provides a sturdy superstructure. Where the first instalment ran with one of Abrams’ favourite themes—personality crises in the young and talented played out through the heightening tropes of genre urgency—here the crux is rites of passage that could also be life climaxes. Kirk loses Pike, the last link to his youth, right after he’s sent back to the minors, and, as in The Avengers, the swaggering hero is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, saved only by convenient screenwriting (and the mutual model for both films is, again, The Wrath of Khan).
The gag is that whereas The Wrath of Khan saw Spock giving his life to restart the Enterprise’s engines, here it’s Kirk, building to an outrageously conceited yet peculiarly stirring mirroring scene to the older film’s climax. Spock sets off in vengeful pursuit of Khan culminating in an essentially superfluous but aptly grandiose and thrilling chase across the futuristic San Francisco skyline, battling on the backs of flying vehicles hundreds of feet above the ground, with Khan’s super-strength, lethal to humans, checked by Spock’s alien physique and way with a mind-meld. The beauty of this battle is twofold: the running theme of Abrams’ films—Spock’s deep-buried, but powerful sense of rage and feeling for his friends—is stoked and leashed upon an apt opponent. And, of course, there’s the sneaky joy of Spock, killed by Khan’s machinations in another reality, now kicking the superman’s ass, with some help from Uhura.
What’s ultimately true here is that Abrams has made a spectacular, bouncy, ripping-paced swashbuckler, largely transcending its flaws and niggling disappointments, but not the moment of its creation. Whether anyone will still watch this in 30 years’ time like they do The Wrath of Khan is a minor point; perhaps more important is that we’ll be watching it for different reasons if we are. The film’s very rushed wrap-up dismisses Kirk’s revival from the dead like something that happens every day, flinging Khan back into deep freeze and sending the crew off on their canonical five-year mission without any note of promise, mystery, or new horizons. By any standard, this is a weak and frustrating conclusion to a good ride, one that again reminds me too sharply of how much emotional fullness and storytelling relish are held as less important than getting the film wrapped up in the permitted running time. Even at its corniest, Star Trek was about wonderment, curiosity, and awe, but these seem to be aspects our screen culture has lost. At least we have gained a good action series.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Baz Luhrmann is a director with a particular affinity for the past. He has taken on Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet ) and Puccini (Moulin Rouge! ), dealt with his country’s pre-World War II past (Australia ), and examined a dance style only nostalgia buffs and professionals practice these days (Strictly Ballroom ). His regard for the past and penchant for grandeur and spectacle, apparent in all these efforts, was bound to pull him like a helpless planet to the black hole that is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I’ve heard the conventional wisdom that Gatsby is unfilmable and wondered why. There are enough beautiful images and marvelous character descriptions to make even the most pedestrian cinematographer drool. The story is dramatic and eternal, both specific to the shell-shocked fear of annihilation after World War I that drove the frenzied debauchery and criminality that was the Roaring ’20s, and hopeful about the restorative power of love. What appears more the stumbling block to me is the first-person narration of Nick Carraway, who sides with Gatsby as a hero he hoped to emulate and therefore can view no one as a truly real person. It takes a special kind of director to film the illusions of a first-person narrator, to question the perceptions to arrive at a deeper truth while moving the story along.
Baz Luhrmann succeeds in creating a vulgar, seductively repellent world, mostly succeeds in suggesting the beauty and pain of love and admiration, and mostly fails in impeaching Nick Carraway’s illusions to offer more realistic assessments of the characters in the film. Nonetheless, as a work that offers a piquant parallel to the recent past—the televised slaughter of the Vietnam War, followed by a sustained period of greed and social carelessness—Baz Luhrmann proves his timing for producing a Gatsby was right on the money. Luhrmann is a genius visualist who creates images and milieus that reach directly into our unconscious and pull all sorts of mythic triggers that help us grapple with the larger implications of this love story. Indeed, his visual acuity nearly overcomes his failure to help his cast embody their characters with any authority, thus undercutting the moral echoes arising from the tragedies that will unfold.
The first question Luhrmann faced was whether to acknowledge the autobiographical elements in Fitzgerald’s novel. I believe he makes a mistake in doing so, making Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a failed writer who only unleashes his gift after his fateful months in the orbit of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his spectacularly nouveau riche neighbor in West Egg, Long Island. Had he stuck with the original scheme of making Carraway simply a self-taught bond trader, and less self-consciously sandwiched Carraway’s ramshackle home between the behemoth Gatsby mansion and the looming estate just across the sound in East Egg where cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) live, we might have been able to see Nick as one of the new 49ers heading east for the gold mines on Wall Street, gazing enviously at the riches all around him. Instead, he seems an insider not only by dint of being Daisy’s distant cousin and therefore heir to some of the attitudes of the monied class, but also by a certain noblesse oblige that accompanies the figure of the artist, a bit of a minor god who only lacks enough money to ascend to the top of society. Fitzgerald was precise in marking the levels of the American social totem pole, but Luhrmann offers a more democratic mixing of the classes, rendering Tom’s rant about the threat to the white race more of a WTF moment than the virulent line in the sand it is.
Luhrmann delays our introduction to Gatsby, tantalizing us with shots of the ring on his finger or his figure silhouetted against the night sky. In the midst of Gatsby’s weekly bacchanal, for which Nick is singled out and made to feel special as the only one with a written invitation, we finally get our formal introduction . . . and it’s Leonardo DiCaprio. I would say there is something meta about having a celebrity play a celebrity of sorts, but then a big movie like Gatsby would never have been made with an unknown in the title role. How unfortunate that DiCaprio is not given the room to inhabit his role, to shade it with the obsessive and violent tones that, say, James Cagney, brought to Gatsby contemporary and real-life gangster Martin Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), completely unpolished, but nonetheless, not a bad model for a figure ruthlessly immoral and pragmatic in service to attaining his goal. Instead, it is nearly impossible to forget his similarly romantic underdog role in Titanic (1997), taking the air out of any suggestion that Gatsby is no role model for anyone who wants to maintain their conscience intact.
The role of Daisy is similarly problematic. Nick’s first encounter with Daisy in the Buchanan sitting room is visual perfection: the diaphanous, floor-to-ceiling curtains lining the bay of open doors blowing like the clouds of Olympus through the room, with Daisy stirring from her nap on a sofa and rising into view like Venus emerging from the foam. Alas, no mere mortal, and certainly not the featherweight Carey Mulligan, could possibly take command from such visual poetry. Despite the fact that Daisy is only a goddess in Gatsby’s eyes, it is essential that the audience feel her fall from grace to understand the deep tragedy of Nick’s assessment that Tom and Daisy “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Instead, Daisy seems nice enough, perky, pretty, without the careless and shallow obliviousness that Nick diagnoses as she disingenuously declares that the world is a terrible place—her anger at her husband’s philandering shows a depth of feeling Mulligan plumbed without linking it to Daisy’s blinding self-involvement.
Nonetheless, Luhrmann finds ways to get around how basically uninteresting his characters come across by offering some pointed choices that had my head spinning with admiration. A first look at Gatsby’s gauche abode brought out feelings of revulsion in me at the kind of acquisitive excess that signals a great many people were hurt to achieve such tasteless extravagance. In this way, the influence of Joseph Conrad on Fitzgerald, particularly the parallel to the moral rot underlying colonialism, comes clearly into focus and helps put this film in company, however indirectly, with such anti-colonial classics as Lord Jim (1965) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Luhrmann’s staging of the first party Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion brings all of his talent for detailed razzle dazzle to the forefront. Luhrmann packs the scene, distracting the eye in every direction with fountains of champagne, jazz musicians, and merrymakers of all sizes in exquisite period dress dancing, drinking, and swooning from the excess of it all. Offering a close-up of Gatsby superimposed on a sky exploding with fireworks adds a humorous and old-fashioned American spin to this weekly event, an Independence Day every bit as stage-managed for happiness as the nightly fireworks at Disney’s theme parks.
Luhrmann’s rendering of the Valley of Ashes is appropriately dirty, but not much more. One wonders at the existence of such a no-man’s land between Long Island and Manhattan, with Wilson’s Garage seeming like the last gas station before Death Valley. As such, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is the ripe and wayward wife of a feckless fool (Jason Clarke) found in so many Western noirs, which provides an interesting genre non sequitur. Luhrmann comments on the bogeyman of today—the Islamist—by casting Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor with an Arabian look, as Fitzgerald’s Semite Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby and Nick’s foray into Wolfsheim’s speakeasy is like a descent into the casbah in Marrakesh, and Bachchan, rather than being overwhelmed by setting, matches his talent to it to bring a truly sinister air to his character.
The one symbol that resonated for me was the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s pier. Luhrmann offers an image of Gatsby reaching for it across the water with great longing. Much has been said about the green light, but for me, it echoed of the Arthurian myth of the Green Knight, a tale of renewal and honor derived from a more ancient myth of the pagan Green Man. While this myth comes in numerous shapes and forms, the one that pairs best with it is the trials to which Sir Gawain is put on the eve of his beheading by the Green Knight, whom he beheaded as part of the knight’s challenge one year earlier. Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table, is true to his bond of honor to forfeit his head per the agreement, and also keeps to the rules of hospitality by rejecting the advances of his host’s wife on three separate occasions. When the day of his “execution” arrives he is merely nicked on the neck, having proven himself worthy of rule over the affairs of humanity.
Gatsby, of course, is a rule breaker, a criminal and an adulterer. That he dies through Tom’s manipulations, protecting Daisy, is of no ultimate account. In Arthurian legend, Camelot was nearly destroyed by the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, and Gatsby’s chivalry toward Daisy does not cleanse his dishonor. We can sympathize with Gatsby’s eternal love, and Leo lovers will feel he has been terribly wronged, but his rush on Daisy did not truly take into account her choice. She could have waited for him, but eventually chose not to, and did not nurse the romantic ideals he held as a guiding light to get him through the war. Gatsby, a WWI veteran born James Gats of a poor farming family in the upper Midwest, made up the world as he went along, but the world was not his alone to mold.
Unfortunately, for many film fans, the glamour of the rich, particularly during the uberstylish ’20s, is enormously seductive. The costumes and sets will do for the vast majority of moviegoers and AMPAS members. Baz Luhrmann knows how to deliver eye candy better than almost any director alive, and he has pushed his visuals into new and more meaningful territory. Sadly, his actors seem like little more than props. While this version of The Great Gatsby represents an improvement on previous efforts, I’m still waiting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deceptively complex novel to get the cinematic treatment it deserves.
Amongst his achievements as an author, Joseph Conrad intellectualised the adventure story. In his tales of high seas drama, derring-do, conquest, and exploration, he concentrated consistently on the psychological makeup of his heroes, and the problems inherent in their attempts to find inner peace with external action. Even if this did, in the reckoning of some colonial voices like Chinua Achebe, who died this year, essentially turn the rest of the world into a playground for unravelling white men, Conrad diagnosed something vitally important in the state of the modern world as it entered the 20th century: that its demons were not at held at bay by official perspectives, that its roots were its present and future, and that its securities and reassuring institutions were about to collapse due to processes already in motion but unexamined—evolutionary theory, industrialisation, scientific advancement, Marxist economics—all phenomena that questioned the truisms that had governed so much human activity. Lord Jim, a blend of heroic myth-making and interior tale dismantling its own myth, was one of Conrad’s best-regarded works. Richard Brooks’ film version is for me one of those films all movie lovers have tucked away in their psychic cupboard, something beloved but pain-provoking in regarding how few others share the love. Lord Jim is one of the great adventure films, but I know I’m lonely in this opinion. Indeed, I suspect the reasons I love it and others dismiss it are the same: the film gives us the adventure, but much more: the psychology, even philosophy, the forceful and committed exploration of its hero and his friends and enemies in terms of how they see and react to the world. Jim is presented as a proto-existentialist desperately trying to recreate the fabric of not only his own sense of self-worth but all of humankind’s sense of security in its own works and capacities.
Richard Brooks is a badly undervalued figure now, but he was, at the height of his career, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors, included in at least one serious survey made of the most important directors of the 1960s. Brooks, like John Huston, for whom he worked on Key Largo (1948), first gained repute as a screenwriter, and specialised in literate but muscular cinema. One quality of his that was distinct from Huston was a sharper concern for immediate issues: Brooks, whose real name was Reuben Sax, had made his name chronicling the anti-Semitism he grew up with in the novel Cross-Fire, filmed in 1948. His early films saw him working in thematic territory close to the new breed of New York blow-ins like Elia Kazan et al, but in a manner closer to genre blacksmiths like Phil Karlson, combining forceful aesthetics and hot-button topics in sweltering interplays of ethics, social concern, morality, and character, from his debut Crisis (1950), through Trial (1955), and to his most famous early film, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). After the latter film’s huge success, he became a prominent studio helmsman. His neurotically romantic Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) confirmed he had a way of sustaining emotion and substance through layers of studio gloss and compromise, and that he could get good performances out of Elizabeth Taylor, which he proved again with the first of his two Tennessee Williams films, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Many of his subsequent films were adaptations of notable literary works, like his solid version of The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and his Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry (1960). Later, he combined his social scientist and litterateur sides in films like In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978), gritty true-crime tales raking through the fallout of modernity. At the same time, he also made several high-riding action films just for the hell of it, starting with Lord Jim and continuing with his superlative, hip western The Professionals (1966), the caper flick $ (1972), and Bite the Bullet (1975).
Lord Jim stands in the shadow of another elevated adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Certainly there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two, if only to the extent that Brooks’ adaptation of Conrad gave O’Toole a chance to explore a similarly strong but mentally fraying antihero, and Lawrence’s hit status made it seem for a very short while as if audiences might now have a taste for grown-up, substantial epics. Although hardly exclusive, it can be said broadly that where David Lean’s film was an exercise in cinematic poetics built upon the framework of an historical character study and adventure tale, Brooks offers rigorous and textured filmic prose. Where his versions of Dostoyevsky, Williams, and Fitzgerald were hampered by Hollywood niceties, Lord Jim came in a window when Brooks could make the film he wanted without bogus happy endings imposed, but he still revised Conrad’s tale to a degree that irked many. Brooks’ approach had some felicities, however, particularly in the way he changes the warlord that Jim battles in the remote South East Asian nation of Patusan from an Indian bandit to a French militarist, exacerbating the sense of Jim battling doppelgangers and the misbegotten by-products of colonialism.
Stylistically, Lord Jim is a portrait of cinematic technique in transition, poised between the mystique of Hollywood and the intensity and tactile authenticity of a more modern brand. It’s not just the common roots in Conrad that makes Lord Jim feel like a precursor to Apocalypse Now (1979) amongst others, but its yearning to engage more seriously with the percolating themes of race and sexuality, politics and personal character that thrum beneath the surface of such storytelling. Lord Jim also offers the pleasures of big-budget cinema seriously handled and engaged with superior material, a rare combination.
Conrad’s story was based upon a real person, James Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah of Sarawak”, who founded a ruling dynasty, with the patronage of the Sultan of Brunei, which governed part of Borneo from the early 1800s until after World War II. Whether the real Brooke ever had as much introspection as Jim is unknown, but Conrad’s fantasia on his theme presents Jim as a study in human potential and limitation. Brooks transmutes him into a figure at once titanic and pathetic, troubled by his own nature as he tries to sustain himself between cultures and harboring a complex identity based in a veiled background. The character of Jim was a fittingly abstract vehicle for Brooks to explore his own identity, just as Elmer Gantry had given him scope to explore his status as elevated flim-flam man. Brooks furthers the emblematic quality of Conrad’s narrative by excising many names, like a mixed-race woman (Daliah Lavi) Jim falls in love with, whose name is Jewel in the novel but here is merely “the Girl,” accompanying “the General,” the “French Officer,” and the polar temperaments of “Lord” Jim and “Gentleman” Brown, a faintly Kafkaesque reduction to type of each figure to render them universal.
Brooks’ take opens with a clipper ship knifing the ocean with majestic grace, matched to Bronislau Kaper’s soaring score, providing the essence of a certain fantasy about an age of sailing and venturing. But this is a dream-vision, both evergreen and about to be dismantled. James “Jim” Burke (O’Toole) is introduced in retrospect by the narrator Marlow (Jack Hawkins), the old salt who also guided the reader into the Heart of Darkness, speaking here of his days training cadets, and the remarkable Jim who stood out as the most enticing and ambitious of his students. Jim’s fantasising cues mocking moments of his imagined rescue of Marlow from pirates, holding off a mob of scurvy villains with a Union Jack flowing behind him. This funny pastiche looks forward to the more intensive lampoons of British Imperial-era heroics in films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Royal Flash (1975). But Jim’s fate is to find what he wants only through the most agonising of trials.
Serving as an officer on Marlow’s ship in a frustratingly workaday career, Jim breaks his leg and has to be put ashore in Java. Once recovered, he signs on with the first ship he can, a disgraceful rust-bucket called the Patna. The captain (Walter Gotell) is a burly, aggressive drunk; the engineer, Robinson (Jack MacGowran), a scruffy coward; and the ship is jammed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca like so many cattle. On a dark and foggy eve with a storm rolling in, the ship seems to hit an underwater object, and Jim, inspecting the damage, is so rattled by the situation that he imagines the slightly leaky hull is about to give way to sink them all. As the storm buffets the Patna and the crew launch a lifeboat to save themselves, Jim assures the pilgrim’s spokesman (Rafiq Anwar) that he won’t abandon them. Nonetheless, he gives in to the appeals of the crew and jumps ship with them, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. The crew hope the sea will erase their crime, but upon reaching a nearby port they find the Patna already in the harbour, having been found and taken in hand by a French officer (Christian Marquand). Whilst the others scurry off into hiding, Jim hands himself over for judgment.
