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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Otto Preminger
By Roderick Heath
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.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Raymond Bernard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“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.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Richard Lester
By Roderick Heath
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: 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 duals 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.”
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: John Milius
By Roderick Heath
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.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall
By Roderick Heath
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.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Coscreenwriter: Akira Kurosawa
By Roderick Heath
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.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Harold Young
By Roderick Heath
The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.
Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.” Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama.
The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything. The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken Robespierre.
But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.
The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too. When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.” Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities.
True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies. The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.
Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.
One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.
The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.
The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.
Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.” Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm.
Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her. Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Richard Marquand
By Roderick Heath
George Lucas’ Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is, for better or worse, one of the defining films of the modern era. Splendiferously entertaining, it’s also a stylistically powerful film, one that rarely gets praise as such, as if it all sprang fully formed out of the head of the Zeus of nerds. Star Wars has been since its release the first step most any young film fan takes—including, yes, me—towards a love of the medium. It also is usually the first target for the budding film snob. I admit to having made both steps, and then come back again. The essential glee of the original trilogy is in its conceit of taking the kids from American Graffiti (1973) and sticking them in spaceships to go tearing about the galaxy fighting The Man, only to confront the ultimate terror: perhaps one day, they’ll be The Man. Watching the first film again recently, I was struck by how much Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo look and sound so very, very ’70s, and how strong the semi-satiric tint is. It’s not hard to imagine the whoop of good-humoured knowing in the first preview audience’s appreciation of this hunk of old-fashioned corn, invested with disco-era wit and pizzazz, purveyed for their entertainment, after having to pretend the likes of Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974) were fun. Lucas tried to avoid that sort of specificity and self-mockery in his prequels, which have far more of the formalism of chivalric romance to them, and laid himself open to intense criticism in the process.
Return of the Jedi has consistently remained my favourite of the original trilogy. Don’t get me wrong: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), often cited as the best of the series, has some formidable qualities. With an eye for scenery and touch with actors, experienced filmmaker Irvin Kershner proved an uncannily good choice to lend deeper stylistic and thematic reflexes to Lucas’ Roy Lichtenstein-meets-Hugo Gernsback model. The sheer immensity and beauty of the scifi vistas on display in the second episode are indeed the most lovingly detailed and tactile, answering the gritty, technocratic zeal of the opener with a stylisation that blended vivid Technicolour Expressionism with Amazing Stories covers. Add to this the intelligent expansion of having Luke (Mark Hamill) trained as a Jedi by the diminutive Yoda (Frank Oz), and the genuinely brilliant twist of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) proving to be his father, and you have a model middle episode. But I’ve always found the episode inert on a story level, and the subplot of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the familiar Millennium Falcon crew, whilst witty, essentially treads water for most of the running time. In contrast to the impressively malefic vigour of Luke and Vader’s light saber duel, the action for the other characters sinks to a level close to lesser Doctor Who episodes where people run through corridors firing badly aimed rayguns. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is if anything almost too busy: it wraps up the outstanding plot strands, offers a final battle of tremendous scope, introduces the real villain of the saga, Ian McDiarmid’s palpable Emperor Palpatine, and fulfils the mythic overtone the series had strained to reach from the start.
Jedi also has Ewoks, a point usually counted against it as a sign Lucas was giving in to excessive juvenile appeal, planting seeds for his later total concession to it with Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). That knock is probably true, and yet the Ewoks have never bothered me. I have to admit that a certain amount of the charge this episode carries for me lies precisely in the simultaneously funny and slightly horrendous sight of the furry little beggars taking on the imperial forces, and giving a good enough account of themselves to make the victory of others a possibility. The Ewoks, superficially silly little furballs, actually prove to be jokers in the deck who help turn a well-laid trap into a double-edged blade. The Ewoks, almost unbearably endearing as they are, simply exacerbate the basic appeal of the series—the little guys take on the overwhelmingly powerful and come out on top.
It’s tempting to stress some of the peculiar, countercultural synergy invoked by the Ewoks’ place in the story as pseudo-indigenous warriors who use guerrilla tactics to bring down an unstoppable superpower: parallels with Vietnam and the shift of empathy around to Native Americans in the Western genre are not inappropriate, but could easily become laboured. Much more immediate credulity was given to the same “weird yet handy aliens as metaphorical version of aboriginal populaces” pitch when they were rendered as giant cat-people in Avatar (2009). Another major strike listed against the film, but again one that doesn’t bother me as much as it might, is the fact that the plot boils down to a replay of the first film, with the rebels trying to take out another Death Star. Perhaps it’s the fact that the script introduces some neat variations on the theme, as the Emperor deliberately suckers the rebels into trying to repeat the past, or the sheer scale and vivacity of the imagery in play, but Jedi succeeds in painting an equally enjoyable portrait of techno-fascist blitzkrieg versus outsider bravura.
The visual and aural drama achieved by Lucas and his design team, including concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, production designer Norman Reynolds, and cinematographer Alan Hume (replacing Gilbert Taylor and Peter Suschitzky), plus John Williams’ rich and inspired scoring and the teeming brilliance of the special effects, formed a large part of the film series’ capacity to rip a practically Pavlovian response from so many viewers. Yet, none of it would have mattered much if the sense of epic wonderment was not backed up on some level by a genuine love of story: the drama and characterisation of the series are always elemental, and yet always leavened by a care for detail, no matter how fleeting, even down to bits of throwaway humour that offer surprises, like the trainer weeping over his dead pet, which seemed to everyone else like a voracious hell-beast. The brightly coloured, but scuffed, tactile, even degenerating technocratic sheen of the first film shades into a darker, cleaner aesthetic, with the Nuremberg-via-Swedish-Moderne beauty of the Empire’s architecture. This contrasts vividly with the wastes of Tatooine and the forest purity of Endor, the name of which retains a biblical echo, and the look of the films echoes the thematic tensions based in the gap between technology and humanistic values, control and freedom, destruction and repression. The manichaeism of the conflict between the “dark” side of the Force and its counterpart is reductive, yet it also accounts for much of the nagging power of the series, in how it consistently invests the surface drama with an undertow of primal psychological anxiety, overt action always flowing in counterpoint to a nearly unseen battle for mastery over the forces of creation and annihilation themselves, the difference between them never farther apart than a choice.
The job of directing Return of the Jedi was actually offered to David Lynch before production, but he passed to do Dune (1984) instead: the thought of Lynch tackling Star Wars material is a fascinating what-if of cinema history. Coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan might have made a good choice to step up to the plate, but he was already moving off in his own direction. The job was eventually given to relatively unsung Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, who had displayed a talent for blending realism and theatrical passion in the context of pulp material and lending a contemporised edge to old-fashioned storytelling, in his spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand’s subsequent output was highly uneven, with the Joe Esterhasz-penned Basic Instinct prequel Jagged Edge (1985) notable between two weak pop romances, but his death just four years after making this film was still a sad loss. Marquand displayed formal gifts for keeping the elements of action on a colossal scale, which perhaps demand much more attention than they’ve ever been given. One telling aspect of Return of the Jedi’s influence is that it’s still pretty much the go-to point of reference for staging for franchise climaxes, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011), all taking some cues in story and style from Marquand’s film. Also telling is how few of them manage to reproduce its economy and intricate, deceptive blend of complexity and naivete.
One element of the series that was commercially daring at the time, though it now seems relatively familiar, was the scruff-of-the-neck approach to hurling the audience back into the storylines, which the iconic opening explanatory scrawls only partly mitigated. There is only the plunge into stories already in motion, with a handful of expository remarks to give a context. Return of the Jedi relies on knowledge of previous episodes to make sense of it and also to give it power. Far from limiting its appeal, however, this touch helped make the series as pop-culturally pervasive as it is, engaging the audience in the serial-like dynamic (“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!”) over a longer period of time than usual, but all the more intense for that reason, whilst also looking back to the ritualised, in media res structuring of classical epic poems. The oedipal death battle between Luke and Vader is gripping for having watched Luke’s evolution from a bright and eager farm boy to a baleful figure of fate, and supped on Vader’s blackly humorous poise as bringer of wrath and cruelty. The film’s first movement wraps up one of the major dangling threads of Empire, as Luke, Leia Organa, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) infiltrate the palace of grotesque Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt, where Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, is kept as a trophy on the wall.
One particular reason why I love Jedi is because it’s the episode that’s most in touch with its pulp forebears, quoting from a broader range of such models with humour and a solid, physically concrete lustre. The film’s first third is essentially an extended riff on pirate flicks and Orientalist adventure sagas, with Jabba as a particularly caricatured Sydney Greenstreet-esque sheikh, with his dancing girls and court of sycophants fugitives from some particularly overworked id. Those tropes are blended with some monster business, as Jabba drops those who displease him into a pit with the ferocious Rancor, in the most successful of the series’ many hat tips to Ray Harryhausen. The familiar, oversized grandiosity of the Fritz Lang-esque sets and the proliferation of bizarre alien faces here is invested with defiantly dark humour and an edge of weirdness more intense and psychological than anywhere else in the series: for example, C-3PO and R2D2 are ushered into a robot dungeon where unruly fellow droids are being tortured, and Jabba’s gremlin pet laughs in mockery at the humiliations doled out to those who incur his displeasure. The crypto-S&M edge reaches an apotheosis when Leia, caught in the act of trying to extract Han from his hibernation, is chained to Jabba’s throne as his latest harem girl, reduced from a heroine hitherto defined by independence and asexual power to a scantily-clad pet abutting the distinctly penile monster. It’s an image that provoked a million adolescent fantasies; rumour has it the whole concept was concocted in riposte to Fisher’s complaints she never looked like a woman in the earlier episodes. In the context of the series’ elemental logic, it’s practically a rape fantasy, and interesting as just about the only overt element of eroticism. The creative team leaven it by giving Jabba’s comeuppance to Leia herself, who strangles her would-be enslaver with her own chains, a surprisingly potent image of female self-reclamation riding on the back of soft-core sexploitation.
Meanwhile Luke’s appearance to rescue the crew from Jabba and annihilate his power takes the form of a sequence of pure, scifi-tinted swashbuckling. Gone are the postmodern quotation marks of Star Wars, when Luke and Leia made their swing across a vast airshaft. In Return of the Jedi, that self-doubt is gone, and pure adventure is in, as Luke and Leia flee Jabba’s sail-barge on a rope, and the barge crashes and erupts in fire, a climactic flourish and a promissory signature that the bad times are ending. Jedi is, indeed, distinguished structurally by the destruction of corrupt regimes, first Jabba’s, and then the Empire. Whilst moral shading of the enemy is hardly a priority of the series, in this case, there is a distinct and purposeful schism set up with the wickedness of Jabba, and the malignant, fascist-chic technocracy of the Empire. Whereas Jabba suggests a caricature of lascivious greed, an emanation from the subconscious, the Empire is a polar opposite, a projection of the superego and a deracinated obscenity on a cosmic scale. The eroticised domination Jabba assert over Leia and Han is rendered on a far more grandiose scale by the Empire over everything, but finally twinning back to the Emperor’s weirdly sexual desire to possess Luke, son of his own “seduced” underling Vader, a note the insistently underscores the final confrontation of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor and erupts when it becomes plain that Luke’s sister Leia could be similarly subsumed.
The mythic quality of the Star Wars series was apparent from the start, but perhaps more apparent in terms of its specific imagery and wide story arcs rather than in the serial-like zest of the actual storytelling. Lucas’ reading of Joseph Campbell had encouraged him to create a web not only generic but also of cultural influences, and the retro-futurist society he dreamt up blended elements of the Western, Asian wu xia and jidai geki genres (the word “Jedi” derives from the latter), Arthurian and Norse sagas, early scientifiction romps like Burroughs’ Barsoom tales, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and more sophisticated space operas like Lensman and Dune. In this episode, the fact that the films had evolved into an active expression of a mythological tradition, with roots in tribal campfire tales, acknowledged when C-3PO recounts the team’s adventures to a thrilled audience of Ewoks for whom C-3PO has become an ironic kind of god-shaman (with the real god-shaman Luke behind his apparent miracles), inculcating wisdom and stirring the tribes to action. The saga here takes a humorous meta-narrative glance at its own storytelling zest as a ritual of immeasurable legacy. Even the accidental edge of incestuous attraction that had flitted between Luke and Leia in the earlier episodes, before plot loops were closed by making them prove to have been siblings, links with a strange neatness to the way that theme is always linked to questions of mysterious roots and family, taboo and heritage, which constantly resurface in the mythic pantheon, from Oedipus and Jocasta to Siegmund and Sieglinde’s romance in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungen myth, whilst Luke’s battle with the father figure takes on Freudian overtones, hinted at in Empire, as Luke sees his own face in a decapitated Vader’s helmet, the paternal figure swathed in anonymous alienation.
In the previous episodes, and particularly in Empire, Vader’s faceless malevolence had been perhaps the series’ most remarkable coup, fearsome and alien, blackly comic in his casual violence and psychopathic wrath, and always weirdly charismatic in his towering, contemptuous brand of evil. Jedi does to a certain extent rob him of this stature, though that’s not incidental, as the Emperor wants and needs Vader to be beaten down in order to replace him. But it’s a peculiar sop to our sensibilities—the need to feel that anyone so attractively wicked has to be redeemable, even pathetic, on some level. Yet one of the sleights of Jedi is how the Emperor hardly seems paltry next to him. On the contrary, thanks to McDiarmid’s terrific performance (one that would withstand pressure in the prequels), he is even more insidiously, penetratingly effective, but crucially, without charm: he’s like a sleazy uncle just released from prison for unmentionable acts, now completely and utterly devoted to his own malicious pleasures, goading Luke with glee over the seeming cast-iron trap he’s set for the rebels. By comparison, the actual forces of the Empire, represented by the likes of Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), seem effetely castrated, in spite of wielding colossal starships, forever walking on eggshells with puckered anxiety over displeasing the almost godlike wrath of Vader and the Emperor.
The pseudo-spiritual edge with which Lucas imbued his tales—the mystique of the Force and the Jedi—was the most significant innovation he brought to the cinematic space opera, and taken most clearly from the element in those Asian genre films where the hero ascends on both a physical and metaphysical journey. The journey is here expressed through Luke’s slow development from callow farm boy to a new member of the resurgent breed to which his father once belonged. Marquand’s Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge had both posited the fascinating attraction and repulsion of evil in immediate erotic terms, whereas here it’s slightly more distanced, though no less potent. In spite of the fairy tale politics and deliberately remote settings, the fundamental reflexes of the series always lay in specific post-1960s questions of personal liberty and identity. Easy enough to see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda—the echo of the yearning of the counterculture era for enlightened figures of new-age mysticism—and the Emperor as their evil, Mansonesque flipside. But is Luke’s confrontation with his evil father an emblem of specific generational conflict over giving in to the compromises and cynicism of age, a by-product of the series’ flower-child underpinnings, or a confrontation with a Freudian nightmare of the self and the chain of creation that always binds together the sex and death urges? Both, more, and none.
Still, the evolving conflict that leads to the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the touch that has proven the most fascinating element Lucas and his cadre of cocreators, including veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and Kasdan, were to give to their take on the mythic form. The narrative impulse is strained by contradictory needs, between the urge toward grand action and the necessity of pacific self-control that finally moves, like the deepest heroic myths, into the realm of mysticism, even religion: a conquest of the interior duality that is a greater triumph than conquering a foe, and yet also key to besting that foe. Thus, Luke’s experience runs in counterpoint to such forebears as Siegfried/Sigurd who, in the Norse version of his mythology, defeats monsters but only learns fear in awakening the cursed Brunhilda; or Percival’s shedding of his armour to find the grail; or even Jacob’s wrestling with the angel who visits him. But Luke’s attainment of enlightenment, exemplified by the capacity to step back from wrath and prostrate himself before cruelty, is a Christlike gesture, and the only one that can liberate his father from the totality of evil. Whilst the battle continues, the real climax of Jedi is the moment of Vader’s confrontation by a choice, as the Emperor tortures Luke to death, his inhuman visage swinging between his son and his overlord with an intensity sharpened to Wagnerian heights by Williams’ scoring.
The smashing of the malignant machines of the Empire (Lang’s long shadow again?) is nothing compared to the simple act of Vader picking up the leathery old bastard who has perverted his life and hurling him into a pit. If the prequel trilogy achieved anything at all, it is that this action is even more palpable. Like much of the rest of the series, the power of this moment lies in its emotional directness and storytelling savvy: in spite of the wealth of special effects on hand, it’s achieved by the rapid alternations of close-ups between Luke’s agonised face, the Emperor’s sadistic glee, and between them, Vader’s unreadable mask covering emotional reflexes that are titanic. The journey from Luke’s discovery of his slaughtered foster parents in the first film by the forces Vader seems to represent most purely, to the moment in which Vader, so long the angel of death, expires in his arms as a wheezing, pathetic old ruin, finally disassembles the seemingly simplistic moral divides of the series. Luke attains manhood at last both by killing and redeeming his father, and whilst the other rebels get down with the Ewoks in a moment of goofy triumphalism, it’s Luke who stands out from the crowd, giving his father’s body a Viking pyre funeral, and gazing into the night and seeing the shades of the men who made him.
Otherwise, the action-adventure element of Jedi is beautifully straightforward, and the zest of the set-piece action scenes, including the speeder chase through forest trees at unnerving speeds, are still technically impressive and entertaining, all the moreso for not being belaboured. The series appeal to a delight in nerdish detail is likewise as strong as ever here: the exactly designated spacecraft, the fleetingly glimpsed characters with striking, weirdly memorable looks and names, including Jabba’s underling Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Lando’s blithely introduced sidekick for the final battle, and the much-loved Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose), the rebels’ crayfish-faced commander. Lando’s evolution from shifty corsair to swashbuckling hero, clearly taking cues from many an Errol Flynn forebear, is completed as he leads the seemingly doomed attack on the new Death Star and refuses to buckle in the face of impossible odds, convincing Akbar to stick it out in a space battle that rewrote the book on special-effects spectacle. It’s tempting to state that special-effects arts had reached a kind of perfect mean with this episode, rendered with intricacy and more sophisticated than almost anything seen before and yet retaining a physical, tactile quality that CGI, with all its fancifulness, would lose: it’s the fearsome beauty of the battle scenes that has always gripped me, the sense of real, gigantic hunks of metal smashing into each other, the wild, frantic battles that wend between the great ships, and the final race of Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) into the heart of the Death Star to destroy it. The three-tiered struggle of the finale—the space fight, the forest guerrilla war where the Ewoks try to buy the rebels under Han and Leia time, and the multiplaned duel of wits and will between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor—is sustained with a use of dialectic montage that’s a long way from Griffith and Eisenstein and yet linked, and it’s achieved with a deceptive ease that demands admiration: in spite of the rapid shifts of focus and tone, the action retains a seamless, associative integrity, with no shot that’s incomprehensible, no action that is poorly linked with another.
Most gratifying perhaps to the cinephile’s eye are Marquand’s knowing quotes from the panoply of antecedents that always lurked in the series, quoting the landing of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) in the early scenes of Vader arriving in the Death Star, Chewbacca swinging into action with a Tarzan howl, and the Ewoks blowing their horns in the call to battle reproducing the calling together of the tribes of Israel in The Ten Commandments (1956). The mythic, aspiring tilt of the series and its roots in knowing pastiche are in constant, balanced dialogue throughout Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to forget the slacker-era cynicism well summarised by the characters in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in dismissing Return of the Jedi as empty triumphalism in comparison to the “real” crappiness of The Empire Strikes Back’s end. That sort of cynicism is, for me, a reminder of the political defeatism that was so popular, and has proven so corrosive, in the late twentieth century. Whilst I would hardly argue that the Star Wars films radicalised a generation, nonetheless in a fashion similar to the ’30s Errol Flynn films and their possible formative influence on ’50s and ’60s radicals, I suspect the spirit of Star Wars, often dismissed by some as reactionary, lurks behind many a contemporary rebel weaned on such fare. We all need to remember that some regimes can, should, and shall be brought down by the plucky outsiders.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Georges Franju
By Roderick Heath
Amongst early pioneers in film, Louis Feuillade, who made his famous serials between the lead-up to World War I and his early death in 1925, produced ür-texts of almost incalculable impact on subsequent architectonics of film and popular culture. For many French and German directors, in particular, his style is almost endlessly resonant: his example gave immediate birth to Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Feuillade’s style moved beyond the theatrical wonderment of Georges Méliès to embrace a perfervid blend of realism and make-believe, utilising the realities of the then-contemporary Parisian landscape and filling it with bizarre emanations of the fantastic, populated by figures accumulated from tropes of gothic fiction and stage melodrama, and the evolving science fiction and detective genres. He did so with a deadpan grace that made him an immediate ancestor for the surrealist movement, which would bloom in the following few years, and captured, in several senses, the birth of modernity. More than that, the tensions within Feuillade’s work seem to capture an innate dissonance in the nature of film, poised to be both a tool for capturing the world as it is, and yet ripe for subverting reality and delighting the eye with wonders and perversities that take on totemic power. The images and driving ideas of his serials have been sustained and transmitted through innumerable tributes and imitations, both drawing from and contributing to the common lore of pulp heroism and comic-book super-heroism. As such, it’s arguable something of Feuillade’s spirit trickles down to us even in such contemporary product as V for Vendetta (2005) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where the source material owes its definite debts, however distant, to Feuillade’s fantasias of masked avengers and cat-suited femme fatales dancing over rooftops and reigning over a cityscape transformed into a psychic playground.
Georges Franju, for his part, had been making short documentaries since the 1930s, most famously, his 1945 exploration of an urban charnel house, Les Sang Des Bêtes, but he retained links to the cinema avant garde, and his own surrealist sensibility remained in evidence even in explicating strange and terrible textures, constantly locating the charge of the unearthly in the seemingly harshly realistic. His fascination with cinema history became apparent when he made a short documentary about Méliès not long before he made a successful entrance into feature cinema. After his seminal horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1959), named after a Feuillade work and remixing themes from fairy tales and 1930s horror films, he decided to remake the silent master’s 1916 serial Judex. Some New Wavers made fun of him for crawling back into historical daydreams, and yet Franju has been proven smartly anticipatory of where popular fantasies were heading. Within a few years, a surge of pop-art-hued superhero mockeries would hit screens big and small, long before comic-book progeny would begin to invade multiplexes. In turn Franju would provide some inspiration to other filmmakers, especially horror directors like Don Sharp, whose The Kiss of the Vampire (1964) was immediately indebted, and French underground gothic auteur Jean Rollin. Franju’s touch is far more delicate, however, than most of his followers, and certainly more so than the blockbuster fare he anticipated. His film’s closing title reads, “Dedicated to Louis Feuillade – In Memory of an Unhappy Time: 1916,” a reminder that many of the most disturbing fantasias well out of the most troubled of eras. Franju’s take on Feuillade’s material both looked back to the hazy dawn of modernism and anticipated an oncoming age of moral destabilisation, rebellious countercultures, and anarchic subcultures.
For Franju the mocking, pseudo-surrealist possibilities of this material became paramount. Compressing the five-hour serial into a 90-minute feature, Franju dashes through narrative with a troubadour’s rollicking wit, refashioning the tale as a display of subversive surfaces and magic-realist artifice. His protagonist Judex (Channing Pollock) struts through the proceedings in black cape and hat, playing the vigilante avenger. Yet, he often seems less a force of traditional heroic potency, usually expressed through rock-solid fists and guns, than a bringer of graces, karmic balance, and atonement: he offers bleak but symmetrical punishments without violence. The film’s thematic stresses also take up where Eyes Without a Face left off in extending Franju’s insidious disassembly of the old French patriarchy through motifs torn from fairy tales and genre yarns and pasted back together in his own pattern. Like his successor as a Feuillade fan and natural cinematic rebel, Jacques Rivette, Franju was fascinated by the cinema as an assembly of carefully textured surfaces whose surface order and frippery always contain the seed of the mysterious and the chaotic.
The film offers up tycoon Favraux (Michel Vitold) as a corrupt and oppressive overlord, and as per Balzac’s great maxim, he’s a former bank clerk who’s built a fortune and become a capitalist titan through criminal acts. The first few minutes witness him contemptuously dismissing an old vagabond, Pierre Kerjean (René Génin), who took the rap for him years before for a criminal act and now has lost contact with the wife and child Favraux was supposed to protect. Favraux patronises his daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob), introduced looking shocked into immobility by haute-bourgeois conformity as inescapable as the sunlight she lounges in, with her father; having forced her into one marriage, he now plans to force her into a second with a wastrel aristocrat. But justice is already looming over Favraux: he’s received a threat of death in the form a letter from the mysterious Judex, and he calls in oddball private detective Alfred Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau). Whilst driving into town along a country lane, Favraux sees Kerjean walking and takes the opportunity to rid himself of this potential pest by running him down.