In a degrading public hearing, the French officer dubiously regards the moral certainties of the spokesman for traditional sailing virtues, Brierly (Andrew Keir), but this does not prevent Jim having his ticket cancelled and official disgrace hung about his shoulders. Jim buries himself for years as a common labourer about the Far East, still pursued by infamy as he learns of Brierly’s suicide, seemingly caused by the gnawing uncertainty about any man’s reliability and nerve. But fate gives Jim the second chance he wishes for, when, working in an unnamed South East Asian port, he saves a launch loaded with cargo, including a shipment of repeating rifles and gunpowder, from sabotage. The weapons have been imported by an aging trading company representative, Stein (Paul Lukas), for the citizens of Patusan, who are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited by tin mine owner, The General (Eli Wallach). Stein commissions Jim to take the weapons to Patusan for the day of resistance, and an encounter with Robinson, who needles him for money, inspires Jim to accept Stein’s offer. Stein’s plan is stalled when the steam launch he was counting on hiring becomes unavailable because its sleazy owner, Schomberg (Akim Tamaroff), has been bought off by The General. But Jim is now determined, and he and some coolies laboriously row and sail a boat upriver to Patusan. One of the coolies is an agent of The General (Ric Young), and he escapes to warn his boss. Jim manages to get the weapons into the hands of the Patusan rebels before being captured.
Enter Wallach as a more intellectual, imperious version of his malicious Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960): The General, equipped with great intelligence and a vividly strategic mind, is a strutting sadist who makes a show out of his ability to find men’s weak points and hurt them. He’s turned Stein’s trading agent in the area, Cornelius (Curd Jürgens), an alcoholic and craven failure, into a pet. Whereas The General is merely wary of Jim as an enemy, Cornelius develops a real hate for him, as a man of moral fibre and endurance. When Jim is delivered into his hands, The General tortures him to discover the hiding place of the weapons. In a scene laced with discomforting undercurrents, The General’s delight in his own psychological insight and desire to find the quickest way to the best result meets an equal and opposite force, in Jim’s distinctly masochistic hunger to redeem himself by way of intense suffering. This means that in spite of his talents in terror, The General finds himself only satisfying Jim’s desires. Only when he comprehends that Jim must only fear death does he know how to break him. The erotic dimension of all torture and especially between the two uncommon men is given a mediator when The General grabs the first girl on hand, one giving water to the captives of The General’s regime: he rips open her shirt and proffers her as a last sensual indulgence to Jim before his next round of questioning, a taunt to his sensual enjoyment of life before that life is extinguished. That Girl, however, is one of the rebel leaders, daughter of a local woman and another European interloper, and she helps Jim escape. Once free, Jim’s moulded officer’s mind gives him an edge in planning how to use Stein’s weapons gainst The General’s fortified compound, but his ever-threatening instability in the face of horror still lies in wait.
The insurrection that follows is a superb, intricately detailed action sequence that pays off in a terrific feat of arms that provides Jim with his greatest repudiation of his past. The General tries to fend off the attack he knows is coming by shielding his men with captives, including Buddhist monks, cueing a scene of sacrifice and slaughter that sends Jim into another dissociative fit, whilst his fellows charge the enemy. A whirlwind of slaughter ensues, from The Girl hacking men to death with glowering fervour, to the monks beating at their captors with their chains. An attempt to knock out The General’s ammo dump with an antique cannon fails when the artillery cracks and explodes. But Jim conceives of a way to break open the fortress by filling dozens of spears with gunpowder and throwing them against the doors. Jim and Waris (Jûzô Itami), the son of local elder Du-Ramin (Tatsuo Saitô), work in concert, with Jim making a devil-may-care dash with a barrel of gunpowder on a wheelbarrow that blows up The General, the remnant of his men, and the ammo in a thunderous crescendo. Only Cornelius escapes, ironically through a secret passage The General intended to use himself, and, still desirous of the large amount of loot and treasure The General possessed, he contacts Schomberg, who puts him on to Gentleman Brown, another malignant Western profiteer.
Brooks and his cinematographer Freddie Young paint Jim’s story in lush, incisive colours and tones and a wash of intricate mise-en-scène that stands with the best-looking films of the ’60s. The film shifts steadily from the wide open seas of Jim’s training days, flush with tones of sea blue and white, to earthy, organic tones that bring out the electric distress of O’Toole’s eyes, the jewelled perspiration on Wallach’s skin, the damp and filth of Jürgens’ jacket that signals Cornelius’ rotten soul, the smouldering, nocturnal mysticism of the Patusan temples, before reaching the expressionistic, intensely psychologised fog and dark, whittling reality down to the starkest human contentions, and haunting, smoky interiors, of his reckoning in Patusan with Brown. These stylised later scenes deliberately echo early scenes on the Patna, where the small world Jim appoints himself responsible for and then deserts is painted in deep contrasts and slivers of light and colour, as encroaching psychological terror gives way to erupting chaos as the storm rises and Jim disintegrates, clinging to the ship’s steering wheel like his personal crucifix and then giving in to the temptation to flee precisely because of the crushing terror of the lofty status for which he had longed. New Wave-inspired film tricks were just starting to infiltrate large-budget cinema at this time, and Brooks adapts them sparingly, in an opening montage that offers up a sprawl of human life, teeming and strange all at once, amongst whom Jim is to be sighted, and flash-cuts to the memories and associations that torture Jim. Jim’s intense torture sequence anticipates several variations on the same technique, intercutting The General searing Jim’s flesh with battling martial artists, the swirling music and vigorous action counterpointing and transmitting the impression of Jim’s livid agony.
Jim’s status as a philosophical figure and exemplar of a powerful modern question emerges intact, a singular achievement for an adaptation so top-heavy with distractions and blockbuster elements. Conrad’s story seems predicated around questioning the simplistic assumptions behind the bravery in a story like A. E. W. Mason’s much-filmed The Four Feathers, where the hero exculpates his guilt over wimping out from battle by performing feats of bravery. Conrad dug into the issue of what such feats really meant for the state of the hero/coward’s soul and psyche, and moreover what they meant to the social ideals they served, an aspect that particularly interests Brooks. But Conrad’s story was a story of an enigmatic man through the eyes of other temperaments—closer to what Lean and Robert Bolt did with T. E. Lawrence—whereas Brooks places Jim’s perspective at the centre after Marlow’s narration concludes. Brooks’ heroes often tend to wrestle deeply with their own natures in the context of their immediate worlds. Jim’s great failure on the Patna for Brooks is not his fear, but his abandonment of his post, a failure both of his own heroic self-image but also of the only real element of that image, which was his duty of care to passengers. The French officer’s cautious replies to Brierly’s questions knock away old canards like going down with the ship, which the officer describes in return as a myth propagated by insurance companies to ensure a stricken vessel can’t be claimed as salvage.
The true substance of the problem, which opens up chasms of existential angst, is whether men are equal to a role whose robust self-security must remain unquestioned, one of upright conduct and self-sacrificial worthiness: the entire presumption of Victorianism is called into question. Jim’s failure, as Brierly says with tinges of hysteria, casts doubt on every other professional sailor, a terrifying notion if one has accepted such things as god-given securities. Jim therefore hunts not only to restore his self-respect and worth, but to reprove the ethic he failed, without recourse to abstract principles but in himself, overcoming the worst lapses with acts of bravery only to realise how close in nature they are: “I’ve been a so-called coward and a so-called hero and there’s not the thickness of a sheet of paper between them.” Thrown into sharp relief by Jim’s romantic masochism are the degrees of quality and frailty others display: Jim’s heaviest burden is in his very human self-awareness, where others scarcely care, and therefore scarcely can be called human. The psychopathic General and Brown are spared such tortures because for them life is a bartering of force and ego, so they can’t be consumed by the id like Jim. When Cornelius asks Brown what Jim has done when Brown comprehends his guilt complex, Brown replies that it doesn’t matter what he’s done, only that it will operate like a button to be pushed to their own advantage. Cornelius seeks to destroy whatever is stronger than himself, or attach himself to it. When Jim asks The Girl if she would have had sex with him if he’d wanted it when The General “gave her” to him, and she replies yes, because it would’ve been necessary, an opposite extreme of subordination of self to a general cause that is beyond degradation, a sagacious note struck by a proto-revolutionary entering an age of upheaval.
Lavi, an Israeli actress who first found success as a singer and actress in Europe, including a stint as a replacement for Barbara Steele in the eye of Mario Bava in The Body and the Whip (1963), had a brief moment of wider stardom in the mid-’60s, but this was certainly her most major role. Her strikingly vivid eyes and intensely sensual looks give her the aspect of an embodied fetish, and she inhabits her role here with poles of spiritual serenity and Amazonian fury. She is as defined by her place between cultures as Jim: when he asks her if she wants him to stay, she replies, no, “only because I do not wish to die crying like my mother,” whose “golden god” of a European lover went back home. It’s peculiar then that Jim’s eventual journey toward self-destruction is evidently happier for her than such an abandonment.
Brown, when he arrives with Cornelius and Schomberg, forces another crisis for Jim, one that involves his new authority in Patusan. While trying to raid the treasure kept in a Buddhist temple in a heavy night fog, Brown kills a boy. The locals manage to drive off the raiders and capture their boat, and Brown, figuring he can manipulate Jim from what he knows of him, calls to parlay. Brown’s nickname is both accurate—he maintains the appearance of a dapper Londoner complete with bowler hat—and ironic, as he’s really a vicious pirate. Schomberg describes him: “This ‘Gentleman’ Captain Brown has given more business to Death than the bubonic plague. From Java to Fiji, he’s wanted for piracy, slavery, mutiny, rape, murder, and some things that aren’t even mentioned in the Bible.” He’s the incarnation and image of the evil underbelly of European colonialism, and his suppositions about Jim are correct, as he twists Jim’s conscientiousness and horror of bloodshed into a double-bind that forces Jim in spite of the entreaties of his friends and his own doubts to give Brown and company safe conduct.
Mason’s late appearance in the film, although brief, is nonetheless superbly succinct, contrasting the epic, neurotic power of O’Toole’s performance with his own serpentine skill with words, as Brown easily turns the damaged man’s mind inside out. “Perhaps your justice is tempered by the colour of your skin,” one of the Patusan elders (Marne Maitland) says sharply. Whilst the elder’s statement fails to appreciate the specifics of Jim’s dilemma, it does potently summarise the contradictions of his larger position. Both Jim’s battles, with The General and Brown, are as much about intelligent men fighting with psychology as with guns, and for competitive ascendancy as much as worldly gain. Brooks’ attentiveness to the narrative form transforms Conrad’s saga into a kind of passion play, but one with Buddhist inflections: each phase of Jim’s life pits him against forces inner and outer that eventually prepare him for death as the consummation of his journey, and the wheel that is the constant refrain of his fears is revealed not as crucifix but as the wheel of life. Not for nothing does his final conquest of Brown, and his own defeat, converge in a Buddhist shrine, rendering coherent the flickering spirituality throughout the whole film. Brown, Cornelius, and others raiders sneak off under the cover of the fog after Jim has released them, and they attack and mortally injure Waris, who dies in Jim’s arms.
Jim has already declared that his life is forfeit if one person dies for his decision. Jim exterminates Brown and company by discharging two of The General’s cannons, kept as prizes loaded with gold sovereigns in the temple, but Du-Ramin, grief-stricken by his son’s death, promises Stein that he’ll extract Jim’s life if he’s still in town in the morning. Just as his obedience to his moral compass forced him to deal with Brown, now Jim cannot leave, and in spite of Stein’s arguments (“There’s too much pride in your humility!”) he nonetheless presents himself for Du-Ramin’s judgment in the morning in his full uniform. The gunshot that ends Jim’s life segues into the pyre of rebirth that consumes him, Waris, and the rest of Browns victims. Jim’s end, whilst tragic on one level, is nonetheless heroic not merely in his sublimation to a creed, but also in the completion of his journey of reproving the individual in the face of awesome forces. As Stein sails away in salutary contemplation on a river transformed into a flow of dappled light, The Girl weeps not in pain but in joy.
Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.
Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.
Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.
Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.
When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.
Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.
Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.
Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.
The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.
If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.
Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942) and Captain from Castile. Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.
Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castille, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.
Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.
Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.
“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” — Roger Ebert
If there ever was a film that perfectly exemplified Roger Ebert’s opinion for me, it is the 1934 French adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In the days after I finished watching this underexposed masterpiece by an inexplicably obscure director, and I kept flashing to random scenes and faces at odd moments. It is not that any particular scene grabbed me, though there are some fine set-pieces in the film, it is the entire experience that captured me. I didn’t want to rewatch it, I wanted it to continue. I literally longed for it to be part of my life.
The pull of this sweeping, period melodrama has proven irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike, set as it is during the turbulent 19th century in France when the republic forged by revolution in 1789 was ruled off and on by “citizen” kings who, along with the aristocratic elite, had an eye toward the permanent restoration of the absolute power of the monarchy. There have been at least 25 filmed versions of Hugo’s 530,982-word tome, spanning from a Lumière short in 1897 to 2012’s operatic extravaganza under the direction of Oscar winner Tom Hooper.
Les Misérables can be slanted almost any way a filmmaker or studio wants. Hollywood productions seem to favor a romantic line, with Jean Valjean more of a matinee idol, such as in the 1952 version with Michael Rennie as Valjean. In France, Victor Hugo is a monumental historical figure, cultural influence, and chronicler of decisive moments in French history. Thus, French adaptations of his works lean toward noble ideals and the public stage. Raymond Bernard, a highly regarded director in France who is nearly unknown outside his native land, made this 281-minute film in three discrete parts that I viewed in two sittings; even at this length, the film sticks largely with the core story of convict Jean Valjean from his final days in prison to the end of his life. Bernard, a Jew and son and brother of two French playwrights, Tristan Bernard and Jean-Jacques Bernard, cut his teeth in silent films and went into hiding during World War II. His father was sent to a deportation camp during the war; though released due to public outcry, the rigors of his imprisonment shortened his life. The experiences of Père Bernard and Jean Valjean in this regard are ironically similar.
The film strikes an almost miraculous balance of the politics and rebellious fervor, social malaise and sacrifice, rags-to-riches drama and romance Hugo offered by helping us identify personally with each of the characters through a considered dramatization of their stories. Key to Bernard’s film is his Jean Valjean, the craggy and robust character actor Harry Baur, naturally built to exhibit the physical strength we see in the first scene that enables Police Inspector Javert (played here by the great Charles Vanel) to find him every time Valjean changes locations and identities. Veracity in this detail is crucial to accepting the cat-and-mouse pursuit that forms the through line on which the secondary stories are hung, and in my opinion, Baur is the definitive Valjean in this regard.
However, Baur brings much more to the role than physical stature. He grasps Valjean’s native wit and survival instinct, and understands Hugo’s critique of the temptation to lose touch with society’s underclass as one rises in the world. When Valjean, now the mayor of a small town, learns that his suspicious police inspector (Javert, of course) is off to a trial where the defendant has been identified as his bail-jumping quarry, Valjean rides to the defendant’s rescue, but not before considering an actual fork in the road that could lead him off the path of truth and justice. Valjean keeps a 40-sous coin he stole from a young man to remind him of the base human being he became during his imprisonment, but he is not immune to being blinded by the light. When he fails to recognize Thénardier (Charles Dullin), little Cosette’s (Gaby Triquet) cruel guardian when she was a child, who has fallen as low as Valjean has risen, he sets himself up to become a crime victim and barely escapes murder, as well as rearrest by Javert. The undercurrent throughout Baur’s touching, understated performance is the desire to be free, of particular importance to the French, but also a universal imperative that has seen this tale resonate through the ages in many lands.
Valjean’s encounter with Monseigneur Myriel (Henry Krauss) is particularly satisfying in this version because Bernard offers it with simplicity, brevity, and without necessarily endorsing religious conversion as the key to reform and salvation. The scene serves to highlight the inhuman conditions convicts endured by emphasizing the wonder Valjean experiences at being shown common courtesies and having a real bed to sleep in; the man who had the decency to steal a loaf of bread for his starving nieces and nephews starts to emerge and comes to full bloom in short order. Baur is particularly affecting when he goes to Thénardier’s inn to settle Fantine’s (Florelle) debts for Cosette’s care and agrees to whatever the greedy Thénardiers ask without question or hesitation; when it appears from their increasing demands that they will never let Cosette go, he decides on a fair price, pays it, and simply takes her hand and leads her away. The scene plays particularly well today as a reminder that those for whom no amount of money is enough—I am reminded of a comment Bill Gates made about encyclopedia companies that didn’t aggressively capture the electronic market: “Oh, they have finite greed.”—can never behave in a truly human manner and that one simply must part company with them.
Fantine is treated in a more fully realized fashion here, with her story expanded in ways that while not escaping melodramatic excess completely, relieve her of the burden of being nothing more than a pathetic victim. We see her while still employed in Valjean’s bead factory, daydreaming, working slowly, and incurring the envy of her boss (Yvonne Mea) because of her beauty. Thus, we see Fantine as a vain, careless woman whose character only comes to the forefront when it comes to her daughter Cosette. The horror of watching Fantine have her teeth pulled in the 2012 version becomes something almost comic in this film, as a scene in which her future of selling her hair and teeth is foretold moves to a full-face view of Fantine with a gap where her front teeth used to be. The image has an odd quality of ridicule about it, like locking a petty criminal into stocks in a public square, thus commenting on the costs of foolish vanity. Nonetheless, Fantine’s story contains an appropriate amount of sadness as she falls fatally ill and dies without seeing her daughter again.