The crimes of high society will soon encounter both the reaction of repressed and degraded classes, represented by the devilish Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) and the vigilante actions of Judex, a shape-shifting, self-appointed knight. A key joke is that both of these characters are posing as people close to Favraux. Diana pretends to be Marie Verdier, a governess for Jacqueline’s daughter: Favraux asks her to marry him after she refuses to be his mistress, spurning him because of his great fortune, the perfect hook. Judex poses as his trusted elderly aide Vallieres, a benevolent guardian hovering over the otherwise blighted Favraux household. With a typical sleight of hand, Judex is, then, secretly present in the narrative even before he makes his official entrance in one of the most amusingly bizarre and iconic introductions in film history: Franju’s camera slowly tilting up from his feet, revealing a well-formed masculine body in an elegant suit, before revealing a head encased in a bird mask, gazing with an implacable raptor’s intensity at the camera. In the same year as Hitchcock’s The Birds, Franju peppers his film with constant avian images utilising them, like Hitchcock, as emblems of emotion and the inexplicable, except here they’re the tools and symbols of benevolent forces rather than the underlying chaos in nature. This imagery is also based partly in justifying one major tool at Franju’s disposal, Pollock’s gifts as a magician: the American-born performer was world-famous for his conjuring of doves.
Judex’s most famous scene follows this first sight of the hero as he proceeds through a masked ball held by Favraux to announce his daughter’s engagement with an apparently dead dove in his hand, held out before him like a pagan offering and symbol of the damage Favraux has done to others. As he reaches the stage with the eyes of the guests on him, the bird suddenly flutters to life, and the masked magician begins to release more birds that flit above the society guests. He closes in on Jacqueline, herself wearing a dove mask, and charms her with his pets, before her father, clad aptly in a vulture mask, takes the stage to announce the engagement at midnight—the time when Judex has promised he will die. Just after the clock finishes striking the hour, Favraux immediately falls to the floor and is pronounced dead by a doctor (André Méliès) who is amongst the guests.
Franju reconstructs Judex into a kind of artist-hero, an Orpheus figure standing at the gates and wielding powers of life, death, and resurrection through his artful execution, a figure with an otherworldly quality that stands in stark contrast to the equally multitudinous, yet deeply, deliciously corporeal Diana. This is partly a side effect of the fact that Franju had originally wanted to remake Fantômas (1914), and was more interested in the villains Musidora had played for Feuillade, with her potent eroticism and air of ungoverned radicalism, than in traditional hero figures, and this tension contributes to the peculiar texture of Judex. Franju clearly doesn’t care about the usual rules that are supposed to preoccupy filmmakers engaging with such material, like trying to make the flimflam logically or psychologically convincing, opting for uncovering an animating spirit of transformative delight.
Caught between the two masked protagonists is Scob’s Jacqueline, an ironic touch considering she played the disfigured, perpetually masked and imprisoned heroine in Eyes Without a Face. Scob is here just as angelic and victimised, but this time she’s just about the only major character who is not adopting some kind of disguise. She is rather the character who is the most integral being, needing nothing more than what she possesses, and for whom all decency is a private epiphany. Jacqueline is initially dominated and pinioned by her father’s prerogative; his “death” comes as both an aggrieving shock and an opportunity to declare autonomy, rejecting the poisoned chalice that is his estate in favour of raising her daughter Alice on her income as a piano teacher, and seeing off her loser fiancé with passing delight. Scob, rather resembling a blonde Audrey Hepburn with her swanlike neck and large, expressive eyes, inhabits the role of nominal damsel in distress with an ethereal grace, relentlessly hunted, snatched, drugged, and nearly murdered by Diana and her coterie of dimwit thugs. Yet, she also is the moral light of the film: after she spurns the estate, Judex changes his original plan to execute her father, who was merely paralysed with a drug, for his crimes, and instead keep him prisoner.
Judex and his band of warriors unearth Favraux from his tomb and transport him to their abode, a super-futuristic hideout underneath an ancient, perhaps Roman ruin (felicitous, given the Roman roots of his adopted name and creed), an abode reminiscent of Cocteau’s Hades in Orpheé (1949) translated into proto-science fiction, as seemingly solid brick walls slide apart, ceilings become panels upon which written words appear delivering messages of almost deistic judgement, and Judex keeps an eye on his captive with the sorcery of technology—television. Judex, like some other films of the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a small rash of period-dress Jules Verne adaptations, offers a prototypical version of the spirit that drives the more recent Steampunk movement: a delight in modern and futuristic technology viewed through the sensibility and conceptualism of the past, coupled with an effervescent, yet quietly meaningful reflection on the subtler transformations of society. Franju coats the film with a veneer of the comedic and the ethereal that don’t entirely hide its awareness of the fluidic moment it depicts, with characters, particularly the female ones, shaking off the dead weight of Victorianism to claw their way into a new era. Judex already seems to live in that new era, like a time traveller, or perhaps a Merlin, who was said to age in reverse: fittingly, then, one key image of perverse sensuality arrives when Jacqueline is shocked to discover Judex in the act of transforming himself into the elderly Vallieres, mantle of snowy white hair over his young face, her aged protector revealed as dramatically handsome potential lover/persecutor/saviour.
Judex is filled with such deft shifts of emphasis and perception, as it moves from incident to incident borrowed from Feuillade with diversions into moments of private wit and invention. Franju constantly gleans strange humour from tropes of melodrama: Jacqueline, dumped in a river by the notorious criminals, floats blithely into the arms of fishermen whilst her tormentors look on in frustration; Morales with a hand caught in a trap on Favraux’s desk, trying to hide long enough for Diana to sneak up on the interloping Jacqueline, who screams on seeing the apparently disembodied limb; Diana, pretending to be a nurse with a voluminous wimple perched on her head, checks herself out in her compact to make sure her makeup hasn’t been despoiled by lying on the ground to spring a trap on an another unsuspecting victim. The sight of Judex’s men scaling a sheer wall like so many four-limbed spiders is both physically impressive and yet, somehow, hilarious, as is the heroes’ appearance in costume dashing about in full daylight, which ought to get them arrested on general principal. The two roving bands of mysterious heroes and villains chase each other around the landscape in a roundelay of costumes and roles, both infiltrating and slipping outside the confines of society, before finally reverting to their purified roles as emblems of good and evil.
Franju rigorously contrasts environs, shifting slowly from the old-world mystique of the country mansion to the rundown Parisian suburb where the finale takes place, with the building Diana’s gang holes up in turned into a lonely castle in a gloomy waste ground at the very frontiers of a bleak and bottomless modernism, with stygian factories burning away in the background as Diana dangles above a void. Judex’s presumption in labouring according to a desire for essential human justice to be upheld is based in a sense that society is, on the level of villainy that Favraux has worked, corrupt beyond the possibility of real justice. Favraux himself is so scared of the powerful men he has done business with or has dirt on that he doubts he could ever return safely to his former life even after Diana and her cohort rescue him from Judex’s prison. This news only makes Diana happier: even better to feed off the dark secrets of high society than to steal its trinkets. The spirit of fin-de-siècle anarchist movements and proto-revolutionary zeal lie underneath both sides, whilst the lone figure of even vaguely official justice, Cocantin, is a comical figure given to excitedly flipping the pages of the original Fantômas novel.
An sly sensuality charges Judex throughout, most obviously with Bergé dancing about in tights, culminating in a delirious moment in which she strips off her nurse’s garb down to her basic bodystocking, with that absurd wimple still on her head, before finally tossing that aside, too, and plunging through a trap door into a river to elude Judex and his men. The erotic edge is, however, equally manifest in the undertones of Judex’s and Jacqueline’s encounters, crystallising in images of symbolist power, like a doped-up Jacqueline left splayed in the driveway of the mansion by Morales and Diana when they’re faced with guard dogs, one of the hounds placing one paw protectively over the girl moments before the equally watchful, beneficent Judex strolls out of the woods and carries Jacqueline back home, her white clad form aglow in moonlight and seeming to float in the arms of the nocturnal-cloaked hero.
Aided by Bergé’s mischievous, but never winking, performance, Franju delights in Diana’s displays of sexy evil and rapid alterations of attire, playing the prim Madonna for Favraux’s benefit, the sister of mercy, the urban coquette, the mannishly garbed leader of her cell of rebels, and most indelibly, slinking through the night in her form-hugging black bodysuit with silver dagger at the hip a la Musidora’s Irma Vep and many a Catwoman after her. Diana is not merely a naughty anti-heroine, however, but a cold-blooded killer constantly poking lethally sharp objects in Jacqueline’s face, as if she’s seized hold of phallocratic power, but can only fashion an intent to violate her feminine opposite with it. Diana lives with a boyfriend and partner in crime Morales (Théo Sarapo), first glimpsed lounging on his bed and looking very like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as if Franju’s making a wry link between the older fantasies and Godard’s contemporary brand of eroticised, rough-trade criminal. Turns out that Morales is actually the missing son of Kerjean, progeny of a family unit torn asunder by Favraux’s malfeasance: his father wasn’t actually killed by Favraux’s attempt to run him over, but is, in fact, another of Judex’s operatives, and father and son recognise each other when locked in a deadly battle.
Cocantin’s return to the fray late in the film comes when a village boy, a pal of Alice’s who, having recognised Diana in her nurse costume as the fake Marie Verdier, approaches the detective to succeed where Judex has momentarily failed in tracking her down. Cocantin’s childlike spirit has already been confirmed when he was glimpsed gleefully relating blood and thunder tales and stories of her namesake to the delighted Alice; now, he and the kid form a fairly effective crime-fighting duo, allowing Franju to offer a nod in the direction of Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and further undermining any pretences to seriousness. Yet, the film’s very last act is a brilliant whirl of reversals, as Judex is captured by his enemies, and fends off Diana’s attempt at sadomasochistic-hued seduction as she tries to kiss him while he’s tied up. Franju performs another pirouette in offering surprising sympathy for Favraux as a man who’s alive and yet might as well be dead, now wanting only peace. He still falls for Diana’s pretence to being the kindly Marie who will marry him now that he’s no longer rich, for she still hopes to use his knowledge. Favraux trusts her completely and understandably fears Judex, so much so that when the hero arrives to save him from the villains, Favraux knocks him out, and shoots himself rather than be retaken by his rescuers, lending of note of tragedy to the story, but also saving him from the disillusionment of learning Diana’s real nature.
Meanwhile, of course, a gentleman like Judex can’t be seen to hurt a lady, so to deliver Diana a comeuppance and save Judex from his apparently inescapable death, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of Cocantin’s gorgeous acrobat girlfriend Daisy (Sylva Koscina), whose circus caravan just happens to trundle past as Cocantin and the kid are watching the enemy hideout. Daisy reports to Cocantin that her own domineering uncle is now dead (“The lions ate him!”), so she’s a free agent now. A perfect equal and opposite to Diana, she wears a dashing white bodysuit for her act, initially entering wearing a spangled cape and tiara that she hands over to Cocantin for the duration. She is the one who will climb up the wall of the house and spring Judex, allowing him to turn the tables on Diana and Morales by substituting the criminal male for his bound and hooded form; Diana unknowingly plunges a knife into her lover’s heart, in a typically inspired, vicious twist. Diana’s own comeuppance comes as Daisy chases her onto the roof, where the mirror opposites battle to the death. Franju even offers a gleefully sexy and exciting shot showing only their legs, clad in leotards of contrasting black and white, entwining and tangling in the dance of combat. Diana loses, and finishes up sliding down the roof to dangle from the drain pipe as Judex’s men try to reach her, to no avail. That she was as much of a life force as a destroyer is suggested when her end comes, falling to her death and lying open-eyed amidst rubble and flowers, wept over by the young boy, with a mournful taps blown by one of the circus musicians: for Franju, even a villain’s end is something to be mourned. The very end belongs again to Judex and Jacqueline, who, leaving behind the past, are seen on a beach with the lady love now dressed in a sailor suit and the avenger reverted to magician, producing flapping totems of love from thin air. It’s a glorious end to a film that’s made an instant leap into the ranks of my personal favourites.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Christopher Nolan
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
My antipathy for British-gone-Hollywood director Christopher Nolan and his brand of filmmaking—top-heavy, arrhythmic, moodily ambitious, yet often strangely hollow—has threatened on occasions to become irrationally intense. But it’s hard not to react vehemently when he receives such popular adoration in comparison to the modestly plastic virtues of his films. To his credit, as displayed by Inception (2010), Nolan is one of the relatively few directors in Hollywood who has been trying to use the modern industry’s financial resources, technical teams, and special-effects warriors with a sense of creative wonder to assert will over the personality-erasing tendencies of the CGI houses, and make them serve a fresh vision. The various sequential stunts of Inception were certainly sound and fury signifying nothing, but they were marvellously made sound and fury. In his best film to date, The Prestige (2006), he managed to bind together his themes in a tale where the trickiness actually managed to stand in for the emotional binds and sadomasochistic competitiveness of his characters.
But always, in scratching the polished surfaces of Nolan’s films, the same disappointment. The silly plot gimmicks. The leaden dialogue. The confused, contradictory, and just plain gutless concepts that profess to populist profundity. The declarative placards of theme, character relations, and emotions in place of convincing dramatic depictions of each. The attempts to sustain high style ruined by muddled, even random-feeling filmic syntax. Just as Inception turned the psyche into a place of ponderously literal video game rules and sucked out all hints of sensuality and polymorphic possibility, so, too, his versions of Batman have reduced the iconography of the original comic books and other takes from surrealism-infused pop art into more theoretically realistic fare that feels no actual responsibility to realism.
Looking back at my 2008 review of The Dark Knight through the prism of a second viewing, the film fell apart for me, and I wish I had written a harsher commentary. Still, I concluded with a line that, in light of the new film, is relevant:
It may take a new, revved-up Catwoman to drag a reaction from this Batman that doesn’t sound like he merely needs a cough lolly.
The Dark Knight Rises does indeed sport a new, revved-up Catwoman, though she’s never referred to as such, in the lissom form of Anne Hathaway (more on her later). The Dark Knight Rises sees Nolan’s franchise reach ever more optimistically for a mantle of epic import, and to be fair, the scope of its story does in some regards justify such aspiration. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) finds himself not only up against marauding supervillains, but also his own aging body and calcifying emotional reflexes. For eight years, Wayne’s been hiding out in his rebuilt mansion, having officially retired his Batman alter ego and let it take the blame for the murder of DA Harvey Dent and the deaths Dent caused in his lunatic final hours. Now Wayne limps around on a cane in a Howard Hughes-lite routine. Meanwhile, his former collaborator in crime fighting, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), has become Gotham City’s police commissioner. Gordon harbours guilt over the way a lie was used to venerate Dent’s name and enact the Dent Act that has seen Gotham cleaned up at last. During a political rally held at Wayne’s estate, but without his participation, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway), posing as a waitress, breaks into Wayne’s private safe and lifts both his mother’s pearl necklace and a set of his fingerprints. Wayne catches her in the act, but she casually knocks him about and slips away in the limousine of a congressman (Brett Cullen).
Wayne and his admirable Crichton, Alfred (Michael Caine), swiftly track Selina down, but she proves to be not simply a free agent, but enmeshed in a conspiratorial vortex where rival businessman Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) is trying to take over Wayne Enterprises and bankrupt it at the behest of hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). Bane was once, and may still be, linked to the League of Shadows, a terrorist organisation whose boss, Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson), trained Wayne and whom Wayne turned against in Batman Begins (2005). In one of the most ludicrous action sequences I’ve ever seen, Bane kidnaps scientist Pavel (Alon Moni Aboutboul) from a CIA rendition plane in mid-air by rappelling from another plane, and it was all to make it look like Pavel died in a crash. Bane then sets himself up in Gotham’s sewers to stage-manage the destruction of Wayne/Batman before subjecting Gotham to a punitive purge.
Wayne, who has expended most of his fortune on developing a fusion reactor that he mothballed when he learnt it could be turned into a nuclear weapon by Pavel, is left further shorn of his previous privileges as his company is bankrupted by Bane during a raid on the Gotham stock exchange. Soon, his belongings are being repossessed, and Alfred, afraid this time Bruce is biting off more than he can chew, abandons his boss mid-fight. Wayne gets Selina to guide him to Bane’s hideout, but this proves exactly what Bane wanted: he traps Wayne, beats him to a pulp, and breaks his spine before exiling him to the same don’t-say-it’s-Afghani prison where Bane himself once resided. Bane is then free to terrorise Gotham, setting off bombs all over the city, bringing down bridges, clogging up tunnels, and managing to trap most of the police underground, cutting Gotham off from the outside world, and taking it over as a supposedly revolutionary city-state.
As per one consistent flaw in Nolan’s screenwriting (penned as usual with his brother Jonathan), he writes about 10 characters and three plot threads more than he can handle. Chief amongst the busy sprawl of supporting figures is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), a young rookie cop who grew up in a home for orphans once funded by Wayne Enterprises. Early in the film, Blake invites himself to Wayne Manor and reveals that he’s guessed Wayne is Batman because he’s noticed before that Wayne, like him, wears a mask of courteous contempt for the world (if it was that easy, shouldn’t there be at least a few more who have made the link, including Gordon, who’s still oblivious to the point?) and wants him to rejoin the fray. In another development, Alfred deliberately hurts Wayne by stating Wayne’s great, deceased love Rachel Dawes was planning on marrying Dent rather than him. Caine almost makes this poorly written and emotionally incoherent moment (is disillusioning Wayne and leaving an existential void where his romanticism used to be supposed to make him less likely to commit to a foolhardy course of bravado?) work purely by the force of his time-tested emotive quaver. Wayne seems to barely notice his life-long companion’s departure: Caine does return for a few seconds towards the end, with a show of emotion that sadly only made me want to wince for the ham-handed reintroduction. His place is momentarily filled by the agreeable form of Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, an investor who seems to stick by Wayne in his travails, agreeing to help get his reactor working again—both the one he’s built and the one in his pants. Mendelsohn’s Daggett is cringe-inducing as both a piece of acting and of characterisation.
Normally, as anyone who reads my commentaries regularly knows, I go with the flow of action films: they are, after all, partly about their own absurdity, their freewheeling insolence towards the laws of physics and human feeling. But I find myself critiquing to different rules when the filmmakers obviously want to cloak themselves in a mantle of down-to-earth immediacy and relevant meaning, and when audiences so nakedly want to reward them for lending a tiny bit of viability to their adolescent fantasies. The film does some stunningly jerky, artless leaps of storytelling—or rather story-stating—early on, including Blake’s confrontation of Wayne and Wayne’s locating of Selina, chiefly so it doesn’t have to bother detailing such moments in a procedural fashion; that would demand care in staging. These are marvellous examples of Nolan’s info-dump idea of exposition. Even more clumsily handled is Selina’s “kidnapping” of the congressman, whom she brings as a cover to a meeting with Daggett’s slimy interlocutor Stryver (Burn Gorman, who suggests a middle-management edition of Skelton Knaggs) and still moans in lovelorn fashion after she abandons him on the floor, dazed and…what, drugged? Hypnotised? Shagged into perpetual confusion? Anyway, Selina will later be arrested and incarcerated for this crime.
On a realistic level, the plotting and story development of The Dark Knight Rises ranges from the infantile to the frankly stupid. To name a few plot holes the size of small moons: Why is Bane’s method of snatching Pavel and faking his death so ridiculous? Why doesn’t it take about 30 seconds of solid police work in conference with some decent computer operators to find out what Bane did in the stock exchange and hack in to reverse it? How does Bane get Wayne to the prison? How does Wayne get back into Gotham after escaping the prison? Why is it that they can get enough food and supplies down to sustain 3,000 trapped policemen, but it’s so hard to get them out? What’s up with that whole trapped policemen thing, anyway? Can’t the highly trained police officers think of a better battle tactic than to march in ranks up a narrow street facing automatic weapons? Why did Wayne chicken because his reactor could be made into a bomb? Was that so frightening, as opposed to the several thousand other nuclear bombs and fission reactors in the world that could be put to the same use? So, after having one’s back broken, it only takes a bit of clumsy quack medical work and some push-ups to come back as a fully functioning superhero? I’m sure all the paraplegics in the world will be happy to hear that. I dare say there might be explanations for many of these points (and I’m sure someone’s just eager to tell me), but it’s clear that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t interested in clarity, but in relentless forward motion.
More to the point, Nolan still has no fundamental feel for the expressive rhythms of a film. Whilst all of his movies revolve nominally around emotional cruxes—romantic and familial tragedy are at the core of Memento (2000) and Inception and part of the background fabric here, whilst ferocious jealousy drives The Prestige—these seemingly vital aspects always remain sketches for empathy and involvement rather than the real thing. It’s like a 12 year old writing a tale of grand romance: we’re told what it is, but it is never felt. The Dark Knight Rises is supposed to tell the story of its hero’s complete fall before, yeah, rising. Which would be all well and good, except that Nolan and Bale’s Batman remains a blank space where a hero should be. The motif of his proving insufficient to take on Bane lacks force because Bale refuses to suggest any undue cockiness, frantic determination, or any other specific emotion to fight his insecurities apart from terse resolve. Similarly, his struggle to rebuild himself after Bane’s shock-and-awe annihilation of his physical, fiscal, and social prowess lacks any real moment of despair, of bottomed-out feeling or self-indulgent sorrow. Wayne lolls about in his prison bed and looks hairy and dour and then, a few push-ups later (crying out to be scored over with Team America: World Police’s immortal “Montage” song), is ready to try to climb out again. Nolan belabours rather than extracts any kind of thrill from Wayne’s repeated failures to escape. Critic Simon Abrams intelligently compared the insufficiency of these sequences with a forebear in John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, but I’d rather cite a better superhero movie.
In spite of all the heady camp buzzing around its hero, Superman II (1980) still manages to offer up a singular scene where the newly human Kal-El is suddenly faced with his loss of strength, his unutterably human degradation, after he’s beaten up by a common barroom lout, spitting blood and attempting to maintain his good humour even as he trembles with pain and fear now that the world doesn’t bounce off his skin. By comparison, Wayne’s struggles here are so perfunctory, mechanical, and lacking personal passion that he seems far more alien than Superman ever has; Nolan can’t give us such a simple, well-felt emotional refrain. The Dark Knight Rises is less a work of epic storytelling than a three-hour montage—an approach that could be exciting if the montage work was at all about stretching the cinematic form, but here serves only the cause of pummelling event and exposition. It’s all too tempting to conclude that for general audiences, storytelling as an art is dead; they are now into the era of stuff happening, and lots of it. There is so much incident, it becomes incidental.
What can one say about the pretences of The Dark Knight Rises? Class war and anger are repeatedly invoked throughout. Selina is a demimondaine who has risen through thievery and possibly prostitution; her garb hinting at kinky exploits, she’s repeatedly seen hanging around with Jen (Juno Temple), more clearly a hooker and, judging by the way she hugs Selina at some points, something more for her. Bane and his fellow villains are the spirit of the oppressed surging for a spot of nihilistic insurrection. The French Revolution is clearly invoked as the wealthy are assaulted and dragged from their houses, a Bastille-like prison is broken open to release its criminal occupants, and citizens chosen as enemies of the people are given trials clearly meant to evoke the worst moments of the Reign of Terror. These parallels fascinated me deeply, chiefly because they reveal how pig-ignorant Nolan is of political history and how easily he can get away with assuming that of his audience, too. At one point, Gordon reads out the concluding passage of Dickens’ French Revolution novel A Tale of Two Cities, but unlike Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which used that book to invoke the transcendental glory of sacrifice for a common good, this film’s common sacrifice turns out to be a fake. More specifically, Nolan buys into Dickens’ knock-kneed English liberal vision of the Revolution as badly shaven creeps in seamy, raffishly worn uniforms dragging random citizens to trial in an orgy of bloodlust, and bypassing the specific background of political paranoia, war, and high-profile defections, which turned the Revolution’s moment of transformative energy into a grim spiral of political homicide.
Not that there isn’t a good film to be made channelling the Revolution’s example into a contemporary context, but as in The Dark Knight, Nolan pays only the merest lip service to actual political relevance. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Bane and the League of Shadows have no genuine political programme in mind: they are determined to exact…revenge? Punishment? Ritual cleansing of perceived sins? Anyway, they actually intend to destroy Gotham and themselves in an auto-da-fé via the fusion reactor-bomb, an act which makes the rest of their actions pointless. Why don’t they just set the bomb off at the start and leave a big smoking hole in the ground where Gotham was rather than jump through all these ridiculous hoops? I could buy it if their kangaroo courts were being broadcast for the sake of inspiring fear and loathing in places other than Gotham, but they aren’t: they’re just giving their opponents time to rally against them. Rather, their intention is an act of nihilism, which frees Wayne and his allies in the police force and the system they maintain from any culpability, for the opposition is reduced to a perfect bogeyman of inchoate nastiness, and, by implication, anyone opposed to the settled order is seen as similarly, childishly, wantonly destructive. In short, the vision of good and evil proffered in these films is, far from being more ambiguous and questioning than the usual run, actually every bit as black and white as any cornball grayscale print from the ’40s. The key moment of disillusionment, when Bane reveals the truth about Dent to the city’s populace, has no apparent result.