The final scenes in Paris that see all of the major players converge in street warfare builds with tension. The ill fortune and ill will of the Thénardiers collide with Valjean’s charitable instincts and a grown-up Cosette’s (Josseline Gaël) love affair with Marius Pontmercy (Jean Servais), an aristocrat turned revolutionary, animates the final reckoning between Valjean and Javert. Cosette is little more than a sketch as a young woman, a far cry from the overburdened little girl whose delight in a street carnival, a lively scene of French village life that particularly distinguishes this version, reveals a spirit that she has wisely hidden from her taskmasters. Nonetheless, the grown-up Cosette’s ardor for Marius and affection for Valjean are palpable, with Valjean realizing from his own, sad experiences that the spirit he saved so many years ago could be broken if Marius is killed. Among the most vivid characters in this part of the tale are Marius’ royalist uncle Gillenormand (Max Dearly), who provides comic delight in denouncing and worrying about his nephew in the same breath, and the Thénardiers’ youngest child Gavroche, played by Émile Genevois. Genevois returns this character to the cunning, adventurous boy whose defiance of the king’s soldiers in the final battle has nothing to do with becoming a martyr, as in the 2012 version, and everything to do with keeping hope of victory alive. He scurries in the dark collecting ammunition from fallen soldiers as he sings, in beautiful voice, in mockery; it is only a matter of time before an annoyed fusilier’s aim finally finds its target, but not before Gavroche has recovered 400 rounds for the cause.
With chaos all around and the rebellion doomed, Javert’s private hunt for Valjean, who is carrying a wounded Marius through the Paris sewers, forms a particularly tense scene that foreshadows Valjean’s capture and Javert’s victory. Watching the aged and injured Valjean, still strong but having more difficulty carrying the unconscious Marius, makes us fear that French law will win out over natural law. When Javert is waiting for the pair at one of only two gateways out of the sewers, all hope is lost. Javert agrees to have Marius taken by coach to Gillenormand’s mansion, after which he will take Valjean into custody. But it is Javert who realizes that he has been in a prison, locked away from human intercourse by the rigidity of the law. He frees himself in a way that will keep him out of the grasp of the pitiless authorities, but his suicide, like everything else in this film, is dealt with economically with a shot of circular ripples radiating from a central point in the Seine River. Valjean has the last word as he lies dying, wishing not to be remembered by anyone but Cosette, finally becoming the symbol for the French spirit Hugo always intended.
Location shooting in Paris during the final third of the film prefigures Neorealism and deepens the sense of history with which the French live and identify. In addition, German Expressionism must have been an influence on Bernard. The skewed camera angles, cubist-inspired sets, and deep shadows that give expressionist films their menacing power work well in this story of crime and punishment set against the backdrop of violent history.
To help examine Raymond Bernard’s place in cinematic history, The Criterion Collection has issued a set in its Eclipse series that contains this film and Wooden Crosses (1932). The Criterion word on the set:
One of the greatest and least-known directors of all time, Raymond Bernard helped shape French cinema, at the dawn of the sound era, into a truly formidable industry. Typical of films from this period, Bernard’s dazzling dramas painted intimate melodrama on epic-scale canvases. These two masterpieces—the wrenching World War I tragedy WOODEN CROSSES and a mammoth, nearly five-hour LES MISÉRABLES, widely considered the greatest film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel—exemplify the formal and narrative brilliance of an unjustly overshadowed cinematic trailblazer.
Few filmmakers have experienced such jarring switchbacks of fortune as Richard Lester. Largely neglected now, Lester’s career arc was unusual as an American who found his niche and breaks in Britain, and who was only intermittently able to communicate with his native land, which found his sensibility inimical. But for a time, Lester’s influence on mainstream cinema and television was pervasive thanks to the two films he made as vehicles for some rock band, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), works that largely invented the visual lexicon of the new youth-oriented, visually flashy pop culture and the music video, in particular. Lester’s style fused ideas from the French and British New Waves with flourishes borrowed from silent cinema, surrealist-accented pop art, and advertising. The free-flowing absurdism of Lester’s early films still casts a long shadow on comedy film and television—Zoolander (2001) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) stand amongst many recent films that owe much to the Lester aesthetic—but riles many more classically minded cinema cognoscenti. That’s partly understandable, for as well as exemplifying their era, Lester’s films often revelled in acerbic humour laced with satirical overtones and post-modern disrespect.
But such attitudes worked in a constant binary with underlying earnestness, conveyed in filmic terms through a deliberate scorn for certain formal qualities that disguises diligent adherence to deeper principles, at once abrasive and romantic, even poetic, culminating in his dreamy, tragicomic masterpiece Petulia (1968). The increasingly bitter flavour of Lester’s ’60s films, including How I Won the War (1967), Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), saw his brand wane, however, as he tried to ask more pointed questions of a zeitgeist he had fostered, but found no one yet in the mood to answer. Lester shifted gears in the ‘70s by moving into the kind of genre cinema he was inclined to send up and yet for which he also had deep affection. The retrospective disdain in which fanboys hold his splendid Superman II (1980) notwithstanding, that film actually represents a climax to Lester’s witty ransacking of the heroic canon in the preceding decade in a series of films that tried to find the beating heart of that tradition even whilst subverting its mystique by looking for the far more earthy, gauche, even venal qualities of legendary protagonists.
Lester’s box office touch remained inconsistent, as did the quality of his produce, but he managed to make several superlative, often underregarded pictures, with his icily funny thriller Juggernaut (1974), the melancholy romanticism of Robin & Marian (1976), his deadpan Casablanca rewrite Cuba (1979), and his expansive two-part take on that most famous of historical adventure novels, Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetiers, perhaps the singular achievement of English-language adventure cinema in the ’70s before Star Wars changed the game. In spite of his vast impact on popular fiction and the traditions of swashbuckling later translated into cinema, Dumas has rarely had much luck on film: other English-language versions of The Three Musketeers have featured the Ritz Brothers, Gene Kelly, and Chris O’Donnell, with predictably messy results. Lester’s robustly comedic, antiheroic take seems at first glance as disrespectful as others, except that under the surface buoyancy, the love of adventure, humour, romance, fun, and delicious danger in his adaptations is as pronounced as in any Errol Flynn movie, only with different emphases. Working for the entrepreneurial but fiery Salkind clan who would later produce the Superman films, and with a script adapted by George Macdonald Fraser, whose pungent imperialist satire buoyed the Flashman novel series Lester would soon film, Lester had a large budget and a great cast at his disposal. He produced a diptych that works as a love letter to the merrier pleasures of film.
The opening credits of The Three Musketeers depict D’Artagnan (Michael York) and his father (Joss Ackland) engaging in combat, as father teaches son the specifics of his trade. The peculiar visual effects emphasize each movement as a study in effort and force by blurring remnants shimmering around the figures. The secret trick the elder D’Artagnan tries to pass on to his son later proves useless; rather than elegant fencers, Lester makes it plain in intricate, mischievous variations that the Musketeer heroes and the people they fight are hardly nobly refined fighters. Rather they’re full-body battlers who will fight with anything they can get their hands on—wine jugs, sheets, flower pots, rakes; you name it, someone clobbers someone else over the head with it. Lester similarly extracts historically acute humour from the length of time it takes to load a flintlock pistol, or the difficulty in bringing to bear a 17th century rifle. Warfare great and small in Lester’s eyes is mostly a clumsy business engaged in by the unwillingly incompetent or the professionally practical, with talent in its arts defined less by refined skill practiced by everyone from martial artists to Jedi masters than by the physical wit of a monkey and durability of a farm horse.
In this way, Lester looked for the submerged link between slapstick comedy and swashbuckler action, but in a different manner to earlier films that tried such a crossbreed, like the George Sidney version of The Three Musketeers (1948), which featured Kelly, or The Crimson Pirate (1952). Lester adds a ruder physical edge to the rough and tumble that’s actually quite authentic to the rhythms and methods of street fighting from the period, part of an overall texture that suggests this was a far less elegant and gentlemanly time than commonly depicted, for all its fertile aesthetics. Lester’s approach is also at odds with the way blockbuster action would increasingly take on the essential mechanics of slapstick cinema and replace laughs with suspense (at least theoretically) generated by ridiculous destruction of infrastructure and unlikely physical robustness: Lester rather looks for the humour in ridiculous situations that action films usually encourage us to accept straight-faced. This fits well with Lester’s sinuous blend of selectively deromanticised derision and boisterous comedic energy. As such, though Lester’s take on the adventure canon would be supplanted by the more earnest stylings of Lucas, Spielberg, Milius et al. within a few years, the sensibility of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) isn’t actually that different: the marketplace kidnapping in Raiders is actually a riff on a similar scene in the second episode of Lester’s epic. The constantly misjudged or overstretched legerdemain of its characters is the great source of Lester’s visual humour. For example, early in the diptych, D’Artagnan tries to take out Count Rochefort (Christopher Lee), the snotty, one-eyed villain he encounters whilst travelling to Paris, by swinging on a crane rope to knock him off his mount; where Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks would’ve succeeded effortlessly, D’Artagnan misses and finishes up lolling in the mud.
In spite of all this mischief, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas’ tale faithfully and capture its essence. Like his distant descendant in adventuring, Luke Skywalker, D’Artagnan journeys from bumpkin to knight of the realm, leaving home with romantic ideals and paternal advice that soon prove inadequate to reality’s shifting mores. With his family sword smashed and his head battered by Rochefort’s goons, he faces up to the Musketeers’ commander Treville (Georges Wilson) weaponless and penniless. Forced to find a way to prove himself up to membership in the Musketeer corps, he quickly earns himself three duels in a row with the scabrous trio of Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finlay) during an attempt to chase down Rochefort. Before he can fight Athos in the courtyard of a convent, however, the quartet are interrupted by members of the personal guard of Cardinal Richelieu, who, seeking a chance to bust Musketeer heads and increase the Cardinal’s power under the cover of enforcing an anti-duelling edict, assault them. The Musketeers and D’Artagnan win against the larger force, however, and, accepted as a new friend by the loyal trio, D’Artagnan gets a share of money taken from a defeated enemy’s pocket.
D’Artagnan is able to set himself up as a cadet with a servant, Planchet (Roy Kinnear), and he chooses to live in the house of geriatric weirdo Bonacieux (Spike Milligan), less for the quality of lodgings than for the presence of Bonacieux’s young, buxom, haplessly clumsy wife Constance (Raquel Welch). D’Artagnan falls immediately in lust with Constance, whose day job as dressmaker to Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) proves the surprising ticket to great affairs of state, as Constance is confidant to the Queen’s romance with the English Prime Minister, Lord Buckingham (Simon Ward). Richelieu (Charlton Heston) hopes to tighten his grip on the malleable dimwit, King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and seeks to disgrace the Queen through this illicit romance. Richelieu turns to his operative Rochefort, who has his lover and partner in crime, Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), pilfer studs from a diamond necklace the Queen gave to Buckingham, whilst Richelieu manipulates the King into revealing the affair. D’Artagnan volunteers his and his friends’ aid when he overhears Constance asking her husband to help, and the foursome dash to the Channel. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are wounded by the Cardinal’s many assassins, but D’Artagnan gets to England and regains the rebuilt necklace from Buckingham. D’Artagnan makes it back in time, and the Musketeers, still alive, if tattered, help as he breaks into the palace and gives the necklace to the Queen. Seeking revenge, Milady seduces D’Artagnan whilst Rochefort kidnaps Constance: D’Artagnan discovers Milady’s secret shame whilst the Musketeers rescue Constance, and when Richelieu sends Milady to arrange for Buckingham’s assassination to prevent him helping Protestant rebels, she demands payment in the blood of the two lovers.
It was almost inevitable that Lester would take on Dumas, having already channelled his influence in the cinematic concept for The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night: four sharply contrasting, yet ultimately loyal friends who are most effective when together. The Salkinds provided Lester with an amazing cast of ’70s notables, befitting a drama in which every character requires a larger-than-life vivacity and charisma. Of course, of the three Musketeers, only Athos is a real character. Aramis, with his smooth ladies’ man style and religious affectations, and Porthos, a poseur who’s really a blunt instrument, are there for entertainment in the margins. In particular, Finlay delights in depicting Porthos’ efforts to maintain a respectable front whilst always giving in with disgust and gusto to the necessity of the moment.
Reed was perfectly cast as Athos, a boozy warrior-poet with secret sensitivity and half-quelled demons: it’s hard not to see it as the actor’s most perfect character avatar. Athos’ crucial revelation of his background and the romantic tragedy that caused him to leave behind his aristocratic life waits until the second film. The revelation cues both a fine piece of acting from Reed and one of Lester’s most splendid, visual epiphanies, a flashback that reveals Milady was his wife, branded with the mark of criminality, fairy-tale beauty in stained glass and flooding sunshine giving way to pungent physical horror as Milady’s branding is shown. York, at the height of his boyish Aryan beauty, is suitably dashing, with the correct amount of callow blitheness. Lester finds the embryonic James Bond aspect of D’Artagnan as he greedily, but essentially innocently, seduces married women and hops beds with impunity according to the bawdy precepts of the day. Nonetheless, under the colourful surface of Lester’s films they are, in following Dumas, a chronicle of D’Artagnan’s coming of age.
There’s a bildungsroman secreted somewhere in this tale, in spite of Dumas’ avoidance of most moral lessons, except the final, blunt one D’Artagnan learns through Constance and Milady. He takes what life offers as shamelessly as the Musketeers loot felled opponents’ purses and steal from a tavern under the guise of a brawl when money’s low. Lester is hip to the proto-existential lives of the Musketeers critic Terence Rafferty once acutely diagnosed in Dumas, as men who regard the political quandaries whirling around their heads with complete disinterest, caring only about their own small corner of history. “Y’know it strikes me we’d be better employed wringing Milady’s pretty neck than shooting these poor devils of Protestants,” Porthos declaims in one of the few moments of macrocosmic contemplation, “I mean, what are we killing them for? Because they sing Psalms in French, and we sing them in Latin?” To which Aramis ripostes, “Porthos, have you no education? What do you think religious wars are all about?” In a modern setting Porthos’ qualms would be the stuff of great drama in a moral struggle, but in the period context, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas in making them essentially absurd: life is generally short and brutal anyway, so who cares? The machinations of Richelieu take place on a plane far above the roundelay of eating, drinking, fighting, and fornicating that is the life of the Musketeers.
Lester’s improvisational sketches on the framework of Dumas’ tale elaborate this blithely cynical attitude to period society into a veritable systematology. The films’ surfaces are rendered in dazzlingly lacquered colours, gorging the eye with lush framings of lovingly wrought costuming and décor evoking all the pretences of this past, enabled by David Watkin’s graceful photography. Washer women labour, soldiers drill, markets bustle, fine ladies entertain themselves, and eminences strut in showy apparel amidst scenes of gritty commotion or refined leisure in shots that could have been culled from Tintoretto or Rembrandt. But scratching those surfaces is an insidious humour that eats away at the historicism with scabrous modernity and bolshy perspective in contemplating the human reality of a hierarchical society, and the marginal people in historical dramas suddenly gain voice. Lester’s familiar device, pioneered in the likes of The Knack…and How to Get It (1966) of using multitracked sound and post-dubbing to fill out the aural margins of his films with onlookers and bit players whose under-the-breath mutterings, bellyaching, quips, and insights offset and comment on the main action, here is used to eat at the material, termite-like, in Lester’s extended piece of film self-criticism. One classic example of this comes in The Four Musketeers when Milady’s litter bearers, after setting their employer on terra firma, turn away and start grousing: “Bloody arm…she’s put on weight.” “Yeah, why don’t she buy a horse?” Or a mob of washer women waving farewell to a departing army, with cries including “Y’better come back and pay – I’ll find ya if y’don’t!” and “Nice to see the back of them then.”
The offhand quality of Dumas’ drama, with the Musketeers serving less the rather unimpressive humans who fill the great roles of state than the ideal of those roles and their own honour and desire for action, is drawn out in this fashion by Lester to become a sneaky kind of substance under the gallivanting. Perhaps taking cues from Ken Russell’s hellish historical satire The Devils (1971), he presents the King and Queen as airheaded layabouts playing about with human toys: the Queen gaily rotating on a hand-cranked merry-go-round and the King playing chess with trained, costumed dogs on a giant chessboard. Richelieu casually demonstrates his strategic mastery by making a move that sets the dogs to chaotic rebellion. Landscapes of teeming beauty are crossed by whining Planchet barely hanging onto his horse, perfectly arranged cotillions in beautifully appointed circumstances whirl around a boob of a king who can’t dance at all, and thunderous cannons blast wide of fortresses as the artillery officer kicks the dirt in frustration for his terrible aim.
The tone becomes even more acidic in the second half when the lunching royals dine blithely in front of trees festooned with hanged criminals. Kinnear, a terrific comic actor who tragically died when recreating this role in Lester’s The Return of the Musketeers (1989), is the engine of much of the diptych’s humour and sarcastic perspective, as Planchet is lumped with every thankless task, from dashing across continents to deliver vital messages to carrying the picnic basket and weapons under enemy fire whilst the others dart off and leave him to it. He’s offset by a female equivalent, de Winter’s servant Kitty (Nicole Calfan): both of them get slapped in the face by their employers and blurt out “Thank you” in return. But Kitty gets the better end of it when she’s able to seduce D’Artagnan while her mistress is out, whereas Planchet’s efforts to play the swashbuckling hero in fights inevitably turn into disasters, as when he tries to uproot a tree to use in bashing Rochefort, or tries to swing into a fray on a rope and crashes straight into the floor.