Perhaps this could be handled in a way that suggests more a conflict of essential spirit— communality vs. anarchy, group will vs. individual, etc.—but I’d still like it to make a lick of plot sense, and the film’s flat-footed imagery and insistent literalism doesn’t communicate it as symbolism, anyway. The constant pseudo-biblical invocations of the villains are meant to sound very impressive, and they do admittedly call to mind the similar language of Osama Bin Laden and others of his ilk. But in the real world, the use of such phraseology tends to be deeply entwined with less abstract concepts, like resentment over historical injustices and inequality, whereas here there is no substance standing behind the statements. The process hinted at throughout these films, that the name “Gotham” is actually standing in for “America,” is now completed. Whilst the opening scene seems to cast a livid eye on the brutality and risky morality of the War on Terror’s renditions, the film goes on to conflate the Dent Act, which is in danger of being repealed or expiring through lack of interest, with the Patriot Act, and just at the point where it seems irrelevant, a handy threat comes along to revalidate it. At last, the martial defenders of order must reassert authority and cohesion in the face of terrorists who are either domestics left out of capitalist triumphalism—the army of orphans and outcasts Bane has assembled—or hazily foreign insurgents who have spent formative years in that prison in “one of the world’s more ancient countries.” So, under its surface, the depiction of Wayne as the toppled tough guy who must overcome his privileged coddling to get back on top becomes as naked a metaphor for resurgent American triumphalism as Rocky IV (1987). Selina, who styles herself as a Robin Hood of the underworld, ultimately has to make a choice between the sides, and goes with the guy with the shit-hot car.
Incoherent and suspiciously conservative-pandering political dimensions aside, The Dark Knight Rises could still work, if given room to breathe, as a fable. That is, essentially, what Nolan is trying to make, in spite of all the trappings. In this regard, he does make it part way to the heights he’s after, especially in the all too obviously symbolic climb Wayne has to make to escape the jail. (In yet another instance of Nolan’s weak visual exposition, he never bothers to analyse for the eye why escapees can’t just keep climbing up the safety rope they have tied to them instead of having to make a dangerous leap to a distant ledge.) In a pretty nice bit of narrative switcheroo that would be worthy of one of The Prestige’s protagonists, the child we’ve seen escaping from the prison proves to be a girl rather than a boy: Talia al-Ghul, alias Miranda, the real engine behind Bane’s efforts, born of Ra’s’ lover in the prison where she was cast by a warlord. Bane was her jailhouse protector and surrogate brother, a late touch that finally gives Hardy’s hulking villain role a touch of pathos. Bane has the body and mask of a Mexican wrestler, the accent of a James Bond villain, and the wheeze of Darth Vader. Nolan clearly wants to endow him with something of the mixture of gentlemanly cunning and perverse intelligence and feral ferocity of a good Bond opponent, but Hardy is awfully hamstrung by having to communicate personality through said mask. Cotillard similarly barely registers in her role, betraying the Nolans’ permanent embarrassment in contending with the intimate in her romance with Wayne. She does at last find purpose when her villainy is revealed, but by that very late stage, it can only be exerted in the most blunt and curtailed of expressions.
Nolan’s sense of scene grammar and expositional logic haven’t improved: characters go in and of focus, disappear for long stretches and then come back with a startworthy suddenness, travel around the world in the blink of an eye, and turn up where they shouldn’t be. Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane, alias The Scarecrow, from Batman Begins, turns up presiding over the revolutionary court out of nowhere. Presumably, he’s been released from the prison, but he then disappears, his presence just another momentary diversion for the eye that feels a little like a Laugh-In sketch; here come the judge, indeed. Selina tells Wayne that she’s led him into Bane’s trap because she’s afraid his men will kill her, and Stryver does indeed try to do that, but later Selina is able to move among Bane’s cohorts and even give orders to lesser underlings: why and how she can do this is again left frustratingly fuzzy.
In spite of the general problems with his filmmaking, Nolan does have a talent for weaving together some striking individual scenes and movements, and here is where The Dark Knight Rises ultimately does offer interludes of nagging power. Batman’s first return to the fray is a little rousing, and Nolan goes to town in the lengthy sequence in which Bane’s plan begins to move, commencing with his breaking of Wayne, and then moving out for a spot of mass terrorism, causing grandiose carnage at a football game that sees, like some particularly malicious gag from The Simpsons, a player making a dash for the goal line only to turn and see the entire field and his fellow players swallowed into a crater. Here, at least, Nolan’s perpetual-motion editing strikes the right notes of frantic dissolution of order as Gotham falls to its conquerors. Hans Zimmer’s score works best here, too, though elsewhere it combines with the barrage of sound effects to form a wall of bullying, Pavlovian noise. Ultimately, whilst it clearly wants to rise to the level of the Star Wars films and the best moments of James Bond’s long franchise, The Dark Knight Rises felt to me more like the capper for another pop phenomenon I could never warm to, The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Like that film, it attempts to sustain the superstructure of a genuine saga, and yet still manages to wind up with a fist fight, preluded by Batman and Bane swapping the most laboured taunts I’ve heard in all my born days.
What does finally keep this film afloat, however, is Hathaway’s presence and performance as Selina. It probably won’t attract the same lightning rod of neo-punk fervour that Ledger’s Joker did, because the sex appeal of spunky female characters so often tends to get in the way of more general appreciation and because she’s less of a gnomic force. But in many ways, Selina is an even better play on the familiar comic book character, transferring her essential spirit from the sources intact. In her inevitable skin-tight outfight and dominatrix heels, every inch of her is deadly in one fashion or another: in one of the film’s wittiest moments, one of Dagget’s henchmen asks her, “Do those heels make it hard to walk?” Selina promptly cripples him with a kick of those wicked spikes and asks ever so coldly, “I don’t know, do they?” She alone finally brings to Nolan’s series something of the essentially Freudian edge of the comics, where every character feels like pieces of a schizoid personality, the feminine, criminal flipside to Wayne’s masked warrior, a perfect mirror-mate. Whilst not as keenly self-aware as a self-constructed icon of antipathetic sexuality as Michelle Pfeiffer’s great incarnation from Batman Returns (1992), Hathaway sharpens to a point the character’s sense of impudent humour and strident, self-willed individuality, as well as her edge of fetishist provocation. In so doing, she gives The Dark Knight Rises some desperately needed comic relief and the Dark Knight himself a desperately needed personality, by dint of having enough for two. The only problem is that Nolan doesn’t always know what to do with her: Selina disappears from the movie for a great chunk of running time, and she’s almost buried under a heap of unnecessary gimmickry, like her efforts to get hold of some doodad that can erase her past. Finally, however, Selina gets to play Han Solo to Batman’s Luke Skywalker, coming back to save the day in the nick of time. In spite of her faint Sapphic associations and proclaimed contempt for good, she falls enough for our hero to share a marvellous farewell kiss with him, representing the first time in this series I’ve ever felt a hint of emotion with a protagonist. Selina is good enough a thief to steal the movie out from under everyone’s noses.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
If The Sea Hawk is the working model of the old-fashioned swashbuckler, The Black Swan is its disreputable younger brother, a study in lascivious über pulp in rest and motion. Starring Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn’s chief rival for the mantle of swashbuckling heartthrob during the late 1930s-1940s, in one of his nearly a dozen collaborations with director Henry King, The Black Swan is another essential genre avatar. King, a cinema pioneer and usually a soberly artful, thoughtful director, here threw out the niceties and reduces the serious themes of the Curtiz-Flynn model to window dressing. He charges through the narrative like a whirling dervish to wrap up his narrative in 84 minutes of Technicolor-swathed foreplay. The theme usually treated cheekily, even suggestively, but ultimately decorously in Flynn’s movies, the dance of dangerous seduction between roguish outlaw and a prim lady fair like Olivia de Havilland, is here transmuted into an extended S&M fantasy. Apart from Duel in the Sun (1948), The Black Swan is, in its circuitous way, quite the filthiest, mind-bogglingly kinky and campy film I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s. Whilst The Sea Hawk took the oncoming mood of war seriously enough to sail on those ill winds, The Black Swan is entirely a rejection of contemporary reflection, except perhaps in its aggressive underlying celebration of warrior masculinity as a newly desirable ideal.
Some of the films that helped to invent what would later be called the camp aesthetic (and The Black Swan surely is one, along with the likes of Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman  and the most florid Bette Davis and Joan Crawford melodramas) welled out of the underground reservoirs of this seemingly more serious era’s frenetic anxieties and perfervid fantasies, which would also disgorge film noir. Shot in Technicolor that pools with the luscious vivacity of Renaissance art, all the better for soaking up the texture of leading lady Maureen O’Hara’s vulva-red lips and the hues of Earl Luick’s costuming, The Black Swan prefigures the painterly aesthetic of King and Power’s fine later collaboration, Captain from Castile (1947). But whereas the latter film was coolly resplendent in its use of storybook colour and offered its melodramatic story as a sober epic, The Black Swan is little more than a romp through the tropes of the pirate movie.
Working from a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, King whirls through what should be a first act of a standard swashbuckler film in a solid 20 minutes of delirious fights and captures, rape and bondage, torture and pistol brandishing, door-entering and stair-climbing, that starts to play like French bedroom farce done in buccaneer costume. This is, as an opening title tells us in a manner suggesting cowriter Hecht lampooning his archly romantic foreword scrawl for Gone with the Wind (1939), a “story of the Spanish Main — when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was — Love, Gold, Adventure.” The very first shot, of a young Hispanic gallant serenading his lady love far below her high balcony, hits a romantic note the film only wants to subvert. Within moments, the Spanish Caribbean port is infiltrated by a band of English privateers who leap from the rooftops to overwhelm the guards and plunder the town of everything that can be carried away; the pirates are glimpsed hefting tethered girls onto their ship like sacks of grain.
Pirate captains Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders) celebrate by getting sozzled on the beach with two trussed maidens wriggling like puppies at their feet. Leech makes a play for figurative fellatio as he tries to force one captive to drink from his mug, but as she resists, he instead splashes his symbolic seed all over her face. Spanish soldiers resurge from the night, driving out the pirates and capturing Waring, who is then stripped to the waist and hung on the governor’s rack for a little gratuitous torso-ripping and rippling. Now it’s Waring getting the wine goblet/penis substitute waved in his face. Thankfully, in bursts Waring’s chum Tommie Blue (Thomas Mitchell) with a relief party, and soon it’s the Spanish governor on the rack. Jamaica’s British governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), comes downstairs to intervene, protesting that England and Spain have now made peace, but Waring, even more infuriated, has him promptly hurled into the dungeon as a traitor. His daughter, Margaret (O’Hara) descends too, wielding a pistol and demanding to know her father’s location: Waring swats the gun from her hand and tries to kiss her as prelude to ravishing her, but the arrival of Waring’s friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), distracts him so much he drops Margaret like so much laundry under his arm. Morgan’s arrival doesn’t mean, however, that the pirating business will continue as usual. Morgan, whom all of his pirating friends thought had been hung in London after being captured and shipped there by Denby, has returned as the new Jamaican governor, because he’s the only one who can persuade the pirates to hang up their cutlasses now that England has made peace with Spain—or, if he can’t, can use his knowledge to hunt them down.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan is initially spurned by Denby. Leech and fellow cutthroat Wogan (Anthony Quinn) in turn spurn the idea of giving up piracy, whilst Waring reluctantly sides with Morgan and Tommie. As he and Tommie escort Morgan into the governor’s mansion, they fight like children over the best rooms, and Waring eagerly claims Margaret’s former chamber, all the better to lounge upon her pillows to imbibe the scent she’s left on them. Tommie tries to impress a lady friend he’s picked up by making love to her in Margaret’s bed, only for Waring to catch them and kick them out. Waring tries to reinvent himself as a gentleman, or at least as close as he can get to one, in order to pursue Margaret in his new station. She, understandably, is less than thrilled initially, playing the cobra to his mongoose in a lengthy game where Waring tries to suppress his natural inclination to bend Margaret over the nearest barrel and have at it and play the gentleman suitor. When Margaret falls from her horse while fleeing from him, he tends to her in his approximation of gallant fashion, including peeling her eyes wide to check she hasn’t suffered a stroke and fetching her a drink of water using a lily pad as a cup, only for her to then clout him on the noggin with a stone. Waring has a love rival in the form of Denby’s foppish friend Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a strutting ponce who seems by far the more ideal gentleman—except that Ingram is plotting to make himself extremely rich, destroy Morgan, and help Denby take back control of Jamaica by feeding information to Leech on where and when to attack ships, and how to avoid Waring and the other loyal captains under Morgan.
Piracy is to King as jewel thievery is to Lubitsch and Hitchcock: an extended mating dance. Whereas for the latter directors, that finer illicit occupation symbolised adult sexuality at its most sophisticated, piracy under King’s watch becomes a fundamental metaphor for baser, more primal processes, as the drama, whilst set nominally in a specific historical milieu, portrays a moment in human evolution that is far more remote, when animal needs and raw force give way to the relation of individuals. King isn’t the slightest bit interested in either the finagling of the villains or in delivering a comeuppance to Ingram—that’s left to be resolved after the final fade-out—but rather focuses purely on the randy energy of his stars, complemented with some neat action.
Power, who was King’s discovery, was catapulted to stardom after appearing in King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936) as an artful, but largely static romantic lead. When he played the title role in King’s 1939 drama Jesse James, and then the masked avenger in Rouben Mamoulian’s more classical The Mark of Zorro (1940), with an epic bout of swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone that ranks as one of the most genuinely fierce ever filmed, Power became a legitimate rival to Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling idol. The air of physical discomfort that would beset Power increasingly in the later 1940s and 1950s owing to the inherited heart ailment that would finally kill him, was still nowhere to be seen, and he bounds through The Black Swan with the swaggering confidence of a movie star at full force: actually this was the next to last movie Power would make before he joined the Marines and served as pilot through the end of World War II. He was bisexual according to Hollywood scuttlebutt (but then, who wasn’t?), and certainly was no stranger to letting himself be eroticised on screen. He spends about a third of the running time of The Black Swan sans shirt, starting with an interlude of homoerotic torture.
O’Hara, on the other hand, seems to have possessed some innate quality that brought out the latent S&M fantasist in so many of the directors who worked with her: bound, gagged, and hooded in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), kidnapped repeatedly and subjected to medieval torture in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dragged across country on her rear end at John Ford’s behest in The Quiet Man (1952), and thrown in for a bout of mud wrestling and spanking in Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock (1963). What was it about O’Hara that exposed the nakedly eager chauvinist in such filmmakers? Was it her capacity to seem at once rigidly proper and cast-iron in character, but also provocatively, lawlessly sensual under the surface? Certainly The Black Swan is predicated on just this balance, as the more ferociously contemptuous and dismissive O’Hara gets the more and more certain Waring is that Margaret secretly adores him. After he’s clobbered Ingram, who ill-advisedly tried to start a duel, he demands to know what on earth she sees in such a flop of a man. Margaret spits a stream of insults at him: “You black-hearted bully! What do you know about men or women or anything human? All you can do is shoot and kill and prey on women, with your beastly senses slobbering at the sight of anything fine!” Waring swishes his cape and struts off with a confident flourish: “I repeat my lass, you’ll have to choose between us, and very soon too.”
The idea of making an action-adventure movie as an excuse to put two roaring hot stars together was once one of the essential creeds of Hollywood; Howard Hawks was the past master of it. I recall a few years ago when watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), one of the direct descendants of this film and its brethren, how much I was struck by the blinding arc of electrochemistry between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in one singular scene together. That chemistry was otherwise entirely ignored in the series, leaving us instead with Knightley’s romance with Orlando Bloom’s blockish ingénue and Depp to romance his own CGI simulacrums. It felt like an offence to cinema and nature, one neither Hawks nor King would have committed. The classic notion that the on-screen action is only an essential backdrop to the contemplation of human mating rituals is not necessarily a degradation of the adventure movie ethic; on the contrary, it has long been one of the genre’s distinctive traits. The essential motif of misconstrued character between potential lovers is again ancient, though the peculiar tweak it’s given here is that Margaret really isn’t wrong to mistrust Waring’s “reformed” character, given what we see of the way he acts, a pure caricature of troglodytic masculinity who obeys a fundamental belief in the truth of immediate biological reaction rather than any social nicety. Freudian and mythical symbolism is invoked as Waring plants a sword between his and Margaret’s beds as both a fittingly phallic and deadly totem of the space that must remain between them until the romance is finally mutual. Whilst it could hardly seem a greater distance from King’s next film, The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Black Swan treats playfully a theme that consistently preoccupied King in his more evidently personal works: characters attempting to transcend their character flaws and evolve towards a yearned-for state of grace and enlightenment, usually within the context of a great social moment that not only offers the chance for such transcendence, but also forces it.
Chief villains Sanders, who, equipped with his great bushy red beard and broad accent, seems to be relishing playing a less gentlemanly kind of rotter for once, and Quinn, sporting an eye patch, feel like avatars for the perverse, consuming pan-sexuality of the “pirate” breed, imps from the innermost realm of Waring’s psyche who must be defeated if he is to truly evolve as he says he wishes. When Waring and Margaret are forced to pretend to be married for the sake of fooling Leech, he comes snuffling into their room looking as if he very much like to climb into bed with both of them, brandishing a nightgown for Margaret that he seems to like the idea of wearing himself. Meanwhile, Quinn’s Wogan lounges shirtless in the window bay of his cabin.
Whether Waring really can evolve is the chief stake of the plot. He gives in, apparently, to his most anarchic impulses when, faced with a schism between ardour and duty, he haphazardly combines both by intervening to keep Margaret from marrying Ingram by kidnapping her, cueing another of O’Hara’s bondage scenes, as Waring ties her up and wraps a big thick gag about her yap. But once he has her on his ship, Waring tries to maintain a gentlemanly forbearance, even as circumstance dictates he pretend to be signing back on with Leech and Wogan. The necessities of political loyalty are also seen as essentially erotic, just like the dance of force and seduction, softness and hardness between Margaret and Waring; Morgan’s ennobling by the King and his new suppliance to authority demands he attempt to quash his former colleagues and the roguish activities he himself still wishes he could indulge, just as Waring must give up his ravaging.
Cregar’s gleeful performance as Morgan is another highlight of The Black Swan, walking an exact line between high comedy and imperial force, appearing initially in a vision akin to the climactic moment of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when King Richard reveals himself as nobility and order incarnate, as he appears unexpectedly, resplendent in the full Restoration drag. And yet Cregar’s Morgan constantly scratches underneath his mighty black wig of state and finally tugs it off in a fit of pique. He’s almost glad when the conspiracy of the snotocracy in Jamaica forces him to flee and find his only possible salvation in one last bit of seafaring action, to try to ensnare Leech and Waring, whom he believes really has turned rascal again. As a film, The Black Swan is a work of pure illustrative élan in the most classical Hollywood fashion. In avoiding standard swashbuckling until the finale, King pares back exposition to almost comic book proportions, like the course of an attack on a treasure ship depicted in swift montage, resolving with a victimised ship’s nameplate, still affixed to a broken piece of hull, drifting in the water. The early scene in which Leech and Wogan split from Morgan, with a pie-eyed Waring unable to actually decide whom he wants to follow, is a Hogarthian litany of seedy humanity and ye olde fakery. The ultimate sympathy of The Black Swan leans distinctly towards the pirates’ side, or at least the gentlemanly ones: Morgan considers chucking in his commission for a return to sea, having gotten a taste of the more refined buccaneering of politics and high society, whilst Waring’s swashbuckling prowess is finally proven to have heroic uses.
Whilst neglecting the usual action until its last reel, The Black Swan finally lets rip in one of the most visually inventive and dazzling action sequences of its era, making the fullest use of Leon Shamroy’s photography—he very deservedly won an Oscar for his work—and some ingenious special effects, including using a mixture of matte and model work to give the battling ships the kind of crawling liveliness that wouldn’t be much seen in such fare until the arrival of CGI. Waring, finally cut loose in action, cripples Wogan’s ship by cutting its rudder lines, causing the vessel to crash headlong into the shore, and then swims to and boards Leech’s ship to engage in the compulsory death-duel with his nemesis. Sanders, never pressed for much physical acting, nonetheless rises to the occasion with some surprisingly deft swordplay, making the final battle a convincingly feral clash. Waring is skewered in the hip by his opponent, giving him a terrible wound that nonetheless also hands him the chance to dispatch his enemy with one good jab to the belly. Of course, the spectacle of Waring’s selfless and prodigious derring-do, and his newly prostrate, weakened state, finally win Margaret over, and she contemptuously dismisses Morgan’s offer to see her beastly kidnapper hung. The final clinch, rather than offering Waring secure reinstatement into polite society, offers instead Margaret, now transmuted into a pirate wench, a sexually sovereign being who feeds back to Waring his own suggestive catchphrases (“I like to sample a bottle before I buy it”) and recites “Jamie Boy’s” name thrice according to an ancient and pagan nuptial vow. It’s as sexy as movie punchlines get.
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Director: Rupert Sanders
By Roderick Heath
My recent encounter with the greatness of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen fired up my hunger for fantasy-adventure cinema again. Few films new or old could be expected to measure up to such a standard, but I still ventured out in search of satiety to the nearest multiplex, where the promise of a contemporary fix awaited in the form of neophyte director Rupert Sanders’ aggressive reframing of the Snow White myth as grim(m)ly inflated epic. For most folks, naturally, the essential, classical vision of Snow White is the trilling teen in medieval garb sweeping up between songs, as found in Disney’s game-changing animated film of 1937. The actual Grimm Brothers story, hewed from a folktale which had spread in variations right across central Europe, is a good distance from that cutely domesticated version. Whilst the Disney film retained faint echoes of its fundamental darkness, the source material proffered some epic cruelty, ending properly when the Evil Queen was hoist by her own fashion-diva petard, forced to put on a pair of red-hot iron shoes, and danced about in agony until she fell down dead. Such is the shudder-inducing climax of a tale couched in the visceral strangeness and unfiltered emotional and psychological wellsprings of such tales.
Sanders’ attempt to present a more grown-up, gritty, warrior-princess version of the legend isn’t the first to try to move back towards the source material: 1997’s TV-made Snow White: A Tale of Terror has a minor cult following who enjoy its outright gothic nasty, and some classic horror films like Argento’s Suspiria (1976) have invoked it. Snow White and the Huntsman, however, aims more for dark-hued adventure, a template which at first might make most think of The Lord of the Rings films. On closer inspection, it is closer in spirit to a tradition of modern fantasy filmmaking like Krull (1984) or The Neverending Story (1984) or Willow (1987), and, proportions maintained, mainstreams the mythopoeic inquiries of John Boorman. Director Sanders, amazingly, is a first-time filmmaker, plucked from directing British advertising, thus putting him squarely in a column with Ridley Scott and Legend (1985), as well as Hugh Hudson and his revisionist Tarzan epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), which also prefigure this kind of film.
Snow White and the Huntsman has proved a surprise hit with audiences in spite of largely mixed reviews from critics, and perhaps both responses have similar reasons, for the film has clearly managed to dovetail young audiences of the moment: Kristen Stewart loyalists from the Twilight franchise and fans of the sturdy heroine of The Hunger Games (2012). The first franchise almost immediately exhausted critical goodwill and the second will soon enough, but I found Snow White and the Huntsman vastly superior to either; it represents a formidable, if hardly flawless, entry in the genre, more evolutionist than revisionist. The film’s essential pitch mimicks a contemporary craze infiltrating a lot of modern takes on retro culture by freely rearranging their elements with ironic disparities, if not quite on a level with the overt absurdity of mash-ups like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) or the pseudo-novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Snow White, even in the older, nastier, story, is a traditionally passive figure, the adolescent changeling victimised by an avatar of aging, narcissistic, self-loathing femininity, who finds harbour taking care of seven boy-men, and is finally awakened from a rapturous coma of pubescence by the kiss of sexual awakening. The sense of hierarchy encoded in the tale is inevitably retrograde, and Snow White and the Huntsman takes the risk of sounding like one of the popular Politically Correct Fairy-Tales books from the ’90s in disturbing the tale’s internal tensions, which like most folktales practically screams for Freudian interpretation as a metaphor for essential processes of youth, the fear of the mother being supplanted by the daughter, and the drug-like intensity of the most intense moments of puberty. If there’s a problem with giving such tales a warlike makeover, it is, of course, in the sense that the innately feminine material has to take on a macho aspect, as if girls are only strong when they’re acting more like men.