Although Lester channels elements of the long history of cinematic adventuring in Hollywood and European cinema into his Musketeer films, in many ways, these movies feel closer to Chinese and Japanese historical action cinema, in the conceptual approach to action scenes, the intense, almost otherworldly colours of their period visions, and the carefree blend of comedy and action. Set-piece duels between D’Artagnan and Rochefort, one where they battle in the dark with lanterns that can be closed off, each trying to surprise the other in a dance of dark and light, and another where they try to keep their balance whilst fencing on a frozen lake, certainly feel close to wu xia, though they deliberately lack the physical grace of their Asian counterparts. In a similar vein is Milady’s fondness for exotic and concealed weapons, like glass daggers filled with acid and a hair ornament that doubles as a piercing weapon with which she tries to kill a frantically improvising Constance.
Moreover, Lester revels in his prototypical Steampunk imagination, presenting anachronistic versions of modern machines, gadgets, and gimmicks, from a prehistoric pinball machine to an experimental submarine, all run by gears and muscle, and often contributing to his larger point about the nature of this pre-consumer society where the work of many makes fun for a very few. When D’Artagnan visits Buckingham in London, Lester has a group of Native American warriors gathered in the hallway just outside the Prime Minister’s gorgeously furnished study, as if there’s a Terrence Malick film being shot in the next room (and, figuratively speaking, there is), another sign, like the machines and the griping servants, that the modern world is being born whilst no one is looking. Later, the Indians shock Milady when she tries to assassinate Buckingham and spoil her plan, the oblivious, amused faces of the New World bemused by the beautiful evil of the Old.
Dunaway, at the height of her career and beauty, played many antiheroines in the ’70s, and Milady fits right in, with her trademark neurotically icy glare sharpened to a point where it seems she can disembowel a man at 30 paces with just a look. One of the few great villainesses and a distinctive prefiguring of the femme fatale figure in pulp fiction, Dumas’ creation of de Winter is perfectly embodied, and the one character in The Three/Four Musketeers who is almost entirely in command throughout, both physically and mentally. Dunaway has the wit to play the part deadly straight, the right physical as well as emotive intelligence in her playing apparent in her pause to hitch up her skirts whilst engaging in a murderous cobra-and-mongoose dance with D’Artagnan; her all-in catfight with Welch is actually the most genuinely brutal battle in the diptych. De Winter’s plague-like evil has roots in misogyny and reactionary disgust—Athos, really the Comte de la Faire, almost strangled her dead after discovering she was not the unspoilt gem he thought her—which hints at the motives that drive her even as she becomes pathological in her determined hate for D’Artagnan and Constance, whom she finally strangles to death in a suitably jarring moment of mortal savagery that marks the end of the boyish malarkey.
The Four Musketeers has a touch less drive than The Three Musketeers, but its darker, artier tone and genuinely intense finale mark it as superior, where the overflow of the first episode is a bit like a chocolate buffet at times. Lester displays a finite judgement—not always one he wielded effectively in other films—on when to cool the hijinks and let the story’s compulsion grow. He brings out richer hues and undertones to the adventurers in the second episode in Athos’ guilt and hate, Rochefort’s perverse ardour for and control over Milady, and Milady’s ruthless behaviour. One salient scene shows Milady, after seeing of D’Artagnan from her boudoir, stripping down and preparing for a bath, only to find the water’s been stained red by dripping blood from Rochefort’s hand, wounded in an earlier scuffle with D’Artagnan. Rochefort spitefully regards Milady and forces her to kiss him to reclaim his potency in a moment that reminds me of James Woods’ sleazy pimp mind-fucking his similarly, professionally immoral prostitute-protégé Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), and with similar psychosexual underpinnings to the relationship. Lester turns the camera back to the bloody bath to visualise the morbid underpinnings and innate hatefulness of the partnership.
Later, de Winter reverses the roles in her way in a superbly orchestrated sequence in which Buckingham has her imprisoned with his Puritan valet Felton (Michael Gothard) as her guard, figuring the rigid religiose won’t be affected by her charms. But Milady goes to work with her insidiously manipulative genius in pretending to be a secret Protestant, and seduces Felton. The white-clad Milady is rendered suitably angelic in shafts of painterly light in her cell, a fetish figure of suffering that releases the Puritan’s erotic nature as he sneaks glances down her corset. Lester borrowed Gothard from Russell for his capacity to project deeply twisted erotic repression, and his utter capitulation to Milady sees him assassinate Buckingham in the belief his boss has betrayed the La Rochelle rebels—Milady has successfully destroyed another two men.
Milady and Rochefort’s coldly programmatic amorality offsets the Musketeers’ simple immorality and inevitably demands a more engaged reaction to evil from them. The finale set-piece has the Musketeers do battle on convent grounds with Rochefort and his men whilst Milady, now rendered almost hallucinogenically pure in a nun’s habit and bathed in light in her ironic ascension to new heights of villainy, penetrates the interior and kills Constance before being caught by Athos. D’Artagnan, shocked and desolated by Constance’s death, does battle with Rochefort in the convent chapel and skewers him with a broken sword that piquantly sprouts out of his back and into a Bible. Milady is sentenced to be executed by Athos himself, and Lester pulls off a final moment of strange beauty as she’s rowed across a river, emblematic of death, to be beheaded. It’s sad that Welch’s Constance has to meet such an end, of course, but the role gave Welch the chance to send up her own sexpot image whilst showing off surprising skill as a farceur; the result is hardly as empowering as Welch’s badass in 100 Rifles (1969), but it still provides a terrific twist on the stock figure of the victimised lady fair. Everyone else in the cast is noteworthy, particularly Kinnear and Lee, the latter of whom extracts notes of erotic evil, mordant world-weariness (“Perhaps I’ll die of old age,” Rochefort mutters before an incompetent firing squad), and slavish loathing of his master the Cardinal. “I also hate you,” Rochefort tells Richelieu, who replies calmly, in priestly metre, “I love you, my son.” Heston, for his part, extracts every inch of theatrical grandiosity from his role, one of the few real character turns of his career.
“One for all and all for one, which loosely translated means 10 for him, 10 for him, 10 for you, and 10 for me.”
Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.
Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.
The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.
The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel, as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen, to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country, is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.
It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.
The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.
However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York, facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.
Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.
My journey from Terrence Malick sceptic to devotee has been surprisingly smooth, whilst admitting Malick’s signature flourishes can still provoke tendentious reactions, especially if one doesn’t entirely share his obsessive touchstones and specific brand of spiritual yearning. But it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a great and fearless artist at the height of their craft, and Malick has moved into a zone all of his own as a maker of experimental films for a world stage, blithely selling semi-abstract art films to a mainstream cinema scene littered with cash-cow franchises, self-inflated provocateurs, and duly sincere indie films. Once Malick had a certain amount of company, but now that Stanley Kubrick’s dead and Martin Scorsese’s moved into his emeritus phase, Malick feels like the last remnant of the American New Wave still working in an argot of deeply personal yet fulsomely conceived cinema. Actually, he’s not quite the last, as Monte Hellman’s and Francis Coppola’s patchy but fascinating re-emergences have proved, but they’ve accepted their status as marginal figures, scrappy doodlers in the corners of popular cinema, whereas Malick still has worlds to conquer, and no time at all to sit and weep.
Conceptually, at first glance at least, To the Wonder is a minor grace-note by comparison to his artistically mighty The New World (2005), which studied the terrible beauty in the meeting and sundering of civilisations, and The Tree of Life (2011), a psycho-metaphysical treatise. The Tree of Life reversed Malick’s fortunes after the flop of The New World, though he seems to have pulled that off by bludgeoning a good percentage of its audience into confused respect through the awesomely beautiful conceit of drawing links between the genesis of the universe and the state of the individual consciousness as expressed through a young boy. To the Wonder, his follow-up, has been paying the price, but To the Wonder isn’t a lesser film than The Tree of Life: in fact, in many ways, it’s superior, certainly in terms of structure.
To the Wonder has its share of Malickian canards: lithe-limbed female forms stretching hands to the holy sky and dancing across the fertile earth, shots at eye-level moving through tall grass and up through trees to the bounteous sun, and fragments of pseudo-poetic voiceover that suggest a high schooler’s first stab at philosophical musing. The slightly self-satisfied, inverted focus in Malick’s earlier films, studying human violence from on high like one of his inscrutably photographed birds, has given way to a newly voluble contemplation of humanity in the face of a universe it once happily assumed revolved around it, but now knows is powered by awesome enigmas and dizzyingly remote forces. Malick, as in The Tree of Life, tackles a distinctively Christian ethos and ponders its connection to any individual’s sense of basic motivating forces—the push toward others and the internal battle of base and noble impulse. But there’s an abstracted quality as well to Malick’s consideration which keeps well out of the zone of simple religious screed; the angst and questioning and fear of the void are in there, too. The sun, which Malick always uses as the closest thing to a holy object, is remote as well as bounteous, as taciturn as any Egyptian or Aztec rock carving, and pray to it all you like, you’ll still have to find your own sense of glory. The title To the Wonder points to a conflation: the wonder is both a real place, the monastery on Mont Saint Michel on the Normandy coast, and a metaphorical one, the numinous binding state of love, romantic or private, divine or communal. Early in the film this hemispheric sense of love is spelt out in voiceover, united in compelling splendour but driving in different directions, and eventually links to a series of binaries: new world and old, man and woman, commitment and freedom, city and country, industry and nature, individual and community. Malick, however, has a distinct disdain for the simplicities of binaries, insofar as that whilst charting them, like a good Taoist, he also constantly hints at the unity of opposites.
To the Wonder is a necessary and in many ways revelatory addendum to Malick’s recent films, in part because it drags his concerns at last into what is more or less the present, and it provides, in William Blake’s parlance, Songs of Experience to The Tree of Life’s Songs of Innocence, engaging substantially with adult love for the first time since the pastoral noir of Days of Heaven (1978). Where femininity in Badlands (1974) and The New World was adolescent and protean, transitioning from one state to another whilst scarcely in control of itself, and ethereally maternal in The Tree of Life, here Malick at last gives us women, or at least “women.” There’s a healthy carnal joy repeatedly displayed in To the Wonder, however briefly, mixed in with the rhapsodic dances and plaintive poeticism in taking on one of the hoariest of all storylines, the romantic triangle, and doing impossibly original things with it. The film’s opening scenes, captured in the smeared and grainy tones of a digital camera, are a blurry whirlwind of familiar traveller’s epiphanies: glimpses of famous artworks and exciting places, snatches of movement, rest, and happenstance romance. Malick’s film proper begins by connecting things: we see our man and woman, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), running, dancing, and standing still in Paris, the beauty of the foreign and old equally dazzling for both the stranger and the local when looked at through the eyes of romantic bliss, rediscovering the world.
Malick’s tale here is very simple, essentially a framework to hang his epiphanies minor and major upon, but it should be said that Malick’s story is, in terms of plot, no more or less substantial than dozens of cinematic love stories and situational studies: the distinction lies in Malick’s approach to the material, essayed as an immersive study in the ebb and flow of feeling and the way our interior voices constantly try to comprehend our often arbitrary natures. Neil meets Marina, who has multiple musical talents and seems also to be a dancer, on holiday in France. Marina and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) move from Paris with Neil to the American Midwest. Malick’s desire to animate sensatory engagement between human (or emotional/mental/spiritual) and natural worlds (a realm of immutable facts, but eternally malleable contexts) has here reached something of a climax: his characters are not just characters but figures in a landscape, and the same goes for his landscapes, which are never free of an actual or implied observer or interacting presence, not just scenery but aesthetic tools. Many directors would settle for picture postcards of Mont Saint Michel in filming a romantic vignette there, but Malick uses it expressively and, yes, to use that most dreaded of critical words, symbolically. He gives us the hypnotic and unsettling sight of the tide slowly trickling over the causeway as surely as fate, and attunes to the hushed and ageless atmosphere of the cathedral interior, cold stone and timeless reverence as a forge for ephemeral, hot-blooded attraction between a man and woman.
The shots of the sand being slowly overwhelmed by the tide are repeated: it evokes both a strange, liminal horizon as echoed in the end times parable in The Tree of Life’s finale, and the process of solitude being supplanted by coupledom. Such is an incremental process and one, at least as far as To the Wonder essays, never completed: the tide washes over, but also retreats. The ebb and flow of affection, desire, curiosity, and misgiving between Neil and Marina is perpetually described by their positions in relation to Malick’s camera. Many descriptions of what Malick’s attempted here have summarised it as a kind of extended dance. The metaphor is perfect, and not just because of Marina’s constant recourse to dance as a means of expression, but because of this studied look at the way humans express without words. Marina’s physicality is a perfect contrast to Neil’s quiet, ponderous study of the world around him. Neil’s job tracking the environmental impact of industrial work is sufficiently lucrative and not so time-consuming that he can’t devote himself to life with Marina, except in the finite shadow of guilt and fretful contemplation that passes over Neil’s features as he confronts angry residents affected by his works and regarding the spreading pall of civilisation on the landscape. Malick seems here to be thinking of his father, who was a geologist. Neil communes with nature in a practical and modern fashion, and becomes the willing ear to the fears of people seeing the damage wrought upon their landscape by the incessant march of modern industry. But Malick’s ecological perspective, his stricken regard for humankind’s problematic relationship with its world, is posited through less an argot of earthy pragmatism or conscientious propaganda, than as another aspect of the same basic schism the rest of the film studies, a problem of inner nature.
Mostly, therefore, Malick’s exploration of the eternally contradictory bind of humankind’s relationship with its environment is expressed through everyday phenomena: places of living, business, shopping, worship, and the land beyond the fence, not quite wild, but not exactly subdued. Critic Stephanie Zacherak’s jab at Malick, that he never met a tree he didn’t like, neatly deflated the dippier side of Malick’s flower-child sensibility, but it fails to appreciate Malick’s relative disinterest in standard dramatic portraits and his way of utilising an intensely personal iconography of images that gain in importance as he returns to them. Landscape is never just landscape to his eye. To the Wonder as a title points to a specific structure, but Malick is fascinated throughout by human works, structures, abodes, labours, as functional and also as philosophical phenomena; the “wonder,” a pinnacle of historical efforts toward uniting earth and sky, humanity and god, is only a visual gateway to an exploration of modern, secular expressions of the yearning to balance contradictory desires and embrace beauty in the unlikeliest contexts. The sacred grandiosity of the seaside church segues into the neon-gilded gas stations burning in kaleidoscopic beauty, temples of fluorescent light and islands of humanity in the midst of churning traffic. Tract housing and small-town architecture looms dark and megalithic, communing with the sky and encompassing human dreams even in their arbitrary, inorganic newness, as if dropped in the middle of vast spaces. Supermarkets are dazzling cornucopias, to which Tatiana responds by dashing through the aisles rejoicing at “how clean everything is.”
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the spare and spacious beauty of the Midwestern landscape and the populations spread upon it with the same weirding, refamiliarising wonder turned on iconic European culture. A couple of Malick’s most breathtaking shots are studies in human abodes in natural contexts: one offers the houses of a suburban street, a cul-de-sac abutting recently conquered pastoral land where Marina and Neil reside at one point, under the rule of snow and blasting wind, the modern houses suddenly plunged into a medieval winter. The second is subtler and quicker, photographing the remote farmhouse of Neil’s childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), with her and Neil within in warm light and the twilight rural landscape without, an image rife with evocative colours and contemplation, and one that captures the atmosphere of modern rural life more intensely than all but a few other examples I’ve seen. Home is a powerful notion for Malick: he loves his homeland, and he feels the sacrosanct aura that many invest in the places they have sprung from, evolved in, and left without forgetting, a note that pays off later in the film. Marina is struck at first by her New World as a place of bounteous space and riches, but, in one of the film’s scenes of extended dialogue, Marina is visited by an Italian friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), who decries the emptiness and false faces of the locals whilst encouraging Marina to return to her free-spirited ways. Whilst such familiar conflicts are invoked, as Marina is alternatively dazzled and alienated by the profundity of space, the disposition of the people, and the thinness of the cultural blanket about her, Malick himself avoids value judgments. Everything is endowed in his eye with both value and transience. Paris is depicted at first as a place of infinite riches, but when Marina returns there, it seems by comparison an oppressive labyrinth crammed with people, noises, and distractions, a stygian space of excessive civilisation.
After her visa expires, Marina returns to France with a willing Tatiana, and Neil seems content to let their relationship end: as Marina had said earlier to Neil, “I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” This is very much the film’s founding thesis, as a study in just how far people can go together. After Marina’s departure, Neil turns Jane, who is dogged by the melancholy memory of her young son’s death several years earlier and a disintegrated marriage. Jane possesses a veneer of wariness that hides both great potential ardour and dark reaction, each of which Neil experiences. The movement that encompasses Neil’s interlude with Jane is brief but represents one of Malick’s greatest achievements, a synergistic flow of images and snatched words replete with an almost fairytale beauty and rapturous expression that I knew even as I was watching it was a masterpiece of film shooting and editing. Malick makes his disparities obvious without recourse to explanatory dialogue: Jane, framed repeatedly with the horses she tends and bison, is, like them, native product of an open land, endowed with a robustness and rooted self-certainty even in the face of tragedy, plucking away at work on the ranch in the face of hardship, in contrast to Marina, who tends to run from hardship. This is no simplistic good woman/bad woman schism, however, as Malick explores the appeal and necessity of both temperaments, and Neil, in spite of the seeming ease in his relationship with Jane, is fatefully drawn back to Marina’s mercurial nature as an invigorating contrast and partner to his own.
Just as Neil and Jane’s relationship comes to life, Marina contacts Neil, wanting to come back to him after giving custody of Tatiana to her ex-husband. Neil breaks off with Jane, in spite of her ardent and slightly pathetic offer of herself with one of her tethering ropes for the horses wrapped around her own wrists, but quickly enough she’s thrusting Neil away and quite literally crawling away from him in forlorn anger. Jane is last seen in a dreamlike discursion as she moves through what seems to be her childhood home, a dark and cavernous space that conflates with Neil’s house, a place where Marina hovers outside like a dogging spirit. Jane climbs stairs and disappears into darkness in a relay of shots that capture the trio in a moment of transition standing at thresholds, on different floors, and beyond windows, all with telegraphed psychological meaning. Jane’s fragmented odyssey feels vitally important as she retreats from the frontier back into an Oedipal space of the home, the reverse journey of the main character of The Tree of Life.
The haunting qualities of the old prairie houses Malick perhaps spent much of his youth in, their cache of faded gentility and piquancy suggested in Badlands, is recalled here, charged with a vividly haunted sense of lost security and longing. This segues into Neil’s attempts to settle down with Marina, cueing one of the droller moments in any Malick film, as they have their marriage witnessed by a prisoner waiting his turn in court. Marina and Neil take some time to reconnect, but they soon passionately reunite. Marina immediately begins to strain against her newly settled life and the lack of sensory excitement around her, and finds herself engaged in a war between her affection for Neil and hate, lividly described in a pool scene as Neil and Marina’s playful, tactile delight in each other is suddenly stricken with her apparent offence and loathing. There’s a Dostoyevskian quality to Marina’s plight and struggle within herself: “What a cruel war!” she says at one point. Taken with a carpenter, whose slightly damaged look exacerbates his precious attractiveness, Marina finally, seemingly deliberately detonates her marriage by sleeping with him.
Malick is a poetic filmmaker, but not in the usual vaguely lyrical fashion. He takes a methodical approach to refashioning persona and parochial experience into a system of shared experiences, essentials, and universal observations, inner experience turned into communal dreaming. The only measure for success in this is the degree to which it can strike others with a sense of recognition, and in this To the Wonder worked for me. I received a jolt of recognition in Malick’s feel for the evocative wonder of some commonplace sights and experiences, like his study of newly built tract housing which plunged me back into my early years in a sprawl of new suburbs that seemed to hover on the fringe of invaded farmland, contrasted with the shaded hominess of my grandparents’ houses in a more settled and traditionalised locale, and his already noted attentiveness to the moods of rural and city environs. One great late scene finds Marina, after committing an act of infidelity, reeling along the side of a busy road and reaching a large intersection, boiling with traffic flow, light and engine noise, a crucible of existential angst, and indeed the sensation of force and danger at such locations is transmuted into a moment of ecstatically immediate emotion. Malick’s finite sense of the way personal affection is communicated through touch, proximity, attitude, is exacting, as he can find the pain and confusion in even the smallest and briefest moments when a lover turns away, and the relief when they come back. The payoff for this sensitivity lies in the most eruptive moment in the film, when Neil smashes the rear-view mirror of his car and drags Marina out of it to leave her on the roadside after she confesses her unfaithfulness, a moment that becomes an apocalyptic gesture.
Malick’s sensatory ephemera are woven in with his actual drama, part of what he’s trying express in an ontological fashion. To the Wonder is a concluding chapter to Malick’s grand foray through American history, which has already encompassed its birth, its intermediate schism of industry and rural existence, its elevation in WWII to superpower in existential crisis, the false security of the 1950s, and now finally, the present, still stricken through with the same fault lines of its birth. One aspect of Malick’s world view that feels almost radical is not just his hunger for mysticism in a secular, earthbound age, but his plaintive affection for a particular brand of provincial religiosity found in his homeland’s vast middle spaces, the sort usually caricatured as a fount of bigotry and bellicosity. As hinted in the film’s early scenes, the central romantic drama is eventually counterpointed with a spiritual drama. Marina is stricken with her exile from the church because of her divorce, attending local services and explaining her problem to local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Quintana, in turn, is beset by his own crisis of faith, a sensation that his sense of the binding properties of god, spiritual love, a world spirit, has abandoned him and left him as a social undertaker preaching to near-empty halls. He pursues his mission, however, venturing out into the poor districts of his Midwestern parish, trying to offer succour to the ruined people on the fringes of this society. A mark of Malick’s generosity is that he can take a sight most filmmakers would turn into a sneering portrait of First World dissolution, a large man snorting beer from a foam dome amidst the wreckage of a home, into a perversely beautiful depiction of ruination and degradation.
Quintana at once has ardent love of his job as knitter of social fabric but also feels its crushing weight, manifest in striking moments, as when he receives the despairing appeals of prisoners, one who kneels before him longing for a sense of forgiveness and others on the far side of visiting pen glass, and when he hides within his house from a gnarled drug addict who first rejects his aid and then comes seeking it, as if he’s hiding from faith itself in the fashion of biblical heroes like Jacob and Noah. That Quintana and Neil are brothers in their searching sensibilities is signalled late in the film when Neil and he are glimpsed in confabulation, and Neil follows Quintana in his daily rounds, each one a tragically beautiful adventure into human frailty. Malick’s characters are engaged in a kind of wrestling match with their individual nature and their animating force—personal ardour for Neil and Marina, maternal crisis for Jane, godly love for Quintana. Quintana regains his, oddly and implicitly, through the entwining of Malick’s images, via the experience of Marina and Neil losing theirs, as he suggests that in the sundering of individual love lies the essence of the greater kind.
Like Malick’s best films, To the Wonder gathers accumulated force in grand gyrations until it hits crescendos. It’s entirely fair to describe Malick’s structuring in musical rather than stage terms, and he encourages it often by tethering his various interludes to upsurges of specific music. To the Wonder then works in five movements. As a film, it feels unique in Malick’s oeuvre in the sense that it’s extremely autobiographical and revealing not just of personal experience but of artistic influence. Although The Tree of Life revealed Malick as another acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, here the influences are broader. The Searchers (1956) is repeatedly invoked with Fordian framings on the rolling prairies with bison and horses and characters in doorways, except that Monument Valley has given way to McMansions. David Lean is most often evoked: in the scene of Marina and Tatiana leaving Neil alone and the suddenly solitary male dashing back through his house to watch their car depart, Doctor Zhivago (1965) leaps to mind, and Lean’s feel for landscape has never seemed more clearly influential on Malick than here. Much like Lean’s concept of the poetic hero of that epic as more watcher than engaged in history, haplessly locked in love affairs whilst ideology reshapes the world aggressively, similarly here, Affleck’s Neil says little, acting as more the fulcrum for the dramas of his women than protagonist. Like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To the Wonder can be described as a kind of character study where a level of frustration in the inability to actually penetrate the character is a definitive aspect of the narrative. Thematically, particularly in the form of Father Quintana’s diary of a suburban priest, Robert Bresson feels vitally close; indeed, he was probably in there all along.
But Malick’s closest creative relative as an American artist may not be other filmmakers, but rather Andrew Wyeth, a realist painter who nonetheless offered such intensely studied, obliquely conceived pictures that they always seem to vibrate with a sense of hidden elements and forces. In much the same way, Malick constantly alchemises images into emotions, which is the very aspect of his films that remain hardest for the more literal-minded to grasp. To the Wonder does represent another stage in his vision, however, if only because here Malick firmly hints at real experiences that have become inseparable aspects of his artistic imagination. Marina feels like the final condensation and archetype of the female who’s flitted through his last four films in variations, childlike but not childish, ethereal but also sensual, wounded but not ruined, perpetually enticing and yet bound to slip through one’s fingers. Marina’s neurotic flightiness and possible overtones of a developing mental illness, are distinctly suggested, as in later scenes her actions become increasingly less coherent. After they’ve separated, Neil goes to visit her in the apartment she’s now keeping and finds her idly cutting pictures out of books. Yet the final sequence of images suggests that far from spinning off into bleak realms, Marina remains an icon of unfettered life. Affleck’s face, never the most expressive of actorly instruments, becomes here Malick’s Mt. Rushmore of stolid American virtue, or perhaps an Easter Island statue, but Affleck’s flashes of good humour and play give Neil sufficient life. But the essence of the film is Kurylenko’s performance, quite an epic piece of actor’s art in spite of Malick’s odd way of shaping it, as she finds the underlying unity in Marina’s perversity. Perhaps this is the interesting contradiction in To the Wonder that’s made it Malick’s least rapturously received film so far, but that also makes it a great achievement nonetheless. Under the surface, which pretends to the usual beatification at the end, it’s a flailing, pained study in the impermanence of things.
John Milius, New Wave Hollywood’s wilfully wild, pseudo-shamanic antihero, was an anachronistic figure even as a crucial member of the vanguard of young filmmakers who helped reinvent commercial Hollywood cinema in the 1970s. A collaborator with Francis Coppola and George Lucas, reputedly lovingly caricatured by Lucas in American Graffiti (1973) and the Coen Brothers in The Big Lebowski (1997), Milius belonged to ranks of that also included Terrence Malick, Michael Cimino, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, John Sayles, and Philip Kaufman, who laboured as screenwriters or script doctors whilst trying to get a directing career moving. Several of the films Milius helped pen, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Magnum Force (1973), and Apocalypse Now (1979), seem as or more powerfully under Milius’ influence as their directors. Milius found directing success with Dillinger (1973), The Wind and the Lion (1975), and Big Wednesday (1978), and with the big hits Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984), seemed poised to enter his major career phase.
Yet Milius soon after almost vanished from cinema screens, partly because two ignored films caused him, like some other failing ’80s heroes that include Joe Dante and John Carpenter, to take refuge in TV movies, and also because Milius, as a demonstrative conservative and gun freak, rendered himself fatally excluded from the mythology of modern Hollywood and critical sympathy. Milius’ wingnut sensibility has always seemed a rebellious outflowing of the transgressive, bullish streak of the self-described “Zen anarchist” (or Zen fascist, depending on which account you read), a streak that certainly informs his films, which reveal a depth of humanistic feeling, literate intelligence, and emotional veracity far greater than his image would suggest. It doesn’t feel like any particularly great contradiction to say that the hero of Farewell to the King, who describes himself boastfully as a Communist, still seems like a Milius self-portrait, as both contain the seeds of gleeful, provocative pride, and an awareness of their externality as instinctive battlers in a settled, pacified, and blandly centrist world.
Milius’ small but largely impressive directorial oeuvre encompasses a wealth of artistic contradiction and richness, and makes him stand alongside Steven Spielberg as the foremost practitioner of the adventure tale in modern cinema. Even Red Dawn, commonly caricatured as an apotheosis of mindless Reaganite aggression, is actually as often a darkly pensive and brutally ambivalent fantasia of war on a home front as it is a rousing, gleefully partisan action flick. Milius’ follow-up, which might have been expected after the popular success of his last two films to have been a big event, nonetheless sank practically without trace. To describe this as a pity is rather too weak, as Farewell to the King saw Milius produce his most self-analytical and contradictory work; indeed it could be one of the great modern American films. The experience wasn’t a happy one for the filmmaker, who felt that it was his best work but one compromised by studio editing. Adapted from a novel by French critical but empathetic war writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, Farewell to the King is Milius at his most high-flown and heroic, yet self-critical and fascinating in the contradictions of his instinctive humanism and admiration for warrior grit. Moreover, he follows Schoendoerffer’s intriguing and purposeful rewrite of Conradian tales like Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, which Milius helped to transform into Apocalypse Now, in a post-colonial fashion that plays some engaging and ironic games with the notion of a white man lording it over an aboriginal populace, as well as celebrating, as many of Milius’ works do, a contrapuntal, multicultural energy in cultures meeting and melding even in the course of clashing. The tone of Farewell to the King is established by an opening voiceover from British botanist and former soldier Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), who, looking back on his personal glory days as the film will detail, rhapsodises: “He was the last King of Borneo. It’s all right to tell his tale now. The wind has swept away the stench of the corpses. And all that we remember is the flare of our youth.”
Milius’ films are repeatedly defined by a quality of being at once immediate and nostalgic, alternately weirdly joyous and somberly elegiac in their sense of life and death. His titanic heroes are often deeply aware of their own mortality and the wane of their best days even as they best great enemies and elements: certainly this is true of the surfer-knights of Big Wednesday, and here again this mood dominates. The contradictory viewpoint defined by Fairbourne’s words sustains this sensation, as he looks back with a commingled sense of horror and moral reckoning, but also ecstatic longing for times of action and consequence. Fairbourne is parachuted into Borneo in early 1945 along with a sergeant, Tenga (Frank McRae), who’s African, under assignment to organise the mountain tribes into a guerrilla force to help kick out the Japanese. He finds that many of the tribes have already been united under a king, and more fantastically, the king is a former American Navy sailor named Learoyd (Nick Nolte). Shipwrecked on Borneo after fleeing the fall of the Philippines with some other sailors who were then killed by Japanese patrols under a colonel who rides a signature white horse, Learoyd struggled through the jungle and was found near death by villagers. They were fascinated by the totemic dragon tattoo on his chest and spared his life. Eventually, Learoyd grew strong again and learnt the local dialect, as prelude to his challenging for supremacy over the tribe that adopted him.
Learoyd’s narrative is filled with familiar refrains of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque tale, as he defeated the warrior Lian the Magnificent in single combat and won the overlordship of the tribe, romanced and married Yoo (Marilyn Tokuda), a princess and sister of Learoyd’s loyal friend Gwai (Gerry Lopez, a Milius regular). After becoming leader of one tribe, he then asserted leadership over many more, building a kingdom. Far from a petty dictator or warlord, however, Learoyd, a labor organizer and radical from before the war, has been working with the energised and receptive locals in building an almost idyllic communal existence, an existence threatened as much by Fairbourne’s call to join the outside world as by the Japanese: the liberalised modern world’s struggle to be born in the eye of World War II’s clash of military-industrial blocs is one Learoyd is already presaging, through living a retroactive dream of recreated chivalry. But one brings the other down upon their head: Fairbourne’s radio communications with his base bring Zeros to rain death upon the villagers, and Learoyd, infuriated, insists to Fairbourne that he will only aid the Allies if they give him and his people a guarantee of post-war independence. Fairbourne puts the proposal to his commanding officer, Col. Ferguson (James Fox), and in turn, Douglas MacArthur (John Bennett Perry). MacArthur, fascinated by the mystique of another man with affectations of the warlord like himself, signs the treaty. But Ferguson keeps Fairbourne mindful that the treaty will certainly be ignored after the war: “History will wash his hands,” he says of MacArthur, “Not yours.”
“How can a Communist be a king?” Fairbourne prods Learoyd, whose name is a Francophonic pun, to which the Yankee replies, “Only a Communist would’ve thought of it!” Learoyd, first encountered by Fairbourne and Tenga when they’re laid at his feet, seems at first a man who has passed through the gate of some immense experience that’s left him with a seer-like aspect, with an intense, bore-through-your-bones glare and a mastery of a rhapsodic, crypto-spiritual rhetoric expected of a great leader in a “primitive” culture, his blonde hair having grown into a lion’s mane. “He’s white!” Fairbourne gasps to Tenga, “As white as you or I!”, an exclamation to which the Kikuyu sergeant gives a suitably nonplussed expression. When the emissaries of the hated larger world are brought into a roundhouse that is Learoyd’s “palace,” it proves to have been built around a round table, upon which the King climbs and narrates his tale with formal, almost dancelike intensity and strutting showiness. Learoyd has been constructing a pan-cultural wonderland, having adopted the local religious sensibility and its cultural maxims of ritualised displays of power and mastery over unseen forces, which speaks purely to a streak of both dramatic flimflam in the erstwhile royal, and also to a more genuine streak of pantheism and ancestor worship that he grasps intuitively. Milius deliberately revisits a moment in Apocalypse Now when he has Learoyd appear in the night before a captive and trussed-up Fairbourne and Tenga, like Colonel Kurtz does at one point; where Kurtz was malefic in aspect, Learoyd resolves finally as good-natured and boisterous in his half-lunatic, half-genius life-love.
Learoyd has given to his “kingdom” a host of mismatched cultural tropes that nonetheless bespeak of the inheritance of the modern world in bonding traditions of communal strength, such as adopting an Arthurian roundtable as the basis of a new social discourse, and using the Irish ditty “The Rising of the Moon” as a marching song. In his narration of his rise as King, Learoyd recalls when his first tribe had wanted to make war on another because of a Romeo-and-Juliet love affair, he gave the woman advice out of Lysistrata that shut the war down immediately. His intelligent leadership eventually inspired a unification that grew to include many other tribes, even a practically Neolithic one living in a secret and idyllic glade in the mountains approachable only through a cave. Learoyd’s desire to protect his burgeoning kingdom is registered immediately as an impediment that must be cleared away by Fairbourne, whose adherence to his military and culturally prescribed role is finally unswerving even as he falls under the spell of Learoyd’s charisma and brilliance as a leader, a brilliance that is manifest most strikingly on a level of moral judgement and discernment. Learoyd is not so entirely earnest that he’s lost all sense of the irony of his situation, but he does nonetheless tackle his appointed role more seriously than Fairbourne can, at first, rightly believe. Farewell to the King quickly reveals itself as a piece of considered auteurist self-argument: the moment where Learoyd evoked Colonel Kurtz, who constructed a similar empire in the wilderness but defined by madness and destruction, signals Milius’ reconstruction of the figure into his mirror image, a bountifully intelligent and good-hearted natural leader whose works are destroyed by the evil of the world, the Heart of Darkness inverted.