Still, Sanders and screenwriters Hossein Amini, Evan Daugherty, and John Lee Hancock, take the hierarchism seriously, positing Snow White as a princess who gradually takes on an aspect clearly inspired by the concept of King Arthur in Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) as a unifying entity who is intimately tied to the natural as well as human order. Thus, Snow White’s familiar coterie of trailing animals is recast from simply reflecting her niceness to symbolise the way she becomes the fulcrum for a return of that order, and steps into her father’s place as the anointed ruler of the hazily medieval kingdom in which the drama unfolds. Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds, unlike last year’s post-Twilight fairytale reconfiguration, Red Riding Hood, in restoring gothic grandeur and a sense of metaphysical, Manichaean weight to the folktale panoply.
In a lengthy prologue, the recent history of the medieval kingdom of Tabor is laid out by Chris Hemsworth’s narrating hero, equipped with amusing Scots accent, as King Magnus (Noah Huntley), and Queen Eleanor (Liberty Ross) give birth to a baby whom the Queen dubs Snow White because of her wish to have a pale-skinned child that would match the perfect beauty of blood on snow. Snow White (played as a girl by Raffey Cassidy) grows up friends with William (Sam Claflin), an occasional teasing brat who’s the son of her father’s loyal brother, Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan). Not long after her mother dies during a harsh winter, a mysterious army attacks the kingdom. Magnus rides out to battle but finds the enemy are magical simulacrums that shatter into metallic fragments when struck. He rescues from their midst a prisoner, the stunning Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and, enchanted by her looks, decides to marry her. But she poisons and stabs him in the marriage bed, consummation of her plot to take over this kingdom as she had done with several others. Her real army steams in and slaughters everyone in the castle except William, who just manages to escape, and Snow White, who is secretly kept captive in a lofty prison where she grows into the adult shape of Stewart. Ravenna’s malignant regime slowly reduces Tabor to a wasteland, while she has been keeping herself young and beautiful thanks to a spell woven by her witch mother and the occasional ingestion of the life force of other pretty young women.
When the advising magical mirror she keeps on the wall (here a large bowl of polished brass that disgorges a liquid metal familiar) tells Ravenna she can secure her state forever by plucking out the heart of Snow White now that she is of age, she dispatches her unctuous brother Finn (Sam Spruell) to fetch the girl. When he tries to ravish her before delivering her to his sister, Snow White stabs him with a nail torn from the wall and manages to lock him in her cell. She flees the castle through its sewer only to be stranded in inhospitable terrain, finally collapsing in the midst of a miasmic, evil-infested forest.
Enter Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemworth), stage hunky, freshly plucked from a trough after losing a tavern brawl by Finn, for he’s one of the few men who know their way around that stygian woodland. Ravenna coaxes Eric into the venture by promising to revivify his dead wife. But once he’s led Finn and his team through the woods and located the trapped and desperate Snow White, Eric realises he’s been lied to. He kills Finn’s men and chases Finn away, and irritably leads Snow White, whose identity he is unaware of, out of the forest and into the care of a village of women and children who are hiding out from Ravenna whilst their husbands are off fighting with Hammond’s resistance, in which William is proving himself a budding hero. Finn is sent out by his recriminating sister with a large force, and William, having learned that the royal sibling is hunting the girl he thought was dead, joins up with Finn’s army in hopes of finding her. When Finn’s army attacks the village, Eric is forced again to save Snow White and flee with her into the wilderness, where they are taken prisoner by a gang of dwarf bandits, including Muir (Bob Hoskins), Beith (Ian McShane), Coll (Toby Jones), Gort (Ray Winstone), Duir (Eddie Marsan), Nion (Nick Frost), Gus (Brian Gleeson), and Quert (Johnny Harris). With Finn still on their tail, the lot of them flee into the deepest, enchanted glades of the forest, where fairies flitter through the air and the land still hasn’t been poisoned by Ravenna’s influence. A colossal white stag, embodiment of the natural order in the forest, pays homage to Snow White as its human equivalent.
Sanders fills his film with some derivative but still consistently striking visuals, achieving a genuine majesty and hallucinatory intensity at some points and investing the tale with a lucidly sensual feel: there’s a heady, aptly symbolic force behind his recurring employment of motifs of blight and rot despoiling pure mantles, from blood dripping into blindingly white milk to the contrast of black crows and dark trees with the dazzling lightness of snow, that convey visually the essential oppositions of spirit. The two über-femmes at war in the narrative convey divergent visual textures in their physiognomies whilst, natch, their internal selves are opposite: Snow White embodies the contrast of light and dark, blight and purity, with her hyper-contrasted beauty, and yet she is, of course, all good, whilst Ravenna’s efforts to retain an unblemished exquisiteness sees her retain the look of the honey-haired golden girl, except, of course, she has a howling void where a soul should be. In one weirdly affecting and beautiful moment that tweaks an old sexploitation gimmick in DeMille epics, she bathes in a tub filled entirely with milk, rising out of the fluid coated in the stuff as if she’s made out of plaster, whilst the run-off is collected by desperately hungry peasants. Ravenna congratulates herself for this generosity, recalling her own days of childhood struggle with Finn. Meanwhile, Snow White subsists in her chilly, barren cell, gazing up toward the sun she’s only seen through a narrow aperture for years, looking disturbingly like a concentration camp survivor, her sturdy bone structure still impressive in spite of her pale and filthy form.
Sanders, then, whilst joining the ranks of many directors tackling fantastical fare for the sake of making a name for themselves perhaps on the way to other things, actually seems to have an affinity for this material: the scenes in the refugee village situated in a reedy marshland reminded me, oddly, of moments in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), and a similar sense of chaos surrounding fringe worlds of subsistence invades the scenario here. He imbues his film with tactile qualities in engaging with the pseudo-ancient, mystically pervaded world it portrays, and it helps that he displays a fairly judicious sense of when to employ CGI and when not to, making the film one of the most profitable fusions of new and old approaches. There’s a wild grandeur to the sequence in which Snow White, escaping her castle prison, has to hurl herself into the sea to escape from high, ragged cliffs and is swept ashore, and an air of malevolence in her subsequent struggling through the stygian forest after leaving her horse trapped in the surrounding mire (recalling a key moment in The Neverending Story). The edge of malevolent anthropomorphism the Disney film loaned this portion of Snow White’s odyssey is here built upon, with trees that harbour batlike demons and mossy growths that sport winking eyes, as if the poor girl has stumbled into the very swamp of the id. Later, as heroine and helpmates take refuge in the faerie glades, stylisation takes a sharp swerve toward more familiar visions of lustrous nature, as a pantheistic undertone emerges, conflated, as in the Siegfried and Arthurian myths, with an overlay of Christian idealism—Snow White, early on, prays when alone in her cell to offset the misery of life under Ravenna—where a natural balance can be restored. Snow White’s holistic link to the world around her, giving a deeper, less immediately chauvinist meaning to the way the word “fairest” attaches to her, is first signaled when she and Eric are attacked by a troll in the haunted forest, a terrifying beast that swats Eric seven ways from sunset but investigates the girl with respectful interest. Nonetheless, Eric’s essential decency is proven as he (grudgingly, of course) takes on the job of protecting rather than hunting Snow White.
Ravenna is one of the more engaging villains in a mainstream film of recent years, and Theron, who, Monster (2001) Oscar notwithstanding, has had a difficult time finding a true niche in Hollywood, presents her as a memorably egomaniacal creature who throws temper tantrums like a super-villainous Lucy Van Pelt and justifies her utterly rapacious hostility through rewriting all reality according to her personal prejudices. There is sympathy for this devil: the spell her mother worked was designed to help her retain her beauty in full knowledge it would be her best weapon in a brutal, covetous, sexist world, and harsh experience has made her misanthropic beyond all reason. Her worst moments of evil are almost always capped by proclamations of her own righteousness as an avenger of past wrongs, rich against poor, man against woman, whilst, of course, she is doomed to constantly repeat those crimes in her sociopathic ruthlessness, devastating the wealth of Tabor and reducing it to a poverty-stricken hell hole, and leaching off young women with literal, relentless parasitism: Eric’s wife, we learn eventually, was one of the many reduced to a haggard husk by this parasitism, and then killed by Finn. This spin on the Bathory myth gives heft to a more immediate drama being enacted here, between the older woman/actress whose days as a stunning beauty are numbered, and the younger woman/actress who is supplanting her. As some of the less gentlemanly comments I read up to the date of the film’s release pointed out, Stewart is a less classical beauty than Theron, a contrast that is aptly exploited throughout, particularly in the finale where Stewart takes on an amusingly butch façade in leading her army against Ravenna’s.
Rest assured (for better or worse), this is not the post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell Snow White. Our heroine has two guys to choose from (probably as another result of Twilight, love triangles are definitely back in), but the film further tweaks the familiar tale, as Eric proves to be the true love whose kiss will rouse the girl from her coma. Said coma is induced when Ravenna, in one of the film’s more peculiarly protean twists, transforms herself into William and feeds Snow White the poisoned apple, the forbidden fruit taking on suggestively Sapphic dimensions. Sadly, explorations of the erotic dimensions of fairy tales, as in predecessors like Legend or The Company of Wolves (1984), are as verboten these days as it is in the superhero genre, and the sensual edge of Sanders’ filmmaking never gets any real manifestation save in the inevitable climactic moments where we wonder which necrophile hero will revive the heroine. Instead, today’s fantastical filmmakers are expected to stress such material as avatars for less internal, symbolic, intuitive problems, a la the faux civics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies as opposed to the fetishism of Tim Burton’s, or the naïve romanticism of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, as opposed to the monstrous sexuality of the original. Whilst the schism between William and Eric as a potential partner take on clear, social dimensions—William is sleek, ardent, boyishly pretty, whereas Eric is a hulking, virile proletarian—the film avoids making either one morally or physically lesser or covertly villainous to make for a simple choice for our heroine. Finally, the rough-trade huntsman wins out because he’s more substantial than his nobleman rival; damaged, aggrieved, and occasionally boorish, he is nonetheless stolidly reliable and swaggeringly sexy.
Whilst Eric is a fairly lumpen hero, I will cop to a bit of a man-crush on Hemsworth, who’s got all my good will after his turns as Thor; unlike too many would-be beefcake icons of the last few years to rise in Hollywood, he actually offers charm and hints of acting chops to back up the physique, whilst also dwarfing some who have tried to mould themselves into an action hero. Speaking of dwarves, the little guys who form a warrior band that guard Eric and the Princess are played by an astounding battery of fine British character actors (though perhaps it is a bit egregious to cast such actors in such parts, especially when Warwick Davis needs work) and characterised as pugnacious yeomen, classically working-class and frustrated, angry, and depressed by having lost their self-respect as miners and craftsmen. They prove eager, in spite of their initial criminal misanthropy, to sign on the Princess’ adventure, and the notion of a kind of class rage driving a desire for regime change flows through Snow White and the Huntsman with surprising doggedness, if not exactly depth.
If there’s a fundamental problem with Sanders’ film, it manifests mostly on a scripting level. Not that there’s anything overtly bad about it: composed by an unlikely battery of serious wordsmiths, including Amini, who wrote Iain Softley’s brilliant unpacking of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive last year, and Hancock, whose The Alamo (2004) was unfairly disastrous. But in grafting the Grimm brothers’ tale onto a familiar fantasy-adventure template, Snow White and the Huntsman accepts that template too completely, hitting all the obvious story points. It kills off a likeable character at a crucial moment to give the last act emotive juice, and charges into an action finale that, like some weaker modern fantasy-adventure films (Willow and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ), culminates in a dully staged tussle between heroine and villainess in a remote tower when they could be using the whole world as an arena.
It’s this lack of fundamental imagination on a story level that finally retards the very real qualities of Snow White and the Huntsman—with so much potential ground to cover, was remaking every swashbuckler where an exiled princeling fights to reclaim the kingdom really all they could come up with? Yet there’s a fascinating tension in the depiction of Snow White as embodiment of all the fundamental graces who must learn how to kill, even if it is an entirely evil enemy, to restore her world. When Eric’s kiss jolts the Princess out of her coma, she’s not merely awakened but born again hard, wandering out before her mourning subjects and sparking them to life in turn with the compulsory rousing speech, and appearing moments later in armour to lead the cavalry out. It’s a gleeful and pretty hot image, though I could have used a better, more attentive sense of build-up to this moment. But the charge of the cavalry along the shore to Ravenna’s castle, with our heroes in the lead and the dwarves inside the castle to raise the portcullis for them, is a truly thrilling moment of epic sweep, strongly reminiscent of the finale of El Cid (1961), The Lion in Winter (1968), and the best scene in Scott’s otherwise ramshackle Robin Hood (2010). The fade-out leaves what will happen in her budding romance with Eric, who hovers uncertainly at the edges of the royal pomp of her coronation and for whom she looks in initially frantic distraction, perhaps to be reconciled in the proposed sequel in the works. For once, I look forward to a sequel, in the hope that Sanders can broaden his mythic imagination without losing his grasp on the finite mixture he sustains here.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the anointed, pure hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who, as Lang later recounted, asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments where, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film radiates the sensation of the pre-war neo-classical love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and in spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked for same in the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove, in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. Siegfried kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile, Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Nicholas Meyer
By Roderick Heath
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is today often identified by its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, fluidic imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour rich and futuristic, yet also fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, is thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Michael Curtiz
If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The Budapest-born, eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk facsinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.