Milius intriguingly comments on a scene from one of his favourite movies, Lawrence of Arabia (1962; Milius notably utilised Lawrence’s editor Anne V. Coates), in which Fairbourne, like Lawrence, recognises himself, as a neutral in a tribal setting, as capable of enacting a prickly law to satisfy both sides. But whereas Lawrence took a guilty but liberated, sadistic pleasure in acting like godlike judge of a murderer, Fairbourne is faced with a worse predicament: as per the custom of one tribe, the child of a recently dead mother must also die, but another of Learoyd’s tribes, from which the mother came, would then demand vengeance on the killers, thus evoking the spectre of another blood feud. Fairbourne volunteers to execute the child instead, and seems primed to do so before Learoyd suddenly interrupts and claims the child. “How could you do that?” Learoyd demands, appalled, of the Englishman, who retorts in relief, “How could you let me?”
Finally, once the threat of violence from the Japanese becomes unavoidable, and the Allies sign off however speciously to Learoyd’s demands, he begins planning for action, with Fairbourne bringing in a handful of Allied specialists, including South African explosives expert Conklin (Marius Weyers). Fairbourne, afflicted with malaria, nearly turns a scouting mission into a disaster, as he dizzily gets too close to Japanese guards while trying to take photos and provokes a gunfight. Fairbourne stumbles off into the jungle, and Learoyd has to track him down, managing to locate him at the same time as the white horse-riding Japanese colonel, forcing Learoyd to make a heroic dash carrying a limp and senseless Fairbourne across a rice paddy. The colonel, Mitamura (Aki Aleong), proves to be more than just an image of death and a symbolic antagonist, but the very real threat that hangs over Learoyd’s world.
The pantheistic urges in the works of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, two of Milius’ favourite filmmakers, become in his work overarching truths, perhaps indeed the only specific truth. The symbolic as well as physical force of the waves in Big Wednesday is again invoked here, the thundering, glittering surf from which Learoyd crawls twice in the course of the film. Just as the surfers of the earlier film are reborn through tackling the giant waves, here they presage Learoyd’s deliverance from the larger world’s predations and Arthurian anointment as the Once and Future King. Few would think of Milius in the same frames of reference as Terrence Malick, and yet Milius’ concerns here are strikingly similar to Malick’s meditation on modern war crashing into the idyll of Pacific tribes in The Thin Red Line (1998), rendered in altogether different but ultimately no less mythopoeic style, and indeed perhaps less naïve in its contemplation of tribal and modern civilisations less as conflicting realms of innocence and corruption, but in a dialectic of experience and impulse. The constant, nagging desire underlying modern Western civilisation best defined by Rousseau, to revert to a pre-technological state and regain the pleasures of the physically and morally simple ,is one Milius wrestles with in his films, hand in hand with his love of warrior nobility, a nobility he’s not above pondering critically. One of Farewell’s most affecting shots depicts Learoyd cradling Yoo, the light falling on her while he remains mostly in darkness, saying of war that it’s “the only good thing men can do.” To which he wife replies with sad scepticism, “Men dream.”
War indeed presages destruction of Learoyd’s loves as all conquest presages the absorption of the renegade by the greater force. Yet so appealing is the world that Learoyd has built that almost everyone who comes to it finishes up being absorbed into it—black African Tenga, white African Conklin, even Japanese soldiers—except for Fairbourne, who is kept tethered to his sense of duty less by philosophy than the fact he’s in love with Ferguson’s secretary Vivienne (Elan Oberon) and, more implicitly, to an awareness that reality cannot be circumvented; as a scientist, he understands the genesis of species. Ferguson himself, sensing the danger of Fairbourne’s admiration for Learoyd and his world, warns him to avoid going native for reasons that are as arbitrary as they are consequential: “It’s not contempt,” Ferguson tells Fairbourne with contemplative gravitas, “It’s a line of conduct.” Ferguson’s mutually exclusive worldview cannot, however, help but be defined by contempt, and jealousy for anyone who considers existence outside of a settled order, a dream Learoyd has tried to make true. Like all utopian dreams, Learoyd’s finally founders on reality, and yet his world is the dream of the world in small.
The contradictory character of Fairbourne’s reminiscences extend when the “days of peace” end and Learoyd’s band of warriors venture down through the jungle to do battle: “The death-agony of the Japanese Army in Borneo was as sad as the sinking of a great ship…hunger, men eating weeds, leeches, insects, and each other—despair—madness…for me, for us, the same period was as thrilling as a cavalry charge, may god forgive us.” This cues an ironically high-flown montage of Learoyd, Fairbourne, and the others exalting in triumphant battle against their crumbling foe, cueing even a nod by Milius to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as they destroy a bridge modelled on the one in Lean’s classic as Basil Poledouris’ score surges in heroic zest. But boyish triumphalism gives way to fathomless horror as their guerrilla army must contend with Mitamura’s elusive “phantom” column, which, fleeing the Allies on the coast, works its way inland apparently wiping out everyone in its path. Tracking this enemy, Tenga is the first to realise that Mitamura’s column has turned cannibalism into a survival method, and the realisation of the depths to which Mitamura’s men have sunk sparks a race to prevent the column from reaching the Comanche capital. Milius pulls off a bravura sequence with nightmarish overtones as Learoyd and his army try to set an ambush for the column in the moonlight, the eerie sight of the enemy marching silhouetted against the sky, only to vanish when the moon is swallowed by cloud; when Fairbourne fires off a flare, a strobing vision of yowling, demonic enemy soldiers charging their position are glimpsed before a chaotic melee is joined. As dawn comes over the battlefield Learoyd realises that the much of Mitamura’s force slipped through, and nothing now stands between it and the home village.
The escalation of war into blood-rage apocalypse reaches apotheosis as the column massacres the home village, including Yoo, who is last glimpsed facing the arriving army with a machine gun in hand like a stone standing against the tide. Learoyd’s heart-wrenching scream of despair erupts from the roundhouse where he finds the bodies of the slaughtered villagers. He sets alight roundhouse as their pyre, and then tracks down the column, trapped in a gorge, and slaughters the soldiers en masse in a moment of nihilistic vengeance that coincides, not coincidentally, with the bombing of Hiroshima: Learoyd’s attempts to remain separate from the tide of history have instead only led him to mimic its patterns precisely. Learoyd, once the wildness of grief is exculpated, throws away his gun and vows never to kill another man, leaving Fairbourne to continue the hunt for Mitamura. Fairbourne is injured in battle and crawls into a grotto where he desperately pleads with the shadows for Learoyd’s aid. But he awakens instead in a British Army hospital with Vivienne, and he learns that Mitamura finally surrendered to Learoyd, whose warriors have since fired upon the Allied soldiers trying to enter the highlands. Faced with either betraying Learoyd by giving Ferguson vital information on how to force Learoyd into surrender—he knows that the tribes can’t live without the supplies of salt they get from the sea, and can easily be cut off from obtaining it—or precipitating another military assault on the kingdom, Fairbourne chooses the lesser evil, and soon Learoyd and Mitamura hand themselves over in exchange for salt supplies. Learoyd is beaten to a bloody pulp by Australian soldiers angry at his resistance, whilst Mitamura is sentenced to be executed for war crimes.
The final irony of Farewell to the King comes as Mitamura proves hardly a monster, or even an effete psychopath, but rather a gentlemanly and magnanimous soldier with perfect English: whereas Learoyd and the tribal folk, who have personal reasons to hate this enemy, accept his surrender and absorb him into their number as a repentant, the larger world can only claim his head. He explains calmly to a stiffly inquisitive Fairbourne that he tried to obey his orders as long as possible. He accepts the consequences without dispute: thinking with genuine weight on Fairbourne’s questions, he essentially states that far from representing any degenerate tendency, he represents only a last recourse for the particular, world-shaping principles to which he was obedient, in this case imperialistic militarism. The peculiar beauty of Farewell to the King is finally highlighted in the care with which it complicates the seemingly Boy’s Own precepts of the tale to a point where villains and heroes, past and present, tribe and superpower are all hard to distinguish except in the push and pull of noble and bestial impulses in all of the characters. Learoyd, for his part, is sent home as a prisoner to be tried for desertion on the same ship that Fairbourne takes out of Borneo. When fate gives him the chance after the ship runs aground a reef, Fairbourne springs Learoyd from the brig, and Learoyd is able to leap overboard and swim to shore, vanishing into the unknown with a final surge of Poledouris’ scoring of “The Rising of the Moon.” Fairbourne salutes him, exultant at his first act of rebellion and truest act of loyalty.
English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the Ninth Legion, which for a long time was believed to have disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.
Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.
This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.
It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.
No Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.
I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.
If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.
What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.
Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend. At the same time, he played both the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.
The riotous cornucopia of perversion that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.
A certain loopy poetry runs throughout Beyond the Valley, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces for a mildly amusing sequence in which he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).
The peculiar quality of Beyond the Valley lies in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.
The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.
What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”
When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and say, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.
Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.
Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.
In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.
Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat ). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius  with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.
James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.
Roger Ebert was my hometown critic. When he first started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, I wasn’t quite old enough to be aware of written film reviews, and my parents subscribed to the Chicago Tribune anyway. It would be a while before Roger Ebert really became a presence to me.
It began with Sneak Previews, the program he cohosted with Gene Siskel that, for a while, was only available on WTTW-TV, Chicago’s PBS station. I loved the show for a lot of reasons, but mostly because Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were people like me. They were both from Illinois, they looked and talked like people I knew, and they dealt with a subject that my movie-mad mother had taught me to love. I couldn’t get enough of their Dog of the Week segment, when they welcomed Sparky or Spot the Wonder Dogs to sit with them in the balcony and take a metaphorical leak on one of the films that Siskel hated for stealing two hours of his life that he would “never get back again.” His pain at the lost time made me determined to try to see only good movies. So while I was of a writerly bent and just as besotted by newspaper journalism as they were—that seems to be a common affliction of would-be writers from Chicago—I never aspired to have their job.
When I went to live in Chicago proper, the alternative newspaper The Reader was my source for recommendations of things to do in the city. I read Dave Kehr regularly, though I really didn’t understand his verbiage very well, and then Jonathan Rosenbaum. And I kept watching Sneak Previews. The Reader steered me in the direction of such new films as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens (1975). But at the time, I was a legit theatre hound and went to films on dates or as something else to do.
As I got older and burned out on theatre, film started to loom brighter on the horizon. During this time, Roger Ebert entered my personal space, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. My father and I had a Monday night series, and as it happens, Roger did, too. We’d see him at the act breaks in the lobby, where he stood talking with a succession of women, one of whom was Chaz. When I pointed excitedly at Roger, Dad looked him up and down. Never a stargazer, he asked me if I thought Ebert made a good living. When I said that I did, he commented that it would be nice if he used some of his earnings to get his suits tailored properly. I was so embarrassed, as we were within earshot of the great man.
“I LOVE Metropolis!” were the first words Roger Ebert ever spoke to me. The time and place were 1999 at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, where I was attending Roger’s very first Overlooked Film Festival. We had just seen Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925), a great motion picture that is hardly overlooked among film enthusiasts. Roger, however, wasn’t thinking about the film per se as overlooked, but rather the increasingly niched taste for silent film that made such towering works part of the cultural landscape of only a relative few. It was his mission to nurture an appreciation of these and other films that time and tastes had all but passed by.
His reason for choosing Battleship Potemkin over many other silents had to do with his other mission in life: discovering and nurturing young talent. An industrial rock band called Concrete had written a score for the film, and Roger was in attendance when they first played it for a showing in Three Oaks, Michigan. So invigorated was Roger by the presentation that he invited Concrete to the Virginia to give his audience a thrill. Even my 73-year-old mother thought they were wonderful. Hence my sheepish approach to the great man with the idea that he invite Concrete back to play for a showing of Metropolis (1927). That didn’t happen because Concrete never wrote a score for the film—commissioning one, he said, would have been too expensive for the fledging festival that was a fundraiser for the Virginia and for Roger’s alma mater, the University of Illinois—but silent films would be a fixture at what became known as Ebertfest from that point onward. I was fortunate to attend almost all of the festivals, a couple on press passes Roger okayed for me, an experience I know from reading the many tributes to him that others would have killed to have had.
When I started getting invited to the Lake Street screening room during the Chicago International Film Festival, I got to share air space with the great man and his wife. I remember that he was one of the few critics who chose to advance-screen The Princess of Montpensier (2010), which had been savaged by French critics. I was pleased that we were both fans of Bertrand Tavernier and that we were sharing the director’s unfairly maligned feature together.
Roger’s famed generosity has been commented upon many times since we got the devastating news of his death. He brought Martin Scorsese from despair to renewal and even declared young director Shane Carruth a budding Scorsese when he brought Carruth to Ebertfest for a screening of his 2004 debut film Primer. He was generous in supporting my film criticism, tweeting out a recommendation of a post I wrote, linking my review of Sita Sings the Blues (2008) on his journal, and helping to support For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon all three years with tweets, prizes, and probably a donation or two. At one of the Ebertfests I attended, I believe it was the first one where they had a La-Z-Boy lounger installed in the back of the theatre for him, I went up to him to introduce myself as the blogger he’d been so nice to. He pointed to himself, crossed his arms across his chest, and then pointed at me—I was floored.
It was this generosity, encouragement, and the acute insights he brought to bear in his criticism that marked him as a consummate educator. In my opinion, Roger Ebert’s greatest gift to the world was to educate people about film, to help them develop visual literacy that, as it turns out, is more important than ever to the global, electronically connected world in which we live. His Great Movies series is a curriculum all its own, essential reading and a viewing guide for anyone who wants to understand the language of cinema at its finest. Roger also dissected what was bad in the film literature, pointing out clichés like the fruit cart that gets hit during a car chase, a tired trope that was lampooned in Ski Patrol (1990) with said cart being labeled “Siskel and Ebert Fruit Cart.”
His passion to be a newspaperman exemplified his desire to learn the facts, discern the truth in them, and communicate both to others. His fellow newspaperman and TV partner Gene Siskel called their arena “the American dream beat,” but Roger saw it as much more. In focusing so much on the performances and people on screen, as well as the viewpoints of those behind the cameras, he helped us understand human behavior, learn close observation, and connect our fate with those of people distant from our own lives.
For example, I remember a segment from Sneak Previews where he pinpointed a choice Shirley MacLaine made in Terms of Endearment (1983) to take off her shoes and shake them in her hand as pivotal to understanding the internal thoughts we all have and communicate through gesture. I remember his ingenuity in choosing Tian-Ming Wu’s King of Masks (1997), a subtitled period Chinese film, as his free family film during one iteration of Ebertfest, telling parents and older siblings to read the subtitles to children not yet able to read. Despite the setting, alien language, and harsh conditions very far removed from the lives of youngsters living in the middle of Illinois, he understood how children would be transported with their imaginations and identify with the girl and the old man who come to love each other. And they did.
Roger Ebert taught film classes, wrote millions of words in his reviews and books, and eventually let the film beat fade a bit as he wrote more personally of his own travels and travails as a human being. His personal and confessional approach left some professional film critics aghast, but Roger understood the importance of telling the stories of our lives, of passing them along as wisdom for the next generation. He touched us as an educator not just about movies, but about what it means to be human. We’ll not see his like again any time soon.
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped in to a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
This week, Rod and I learned that someone we knew from our past affiliations with the New York Times Film Form and Third Eye Film Society, Wade Ehle, died at the age of 48. Wade was a vocal and volatile film buff, a New Yorker by choice, an out and proud homosexual in a long-term relationship, a graphic designer, and despite his evil temper, a gentle soul. I had not been in touch with Wade for some years, as in one of his foul moods, he made me a target, a situation I could no longer abide. But I still remember fondly a lovely New Year’s Eve spent with Wade and his partner Scott drinking champagne in my living room as they stopped in on their way back from their yearly car trip to Minnesota to visit Scott’s family for the holidays. In his way, Wade was an important piece in the puzzle of my life, and I feel the need to honor and remember him in the way that brought us together—talking about film.
Wade’s favorite actor was Montgomery Clift. Clift was a handsome avatar whom Wade’s partner resembles, but there are other qualities he had that I think must have spoken to Wade. Clift’s emotional vulnerability and homosexuality formed a mirror for Wade, and his anger and tenderness integral parts of Wade’s personality. Clift also had a certain type of passive determination, a holding back, that Wade might have wished for himself. I don’t know which of Clift’s films Wade held most dear, but I have to imagine that I Confess, in which director Alfred Hitchcock fetishizes Monty’s beautiful face almost as much as he did any of his blonde muses, must have been on the list.
Apart from its wrong man theme, I Confess is as atypical a Hitchcock film as I can think of. Based on a 1902 French play, Nos Deux Consciences, I Confess retains a French flavor with its setting in Quebec City in Canada and the casual use of French character names and dialog. The screenplay cowritten by George Tabori capitalizes on the writer’s own familial experiences as the son of a Jewish journalist who perished at Auschwitz and turns Clift’s character, Father Michael Logan, into a World War II veteran who throws over his prewar sweetheart, Ruth (Anne Baxter), for the priesthood. The themes of many 1950s films are in evidence here—the plight of refugees, the effects of the war on the nonprofessional soldiers who fought in it, a certain dread and distrust of authority, and justice served up through the courts. I would go so far as to suggest that I Confess is the most fully realized noir film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, with much credit for that going to his regular cinematographer Robert Burks, whose inspired shooting on location in Quebec City is both less showy and more emotionally nuanced than one usually associates with Hitchcock films, pushing I Confess out of genre suspense and into something that more closely resembles Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Father Logan is in a similar predicament to Holly Martins—a man he likes and wants to help has done a terrible thing. Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), a German refugee who with his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) Logan and the other clerics at St. Marie’s have taken in as servants, has killed Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré), whose garden Keller tends, in the course of a burglary. Logan takes Keller’s late-night confession right after the murder during which Otto claims it was an accident and that he only wanted money to free his played-out wife from a life of serving others. Bound by the sanctity of the confessional, Logan can reveal nothing of what he has heard to others, and like Holly Martins, risks becoming a victim of his friend. Keller finds a way to raise suspicions against the priest and justifies his desperation to remain free by the suffering he and Alma underwent during the war—as Jew or Nazi sympathizer is never made clear, further complicating our emotional response to his despicable actions.
During the course of the investigation led by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), Ruth’s past love affair with and still burning love for Logan comes out, giving him a motive for killing Villette, who was blackmailing the married woman with his knowledge of a night they spent together at his country cottage. Although Larrue compelled her confession of the relationship, yet another of Logan’s intimates has tightened the knot around his neck. Logan’s murder trial comprises the final act of the film.
Burks and Hitchcock make good use of the Quebec locale to disorient the audience. French signs for “One Way” are labeled “Direction” and point the way through the streets to an open window and the body of Villette laying on the floor with a lead pipe lying near his cracked skull. Dimitri Tiomkin’s slightly off-kilter opening music crescendos at the reveal. The camera pans to some hanging beads swinging in the doorway to the study and then cuts through the wall to the street, where a man in a long garment—a cassock, it turns out—hurries out the door. The camera shifts to a side view of the street as the man descends down a steep hill, with two girls following casually behind. The darkness, the skewed angles provided by the locale itself, the juxtaposition of the guilty man with the innocence of the two girls, and the deep shadows of Keller on the street provide cause and psychological effect. This taut opening economically sets the stage and provides visual markers for the rest of the film, one in which Keller will always be going down or viewed from above by people of more moral fiber than he has, particularly Logan.
Being who she is, Anne Baxter smolders in every frame, her hair colored Hitchcock blonde. Yet, the script offers her a certain demureness, particularly in protesting the need to reveal the details of her romance with Logan, that also sets this film outside the usual Hollywood framework. Putting her in a dirndl during the flashback sequence was a misguided and unnecessary choice, however, as Baxter’s straightforward honesty with her husband, Logan, and the investigators signals all we need to know about her innocence at all stages of her relationship with Logan. She really did a fine job.
Of course, it is Clift who occupies our concern and the majority of the screen time. We wonder why he ends every question that could point to Keller’s guilt with “I can’t say.” Not even a word that he took a confession that night escapes his lips. With his life at risk, his dedication to his duty and his faith communicates volumes about why he chose priesthood over matrimony and helps put his relationship with Ruth into a believable, much less tawdry context than would be the norm. While Clift is smoking hot in I Confess, he does not play the flirtatious games that, for example, Jean-Paul Belmondo does in Leon Morin, Priest. His fear of death expresses itself in prayer, but his trust in God also drives him to turn himself into Larrue. His contained performance is a bit frustrating to the audience, who know he’s innocent, but absolutely true to his character. His ardor in his prewar scenes with Ruth also communicates his innate passion: “He was always so serious about everything, even love,” she says ruefully.
The trial is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, with proceedings quite decorous and, therefore, alien to the sensational standards for such scenes set by Hollywood films. I was so enamored of the judiciousness of the proceedings and the editorial comments of the jury regarding their verdict—no simple “guilty” or “”not guilty” here—I would have been content to watch the trial for the entire film. The film devolves in its last few minutes due to studio interference, and Hitchcock punts to his more theatrical genre instincts to pull it off, but the sense of the community’s betrayal lingered with me and put me in mind not only of recent scandals in the Catholic Church, but also of the Cy Endfield noir Try and Get Me. Interestingly, Hitchcock meant for this film to be an indictment of capital punishment, but it serves as a portrait of the dangers of mob mentality almost as urgent as Endfield filmed. In straying from pure genre filmmaking, Hitchcock made a film less susceptible to his personal stamp, but more rich and engaging than anyone might have expected.
After the break-out success and Palme d’Or win of his 2007 abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu gained a kind of respect that tends to sanctify all successive efforts. I was knocked out by 4-3-2, but I find his newest film, Beyond the Hills, hard to parse. While adhering to the dogged realism and intensity of 4-3-2, Beyond the Hills is adapted from a novel, Deadly Confession, that itself is based on a 2005 exorcism attempt that shocked the Romanian public. The novel changed the story by making the young woman who underwent the exorcism a troubled friend of a nun instead of a nun herself and focusing on their relationship.
Mungiu has been asked in many of the interviews he has given about the film why he focuses on relationships between women. In one he gave to Zimbio, he points out that two of his films have included male protagonists. He further states, “My films are story-driven, not character-driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship, but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.”
Indeed, Beyond the Hills does touch on all these subjects, which is rather miraculous in itself, even for a film with a longish 155-minute running time, and the issues do have universal application. Nonetheless, unhappy consequences brought on by illegal abortion and manipulation in a community of female religious headed by a man reveal the kind of feminist agenda that can often be found more overtly in Iranian films, particularly those of Jafar Panahi. Mungiu explores his themes with a fair amount of subtlety, making room for individual intentions that tend to obscure the more global posturing of a feminist message. Unfortunately, by focusing on a 23-year-old woman outside the religious community—she is not observant and only goes through the motions of prayer and confession to please her friend—she becomes a completely unwilling victim. In addition, despite the many moments that feel true to life, in part because of Mungiu’s long takes that mimic the rhythms of real life, whether the film makes any kind of point largely depends upon the opinions of the audience. I have seen as many people view the film as a condemnation of superstition as think it is an exploitative exercise in violence against women. In my opinion, they’re both right.
The film opens in a train station, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) meets Alina (Cristina Flutur), her roommate at the orphanage where they both lived. People jostle her, and trains obscure Alina, who seems in danger of being hit by one in her rush to embrace Voichita. It becomes clear in Alina’s intense focus on Voichita as they travel to the primitive monastery where Voichita is a novice that the women were once romantically involved. Alina has made the trip from Germany, where she lives, to bring Voichita back with her. Alina has given up her apartment and job and secured work for them both on a German riverboat as waitresses. But Voichita has changed her mind. She tries to let Alina down easy, but the single-minded woman refuses to go without her. Then Alina falls ill with a lung infection and must be rushed to the hospital. Having missed the riverboat and with no home to return to, Alina is allowed to stay on at the monastery to recover after Voichita persuades a reluctant Father (Valeriu Andriuta) that she will make no problems for them.
Alas, Alina is troubled, possibly mentally ill, and becomes increasingly angry and disruptive. Eventually, Father and Mother (Dana Tapalaga) decide to “read” to Alina, and the rigors of an exorcism are filmed in excruciating, lengthy detail as the nuns craft a crude cross to which Alina is bound and gagged day and night, out of sight of the church congregants. The nuns carry her back and forth between an outbuilding and the church for the daily ritual, wash her when she soils herself, and deny her food and water to starve the demon that possesses her.
Mungiu provides a window into the opportunities for exploitation in Romanian society. The rapid growth of monasteries founded by self-styled sages like Father may be traced to the rebound of religious freedom in the country, but many of the acolytes come from orphanages that turn their residents out when they reach 18. Voichita found a comfortable home and purpose at her monastery, but for others, such as one of the sisters who is still in contact with her abusive husband, the monastic life is perhaps the only option they have. Alina’s retarded brother Ionut (Ionut Ghinea) has a job at a car wash where he is given no protective uniform to keep him warm and, significantly, no wages. He also becomes a member of the monastic community, his free labor and frigid cell perhaps a step down from the car wash.
The healthcare system seems to be the one bright spot in the country, and Alina receives adequate care there. Once back at the monastery, the nuns use her savings to pay for her medication, refuse her the rest she needs to recover, and eject her at one point to go live with her former foster parents. The couple have given away her room and stolen most of her savings, handing Mother back less than half of what she sent to them for safe keeping.
I had a lot of different reactions while watching this film. I felt for Voichita’s struggle between two conflicting allegiances, one to a life that fulfills her and the other to a relationship that helped her survive the orphanage but that she has outgrown. The nuns, though largely undifferentiated by the script, seem to be a cohesive unit struggling in a primitive compound without electricity or heating any more sophisticated than a fireplace, and in constant need of money. I didn’t particularly like Alina, and I felt the nuns, particularly Mother, were genuinely spiritual and believed they were trying to help her. Father struck me as prideful, striving to make the monastery successful, worrying about when or if the church will be consecrated, and anxious that Alina could drive their small congregation away. In proceeding alone with an exorcism that he himself said required two priests and manipulating Ionut into giving consent as Alina’s next of kin, I questioned his motives, if not those of his followers.
It is here that I started to feel queasy about the film. When winter arrives, it’s for real, and the visible breath of the actors shows just how cold it really is. Mungiu’s long takes necessitate long retakes if the actors flub any part of their performance; Mungiu reveals “we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more.” I don’t wish to presume on the dedication of the entire film ensemble, but the harsh conditions of part of this shoot do give me pause about the level of pain and suffering a filmmaker—even an independent filmmaker of limited means—should be allowed to inflict. I might not have considered this question in the past—after all, Mungiu certainly isn’t the first director to demand so much from his cast and crew. But something about Father seems so like a projection of Mungiu’s personality, a believer in himself and his power justifying everyone’s faith and sacrifice.
Much is made of Alina making a full confession of her sins to Father, with the nuns reading off a list of nearly 500 sins she might have committed in a grimly humorous scene. It is not revealed what she tells Father, but her lesbian relationship might have been part of it, a part Voichita appears not to have confessed herself. Thus, Voichita can be seen as Alina’s undoer in some sense, just as Gabita exploited and injured Otilia in 4-3-2. Mungiu seems to take a dim view of close female friendships, with the most dire outcomes seeming to be the inevitable result of such closeness.
The film is beautiful to look at, the performances sophisticated and sincere, and the pacing fine for me, though perhaps too slow and deliberate for many. Beyond the Hills raises many important issues about relationships and religiosity, and Mungiu asserts that he is trying to be respectful of the characters by avoiding more voyeuristic shots (though watching Alina being chained to the cross does not seem particularly demure to me). However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.
It’s now a cliché to describe Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the father of modern action cinema. Undoubtedly its DNA, whilst not entirely original in itself, has since colonised genre cinema on a worldwide scale. But Seven Samurai is, of course, far more than a blueprint for recycled multiplex fare. Few films attempt to encompass as much as Kurosawa’s narrative does, which depicts through its microcosm of struggle and triumph something close to a philosophy of life as well as violent drama in its most elemental and entertaining of forms. Kurosawa and his writing collaborators attempted to create not just a movie script, but an artefact, with life extending far beyond the margins. The finesse of detailing put into creating their samurai and the villagers who hire them reflected the desire to create a self-sufficient fictional universe. Kurosawa was reviving a mode of filmmaking, autocratic and exacting in a hunt for tactile force and authenticity barely seen since the heyday of director-gods of the silent era, like Stroheim, Gance, and Lang. For the Japanese film industry, still straitened after the war even as it was entering a golden age of artistic brilliance, such ambition seemed outsized. The arduous shoot at a remote location lasted nearly a year. Kurosawa’s vision cost his backers, Toho Studios, half a million dollars. Production was shut down three times, but Seven Samurai was completed, and the rewards were soon apparent: a huge hit, over time it has become perhaps the most famous film ever produced in the country, and one regularly and justly cited amongst the greatest films of all time.
Kurosawa’s original idea had been to make a film about a samurai as an institutional figure, possessed of great esteem and power, and yet whose life always rested on a knife edge of responsibility and decorum. But in researching his story, Kurosawa unearthed an anecdote about some samurai who had defended a village from bandits during the incessant civil wars of Japan in the 1500s. His imagination captured, he collaborated with screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni to construct a story that, whilst not adapted from specific mythology, nonetheless managed to seem, in the perfection of its operating parts and the microcosmic intensity and graphic clarity of its drama, as if it told a story reaching back to prehistory. The creators based their samurai on real models, except for odd-man-out Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), an avatar for the pressures of social change, held in check by ruthless feudal politics in the film’s time period, but depicted as straining against their fetters. Kurosawa, whose name was about to become synonymous with Japanese historical cinema, had made few period movies up to this point. His proper debut, Sanjuro Sugata (1943), had dealt with the tension between prowess in violent arts and conscientious action in historical context, but his other forays into the past had generally been deeply cynical about Japan’s historic social structures.
Kurosawa nonetheless set himself the task of analysing the mystique of the peculiar national warrior, a mystique that had been used to give a fig leaf of traditionalist honour to recent orgies of imperialistic warfare. The risk of glamorising a passé profession associated with oppression and militarism was present. But Kurosawa, whose family had been samurai for generations, was evidently searching for some worldview, questioning what it meant for past and present, according to the ethical theme that dogged Kurosawa throughout his career: how does one do good in an often unforgiving and evil world? The choice of a group of ronin, loyal not to feudal power structure but to their own proclivities and traditions, helped leaven Kurosawa’s interest in the code that the breed lived by, placing it in contrast to a more venal reality. The heroes of Seven Samurai are defined by their willingness to take an essentially thankless job because it accords all the more purely with their code and gifts. Kurosawa’s choice of study also allowed him to channel another cultural influence: the rugged heroes of the private eye and western novels and films he loved, and the films of John Ford, in particular. Ford’s films kept the near-mythical gunslingers and warriors of the West in resolutely social contexts, consistently translating the genre’s essential tension between vagrant heroes and settler factotums into a cosmology, and Kurosawa wanted to engage in a similarly encompassing form of storytelling.
The opening shots of Seven Samurai, with silhouetted horsemen riding across the horizon, obey the essential creed of genre masters as stated by the likes of Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller: a film’s first shot should possess instantly arresting power. The sound of the horses charging the landscape is like that of ominous thunder, full of wordless malevolence and their riders with chitinous black armour, looking like locusts, about to consume everything in their path. When the bandit army comes upon the hapless, unnamed village whose fate the film depicts, they propose stripping this one bare, but one bandit reminds them that they raided it not long before, so they decide to return once the work of growing and harvesting the rice is completed. Once they depart, a hiding villager rises from his nook, the bundled sticks on his back having blended in with the surrounds.
The contrast is immediately purposeful: the bandits are malevolent insects feeding off the landscape of which the villagers are a part. The geometrical arrangements of the villagers, situated in the clear ground in the centre of their hamlet, reconfirms the notion, capturing the mass in the context of their lives and refusing to release them from it (shades of Lang and Metropolis). But the fibre of the villagers emerges, as individual character resists the pressure of history to crush it into a lumpen mass: angry and haunted Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) loses patience with the consensus to grovel before the bandits in the hope they’ll leave enough to live on next time. Self-interested Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) upholds this view, but when Rikichi convinces the villagers to think about another course of action, they’re advised by the village’s ancient patriarch Gisaku (Kokuten Kôdô), who once saw a village guarded by samurai, to try the same trick: “Find hungry samurai,” he advises.
Poverty is a reality in Seven Samurai in a way it is in very few films: early scenes, filled with vivid shots of the gnarled, suffering faces of the farmers, ensures their reality tempers the narrative, even though the samurai come to dominate it. Farmers, samurai, and bandits are united by one inescapable truth: the world they live in has been picked clean by an age of war, the clash of factions across the length of Japan has left everyone defined by what power they have. The bandits have no real power; the farmers perceive themselves to have none at all, taking recourse in whatever trickery they can, a necessary amorality and craftiness that is nonetheless held against them as it grazes against the complex ethical system of the samurai.
The marginal nature of subsistence labour is brought out with excruciating immediacy as Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the most timorous of the farmers who go in search of samurai aid, finds the small stock of rice he’s been charged with protecting, crucial for luring in the wayfaring ronin they need, awakens at one point to find the stock stolen, compounding desperation with a shame and fear that’s bone-shaking. In this way, Kurosawa indicates that although he’s making an epic adventure film, he has no interest in historical escapism, a la the Hollywood swashbuckler, or even most Westerns: rather he’s portraying the human condition in both static and active states, probing the past for its own essence, a time when, without technology or the manifold insulations of modernity, humanity was no better than the immediacy of its physical and mental gifts and needs. The overwhelming physicality of Seven Samurai gains drive from this urgency. “A battle is running,” one samurai advises with import that colours the entire film: “When you can’t run any more, it’s time to die.” And so goes life.
Yohei, Rikichi, and Manzo venture into a small town to find protectors, and fate, chance, whatever, steers them to Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a ronin introduced having his head shaved, with excitable onlookers flocking about. The striking image of the shaven-pated samurai—paid tribute with amusing literalness in the film’s American remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), by casting Yul Brynner—is disorienting at first for the witnesses and audience because the act of a samurai surrendering his topknot is one associated with ritual humiliation and shame. It turns out to be in preparation for a ruse, as Kambei has been enlisted to rescue a small child, kidnapped by a thief who’s taken refuge in a hut: he takes on the guise of a disinterested priest bringing food to the besieged pair. But the sense remains that Kambei has left behind the worldly pride of being a samurai and become, in his way, a priest. He is the narrative’s sage of war but also of interconnectivity, of communal responsibility and strategic awareness, an awareness that’s grown beyond mere military contemplation to the relationship of many levels of necessary relationship. As a kind of warrior-philosopher, he tethers together the myriad personalities and desires of the farmers and samurai into an axiomatic whole. In keeping with his new status, he attracts disciples—the farmers who, dazzled and sensing the exceptional character and skill of this paragon, try to hire him—as well as samurai. He is dogged by a schismatic duo who witnessed his feat, and want to pay homage and gain his favour. The youthful, well-attired, privileged young Katsushiro (Isao ‘Ko’ Kimura), is the son of a wealthy landowner who, wanting to be a samurai, has left home in search of a cause and a master, whilst the man claiming to be called Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is scruffy, showy, and rude. Katsushiro’s eager obeisance wins him a friend and, finally, a reluctant mentor, whereas Kikuchiyo’s simultaneously pushy and reticent attempt to gain introduction is a failure.
Kurosawa’s most pervasive stylistic influence on the action cinema that followed was in the many directors, most importantly Sam Peckinpah, who imitated his then-startling use of slow motion as a flourish in violent moments. Kurosawa’s use of this gimmick is as restrained as it is often excessive in followers, however: here it comes in moments where the talents of the samurai allow victories that scarcely best their opponents by more than a hair’s breadth, and yet that is, of course, all the difference. When Kambei plunges into the hut where the kidnapper is holed up, for several awful moments it’s like he plunged into the very maw of hell. The thief runs out, seemingly escaping, only to pause and in a drawn out moment of interminable wonder and horror, drops dead. The moment of death, the very crescendo of existence, becomes an eternity, the slow plunge to earth, kicking up a cloud of totemic dust, a vision of extinction at once ignominious and astrophysical.
The effect is repeated when Kambei finds the most skilled of his team to aid the farmers, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), whose swordsmanship is as great as his dedication to a Zen-informed detachment and stoicism. Kyuzo competes with another swordsman who angrily claims victory in a pass with sticks, and so demands a repeat with bare blades. Kyuzo’s victory is inevitable: Kambei predicts it with mortification, groaning at the waste of the man who’s about to throw his life away. Kyuzo’s unflappable poise and impassive dedication are demanded by his understanding of his warrior art, knowing very well that life and death have become, in his rarefied zone, nothing more than the grace of a slightly better nervous reaction, the move practised until it becomes reflex, and the vagaries of chance and nature. Kyuzo initially turns down Kambei’s entreaties because his desire has only been to perfect his art, not to actually fight, and yet the pointlessness of his opponent’s death hangs in the air and surely informs his change of heart: for what good is the ability to beat any man in battle, if there is no reason to battle? Kyuzo’s innate existentialism suddenly requires, purpose, for the void waits. The art of the samurai, then, is not one of mere spiritual fence-sitting.
The team Kambei forges is tested at first with the amusingly simple trick of placing Katsushiro out of sight ready to conk contenders on the head to see if they’re up to standard as he looks for a vital synergy of elements. The team Kambei builds includes his former lieutenant Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), with whom he spent much time fighting losing wars and who he had not seen since a burning castle fell on top of him. The cheery and intelligent Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), laughs at spotting Kambei’s test, and in turn he recruits Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a penniless ronin who’s taken to axing firewood for food who introduces himself to Kambei as “a swordsman of the woodcut school.” Kambei’s artisanal talents offset Kyuzo’s icy brilliance with stolid reliability and earthy humour. The talents and characters of the samurai, of course, form a functional balance, translated into an apt design by Gorobei when he creates a standard for the team that depicts its samurai as six circles, with Kikuchiyo as a triangle. Kikuchiyo, brought to be interviewed by Kambei by a gambling spiv who’s previously only been interesting in teasing the farmers, is humiliated by the samurai, who quickly discern his larceny and illiteracy: he claims descent from a clan whose family tree he carries about, except he has chosen to claim the name and estate of a 13-year-old girl. Kikuchiyo’s drunken, hysterical fury, after being caught out by Katsushiro’s test and this unpleasant detail, provokes the samurai to act like teenagers, teasing him until he falls down into a snoring slumber, the most perfect of disgraces and exposures.
The code of samurai behaviour of courtly courtesy, respect, deference, obedience, and above all, ability is then one that Kikuchiyo repeatedly offends. He has the impudent energy of an upstart and a rebel, replete with showy bravado and natural rather than honed physical wit. But he also provokes new reactions and levels of thought in his confederates. The samurai code also has elements of aristocratic pride and snobbery, one the farmers have to overcome in seeking their saviours. Even Kambei retains these unwittingly, until the first major social crisis hits the partnership of farmers and samurai. Kikuchiyo provides a vital bridge between classes, though he doesn’t do so willingly: with his feral aspect, flea-scratching and perpetually twitchy, and gruffly macho demeanour, he’s clearly neither of the farmer nor samurai worlds, though he has roots in one and aspires to another. Kikuchiyo defies his earlier mockery and outcast status by following the samurai to the village and, along the way, showing off his survival skills, resoluteness, and willingness, in spite of his braggadocio, to prove himself when challenged. Mifune’s performance imbues Kikuchiyo with a quality of the vaguely inhuman, his way of moving, grunting, eating, barking, all possessing an animal grace, seemingly imbued by years of surviving on the very fringes of society. Kikuchiyo is man out of time, and yet he’s also the most distinctive of the heroes, the one who drives it on the most elemental levels, with his passion, his humour, his buffoonery, his filthiness, his grit as a man of war. The feeling arises constantly that, in some way, Kikuchiyo represents man as a primal being, unevolved and yet loaded with immense potential, as he often really as, rather than how the samurai see the ideal to be fulfiled.
Nonetheless, Kikuchiyo knows well and loathes the character of the farmers, their dirty secrets and crimes, which include killing samurai scattered by wars and lost battles to strip them of valuable armour and weapons. This lowest devolution for human worth and economics offends the samurai to their innermost core, and for a moment it seems possible the samurai might turn their blades on the farmers rather than the bandits. But Kikuchiyo launches into an incendiary, hypnotic rant that lists the faults of the peasants and then contends that such barbarity is only the result of being degraded and mistreated for centuries by people calling themselves samurai, whose crimes stack up beyond tallying. As movie scenes go, it’s one of the most memorable in the medium’s history, in part thanks to Mifune’s acting: Kikuchiyo unleashes verbal articulateness at last, though hacked up into aggressive phrases barked out with the anger and self-disgust of centuries behind them. Kurosawa contrasts coolly even in the face of enormous emotional heat, fixating on Kikuchiyo’s prowling, leonine demonstration in close-up, and then cutting back to the neatly arranged, silent, and sullen samurai. It’s both one of the great character moments and moral exegeses in cinema. Kikuchiyo, who was a foundling left over from some slaughter, aims not just at the hypocritical pretences of the samurai, but speaks for a long, deeply suppressed fury of any repressed and angry populace tortured within inches of losing humanity and yet refusing to become less than human. He aspires clumsily but genuinely towards the status of samurai and all good that it represents, but refuses to lie. Finally it becomes clear why Kikuchiyo transfixes attention: he’s not just primal man but also, in a beautiful contradiction, modern man—angry, dynamic, classless, rootless, raging, joyous, pathetic, ridiculous, and tragically heroic.
Many of Kurosawa’s heroes wrestle in solitary agony with evil on a social scale, perhaps with a mentor, but often with the mentor falling in battle somewhere along the line. In Kurosawa’s genre work, many a “villain” proves to be pathetic and driven by forces beyond their control. Here, the action is collective, a vision of social concord that’s often a prize and rarely a reality in Kurosawa’s oeuvre: the final vision of Dreams (1990) of a rural village in beatific harmony is anticipated, but on the far side of a great and necessary trauma. Tellingly, Kurosawa refuses to characterise the bandits in much detail: the one bandit anyone shares many words with, a sniper Kikuchiyo approaches whilst pretending to be on the same side, proves to be a griping, famished grunt who is cowardly when separated from the herd. In the final battle, some of the bandits die bravely, but many go out in an ugly reversal of roles and perverse pathos, as the villagers hunt them with spears of bamboo, scrambling in desperation as they’re hacked to death with the crudest of implements: the thrill of payback and liberation felt by and through the farmers is countered by exacting depiction of its physical and metaphysical cost. Not that the bandits don’t deserve to be beaten good and proper: the thoughtless rapacity of the bandits is the flip side of the desperation of the farmers, but like the gamblers the farmers encounter in the town, they have only contempt for the people who nonetheless actually produce what they live off of. Unlike in The Magnificent Seven, which conforms to the conventions of Hollywood melodrama by providing a definite antagonist, here the bandit chiefs, including the rifle-wielding leader (Shinpei Takagi) and his one-eyed lieutenant (Shin Ôtomo), do not resolve as characters except in their single-minded ferocity and embodiment of malevolence: they might as well be the wind or the rain, elements that batter the world of the farmers, foreshadowing Kurosawa’s ever-vital, more literal use of elements to offset mortal and psychic struggle.
The shade of forces that will end the age of the samurai are already at the bandits’ command, in the three rifles they wield, and the problem of taking out these weapons becomes a special one the samurai must employ wit and special bravery to achieve. Kyuzo’s prowess sees him capture one gun with his customary deadpan lack of fuss, provoking Katsushiro to transfer his hero-worship from Kambei to him, which in turn inspires Kikuchiyo to do the same, only to earn a rebuke from Kambei for acting alone. Kikuchiyo grows to become a true samurai, albeit enforced as much through the experience of making mistakes and losing friends as through proving legerdemain. He drills the villagers with impudent humour and swaggering style in scenes clearly reminiscent of the repeated moments in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy of Victor McLaglen breaking in feckless recruits. The affectionate, if often cruel relationship between buckaroo Kikuchiyo and cringing Yohei, who could be Kikuchiyo’s caricatured internal vision of his own murdered father, sees the timid old man becoming Kikuchiyo’s increasingly empowered wingman, but finally Yohei dies on a bandit spear when Kikuchiyo’s foray leaves him in charge. Kikuchiyo meets intimate grief both in losing Yohei and in trying to save Gisaku, who had wanted to remain in his outlying house in spite of the probability of death, and his son and child-bearing stepdaughter. Kikuchiyo arrives only for the mother to thrust her baby into his arms and drop dead. Kikuchiyo, the rugged brawler suddenly a mockery of a maternal figure a la Three Godfathers (1949), is left weepily telling Kambei the same thing happened to him as a baby. And the cycle starts again.
For a film as essentially masculine as Seven Samurai, the place of its major female characters is surprisingly consequential, as is their otherwise general absence: in this world, to be female is essentially to be either property or prey. The villagers hide their younger women from the samurai, provoking the resentment of these hearty males. Manzo worriedly forces his attractive virginal daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy. The bandits prey sexually on peasant girls, snatching many away into forced prostitution, including Rikichi’s wife, a source of shame and anger for the farmer that drives his determination to take on the bandits even as he keeps this secret from the samurai until a fateful, and fatal, moment. Rikichi leads Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyuzo on a raid on one of the bandits’ strongholds, whereupon Kurosawa suddenly changes viewpoint and moves to that of Rikichi’s captive wife (Yukiko Shimazaki), awakening amidst a sprawl of fetid, orgiastic humanity, with the bandits bedded down with other women. The sense of near robotic, sensually battered and emotionally alienated dislocation conveyed by Shimizaki contrasts the fearsome animation of Kikuchiyo, the gap between slavery and self-willed liberation all too apparent but with its own dazed acquiescence: the wife blinks in astonished and silent approval as the walls of the fort, set on fire by the attackers, begin to smoke and blaze. Acquiescence ends when she sees her husband amongst the attackers determined to drive out the human termites within: rather than run tearfully into his arms, she revolves and dashes back to die in the flames, and the hysterical Rikichi fends off Heihachi, who tries to drag the farmer back to shelter, only to be gunned down, the first of the samurai to die.
Such a grim fate is then one from which the villagers want to save their women, and, as Kikuchiyo’s rant makes clear, historically, the samurai have been as bad as the bandits in this regard. Manzo wants to save Shino from such a fate, and yet his act of forcibly cutting off her hair and getting her to dress as a boy has a series of ironic knock-on effects that destabilise the traditional hierarchies he wants to maintain. Katsushiro’s coming-of-age story is woven throughout Seven Samurai. Katsushiro looks for heroes and action, and finds rather love and social responsibility, signalled first when he tosses coins to Yohei after the rice is stolen so he can buy more. When he discovers Shino in the forest when he’s wandered away from Kambei’s side, daydreaming, he sees her and thinks at first she’s a boy: “Why aren’t you working instead of picking flowers,” Katsushiro demands, only to hastily throw down the blossoms he’s clutching. The game with gender coding apparent here signals the potential of the young to break down barriers and forge new paradigms. Later, as the young couple escape again into the woods and loll amongst the flowers, Shino erupts into hysterical laughter as she eggs the young man on to make love to her, leaving Katsushiro absolutely stricken before the thankful intervention of bandit spies. Tsushima’s unnerving laugh, straddling delight and terror, helps make this just as amazing a moment as Kikuchiyo’s rant as one of the film’s few fixated close-ups, reaching beyond Kikuchiyo’s stab at articulateness into the nonverbal angst of sexuality at its most vivid cusp, with the sharp jab at Manzo’s patriarchal protection given its most apt rebuke in Shino’s desire for the handsome young samurai to be her lover. Later, when the couple are found out on the night before battle, it sparks another of the crises that beset the alliance of social groups, and Kambei tries to mollify Manzo’s offence and fear. But the next morning, in the face of the enemy and daylight, Kambei uses the night’s events for a joke, declaring that Katsushiro is finally a man and he has to fight like one. Everyone laughs, and that’s that.
When battle finally comes in Seven Samurai, the long build-up and exacting clarity of construction pays off for both the heroes and the director. Whilst Kurosawa’s techniques helped point the way towards modern cinema’s far more dynamic sense of space and movement, Kurosawa has never less than an iron grasp on both the sense and sensatory intensity of his filmmaking, to an extent that embarrasses most successors. Just as physical bravura defines warrior capacity, so space defines action in Seven Samurai: the diagrammatic clarity of Kurosawa’s framing and editing, with his “wipe” interchanges, swiped by George Lucas, amongst other things, for his Star Wars films, utilised to give the film’s flow of scenes a quality of dynamic movement. A central sequence of Kambei and Gorobei assessing the village layout intercuts a sketched map and a clear sense of locale that makes their planning explicit. When the bandits finally appear sweeping over the top of the cleared hill above the village, the viewer expects this move and also knows what’s been done to forestall it. With the heroes each given their side of the village to defend, the “stages” of the drama can be coherently cut between. War is, indeed, running, but it’s the precision of the samurai’s physiques that form islands of technique in a sea of lunatic violence, like Gorobei’s lethal grip on his bow or Kyuzo’s fencer poise or Kikuchiyo’s ferocity with his colossal ōdachi, contrasting the madly frenetic, spidery masses of the villagers as they try to spear the bandits, and the bandits’ own attempts to use madcap speed or clambering sneakiness to overwhelm the defenders.
The rain that comes plummeting like heaven’s sprung a leak in the final bout enhances the visual drama and gives a fitting complication to the physical difficulty of the fight for these wearied, hungry fighters. It’s this quality of incidental effect that gives greater force and substance to this, as the most famous and crucial of Kurosawa’s use of natural elements as symbol for human emotions, as the muck and water enshrouds everyone, mimicking the tears Katsushiro bawls as his comrades fall and the blood that pours from their wounds. In the course of the battle’s three days and two nights, bodies thrash in ponds and pools of rain water, roll in heaving mud and shoot out of the gnarled and primal forest, squirm through troughs and dance between flames, writhe as they’re punctured by gruesome edges and flop down like refuse once dead. Kyuzo is tragically, inevitably brought down not by another swordsman, but the bandits’ last rifle. The gun is wielded by their boss, the last survivor, who in a last act in keeping with his expedient brutality, takes the village women hostage, only for Kikuchiyo, finally achieving almost mythic proportions even as he finally falls prey to his own bravery, expiring in a twisted mass on top of the last enemy, having answered his bullet with a katana in the gut.
Kambei’s flat declaration of victory over a sea of mud and dead flesh, and Katsushiro’s heartbroken sobs, closes the scene in the most understated and depleted of fashions. Yet the cumulative effect of Seven Samurai is not downbeat, for a definite victory is won, if not, as Kambei’s famous final words indicate, for the samurai, but rather for the people they defended and finally liberated. Katsushiro leaves the company of the samurai to rejoin both Shino and his roots in the land, whilst Kambei and Shichiroji stand by their fellow warriors on a burial mound, having dedicated their lives, unlike many, for an ideal that seems suddenly possible.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, although Guzmán tries to keep the regime’s decision to make René their guru quiet, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, in the desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity, the war of messages allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach but soon infuses their street rallies. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
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