By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.
The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to competing with it for managing both livid intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.
Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.
A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.
Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.
It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.
Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.
Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur (1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.
Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One (1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.
Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.
Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.
Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.
The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.
The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.
The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
A famed film studio’s logo dissolves into a real mountain, glowering like a primeval sentinel over the depths of Amazonian jungle. A team of searchers penetrates the unknown. A man with a shadowed face, hearing a gun cocked behind him, turns and lashes out with a bullwhip, disarming his would-be assassin. The killer flees, and the hero steps into the light. He immediately lays claim to both the ancient temple ruin that is his goal and to the cinema screen as a private stomping ground for him and all like him: the adventure movie hero.
It feels both apt and disingenuous to start this series with Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film which, following producer George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), paid tribute to pulp cinema past, whilst also severing the form from that past. Lucas and Spielberg’s startling run of success in the late ’70s and early ’80s turned the action-adventure genre into something new and increasingly problematic: the blockbuster. Yet it’s probably accurate to say that in the minds of nonfilm buffs today, the Indiana Jones films symbolise the adventure genre at its purest; “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones,” as the trailer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) put it. Raiders actually signalled the mainstreaming of a brand of neopulp percolating since the mid ’60s through the likes of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Don Sharp’s Fu Manchu movies, and continued throughout the ’70s by filmmakers like Kevin Connor and Robert Stevenson—deliberately retrograde and fast-paced tales contrasting the gritty, urban vicissitudes of the decade.
Encoded within the DNA of Raiders, a few thousand progenitors can be traced stretching back to Victorian fiction and sweeping on through the action cinema, serials, and war flicks of the mid-century, Fairbanks and Flynn, John Ford and Howard Hawks, Alistair MacLean and James Bond, with sidelong swerves into Conrad, DeMille, and Hammer Horror. Such filching is acknowledged with humour, gallant affection, and no shame at all. Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark is also a peculiar product of a brief window in mainstream cinema when there was more freedom to improvise. The neopulp template wasn’t as settled and exploited as it is now, and filmmakers could get away with things that would bring studio bureaucrats and a million parents’ groups down on their heads now. Raiders treads a fine line with such confidence that it erases it, being both a postmodern, semisatirical spin on the genre’s past, full of sarcastic jabs at its cliches and devices, and a lightning-paced, often darkly bodied thriller with a proper story that both links and justifies the action set-pieces.
Raiders, of course, is the story of American archaeologist and academic Indiana “Indy” Jones (Harrison Ford), who barely survives the opening adventure in South America where, after penetrating an ancient temple and retrieving the lost golden idol within, he was betrayed and left to almost die by porter Satipo (Alfred Molina) and then robbed of his prize by ruthless French rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Feeling distracted and riled after his escape from Belloq’s tribal warriors and lost in his return to the classroom, Indy is asked by his dean and friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) to talk to two FBI men (William Hootkins and Don Fellows) who are trying to find out why Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, is mentioned in a German communiqué. Indy and Marcus swiftly deduce from the evidence that the Nazis, under the aegis of Hitler’s occultist fascination, are searching for the fabled Ark of the Covenant in Egypt. Supposedly buried thousands of years ago in the Well of the Souls, the only clue to the Ark’s whereabouts is a medallion that Abner possesses. The feds agree to bankroll Indy in an attempt to find the Ark first, but when he tracks Abner to Nepal, Indy learns he is dead, and the medallion has devolved upon Abner’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s truculent former flame. A Gestapo agent, Maj. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) has followed Indy in the search for the medallion, and Indy and Marion have to fight off Toht’s thugs before Marion counts herself in as a partner in the quest. The uneasily aligned, but increasingly flirtatious duo head to Cairo where Indy learns his good friend, professional digger Salah (John-Rhys Davies), has been engaged by the Nazis; worse yet, they’ve hired Belloq as their archaeological expert, setting the scene for an epic rumble between good and evil.
The generic model Raiders was riffing on, by common usage, was “Republic serial,” meaning the cheap, episodic films churned out by that minor studio that used their basic plots to swerve from one cliffhanger to another. The idea of spending millions of dollars on recreating vintage C-movie thrills had the scent of a zany pop-art joke in the late ’70s context, a slightly more serious version of what Mel Brooks was doing. It’s striking to look back today at the earliest Star Wars and Raiders to see that joke is often quite visible, a great contrast to the weighty legacy both series were seen to be carrying and failing to live up to in their recent revivals. The jokiness is thoroughly contoured into the narrative, rather than employed to sunder its integrity, unlike in, say, Richard Lester’s series of anti-swashbucklers including The Three Musketeers (1973) and Royal Flash (1974), where action becomes slapstick, deflating heroism and generating an absurdist sensibility. Spielberg uses humour to give heroic action spice and extra compulsion, following Hitchcock’s understanding of the two. The key set-pieces of Raiders, like the desert road chase, the hilarious moment where Indy is confronted by a bazaar full of baskets like the one kidnapped Marion is in, and the barroom gunfight that sees all the spilt alcohol put to creatively pyrotechnic uses, resemble those serial models. Some directly reference John Ford’s action style, and they also display attentiveness to the technique of Buster Keaton, particularly in The General (1926), where the mechanical beasts are fully utilised as props, obstacles, and weapons in a rolling series of cause-and-effect gags. Yet an essential seriousness, a belief in the kinetic and emotional thrill of the story as being the important thing, is allowed to keep the comedy checked and measured.
Raiders still winks at the way the cliffhanger adventure narrative is constructed, full of narrative conveniences, elided explanations, and deliberate anticlimaxes. Much of the opening sequence is, on the face of it, nonsensical. The film provokes the audience to provide believable reasons why Indy has trekked inland with pack mules and criminal assistants when he’s got a floatplane waiting nearby, and why on earth that plane’s pilot would bring along his pet snake. Indy’s snake phobia, later a compulsory character trait, is here a wry punchline, as Jones is utterly distraught at having a harmless lizard crawl over him: “C’mon, show a little backbone, will ya?” the pilot (Fred Sorenson) mocks the man who just performed astounding acts of courage and endurance. Raiders is not always so far from Lester’s antiheroic spirit in moments like the famous “shooting of the swordsman,” a fiendish, knowing, almost MAD magazine-type gag, and it remains jolting, funny, and slightly appalling at each viewing. But such eccentricities are carefully dovetailed within a film that weaves integrity of style through such elements as Douglas Slocombe’s richly accomplished and technically brilliant photography, which sustains both a fresh, physically solid lustre whilst also recreating aspects of expressionism and the overtly stylised back lot tradition of Hollywood adventure.
Raiders also contrasts the more playful follow-ups as Indy shifts slowly from loner mercenary to father figure and elder statesman. The Jones of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a proven patriot and war hero, if also still trailing his lousy track record in personal relationships. Jones of Raiders is one step away from becoming, as his antagonist Belloq puts it, “just like me…it would take only a nudge to push you out of the light.” He’s a lost, near-exiled figure like two of his clearest models from literary and screen history, Gary Cooper’s incarnation of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca (1942) and Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944). When Jones walks into Marion’s gin-joint, he’s first rendered as a purely Curtiz-esque silhouette on the wall.
Jones is equally beset by weaknesses and lapses in character and judgment. His shifty associates in the opening who nearly get him killed and spoil his coup of discovery signal over-willingness to rely on expedience. He’s affected physically when a female student flirts with him, a temptation he’s clearly given in to, as he’s had a jailbait romance with Marion, which spoiled two of his best friendships. He’s “fallen from the pure faith” of archaeology in his adventuring and his engagement with a back-alley version of his scholarly craft. Jones was certainly an attempt to create a kind of ultimate adventurer as a centrepiece for an ultimate adventure yarn, with the implicit understanding that true adventurers are more than a little asocial. He’s the man with a past, with the zest of Flynn, the lethal cool of Bond, and the slightly frayed, intense humanity underlying the stoicism of Cooper and Bogart. Some of Jones’ traits surely reflect the influence of the other two Movie Brat auteurs who had a hand in creating him, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, who was also on the fabled Hawaiian holiday with Spielberg and Lucas that resulted in Jones’ genesis. Jones is closer to the often much less adamantine creatures of film noir and the more adult variety of melodrama by Hawks and Ford revered by Kasdan and Kaufman than the flatly iconic figures of pulp and the serials heroes. After Jones became Spielberg and Lucas’ baby, he softened and largely lost his darkness; indeed, it is first intensified and then scrubbed out of him in the nominal prequel, The Temple of Doom. In his first outing, Indy is a sometimes feckless, occasionally downright bloody-minded opponent. Indy’s rough-and-tumble sensibility is however first shaken when he thinks he’s accidentally gotten Marion killed, and he walks on a knife-edge of suicidal/homicidal anger when he meets an especially taunting Belloq.
Lucas, who had been reading Joseph Campbell, attempted not simply to use Campbell’s theories to build old-fashioned narratives, as he’d done with the Star Wars films, but to make them the conceptual linchpin of his film. This worked by deliberately creating a semi-contemporary character who traces ancient artefacts, and in the process, reproduces the experience of the most mythic heroes, seers, demigods and prophets—deciphering riddles, penetrating innermost mysteries to snatch totemic treasures, stealing fire from the gods. The links of past to present infuse the Indiana Jones series with a power well beyond most of its successors, at its most overt here, where the Ark is a prop nearly as important as the hero—the title mentions it, not Jones, and it, rather than he, delivers the villains their comeuppance.
The menace and power of the Ark run in counterpoint to the main business at hand, until finally taking over. A sense of biblical foreboding is established early in the film, the Ark’s mystique and fabled power eerily depicted as an illustration in a colossal tome (“Good God!” “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.”), and the haunted monologue of Brody, who describes it as “like nothing you’ve gone after before,” at which Indy initially scoffs, and says rather “that thing represents everything we got into archaeology for in the first place.” The tantalising power of the Ark as a symbol and enticement for the imaginations of the “raiders” pursuing it pushes the film’s central motif out of the realm of a MacGuffin—a mere object driving the plot—to become a genuine source of drama, a kind of enigmatic protagonist in the tale (working, in a way, not unlike the hotel in The Shining, 1981). Later, as Indy and Salah interview an aged imam (Tutte Lemkow) who translates key inscriptions on the headpiece, shadows and mysterious winds hint the import of the quest, and the foreshadowing intensifies in a deftly weird little scene where the Ark’s mysterious power makes rats tremble in fear and scorches away the swastika on the box around it. The talismanic sense of awe Jones half-unwittingly chases is matched by Belloq’s constant ability to hook Jones’ psyche with his own ability to invoke that awe, culminating in the moment he disarms Jones purely by pointing out their inconsequentiality in the face of the Ark’s embodiment of history. “It’s a transmitter for talking to God,” Belloq blasphemously characterises the Ark, revealing that his sense of faith is a blissfully utilitarian one.
Raiders’ historical setting didn’t just allow the filmmaker to play with retro tropes, but also offered a chance to escape the killjoy angst of the ’70s, though there’s still a definable edge of the mistrust of officialdom in the portrayal of the feds who commission Indy’s quest. The film’s final joke riffs on a main theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where a source of inestimable wonder and dread is last seen being stashed away in a colossal warehouse under bureaucratic auspices so the world might forget such destabilising influences exist. This scene itself is almost a meta-commentary on the film’s own driving principle. Trucking in the Nazis as baddies and making Indy a premature antifascist, however, signals a less cynical sensibility. The results of Indy’s gallivanting through the streets of Cairo combating Egyptian goons initially skirts the endemic racism of much of the old pulp pantheon, but other aspects, like Indy’s dogged good friendship with Salah and the way the Egyptians who fill the background slowly shift from being Nazi tools to active supporters of Indy, give the film some links to the egalitarian spirit of WWII-era movies like Sahara (1943). Salah likes reclaiming the heroism stolen by imperialists for themselves back, singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s anthems of official heroism but freeing them from nationalist specificity: he is the “monarch of the sea”; “A British man is a soaring soul” describes himself, Indy, and Marion. Moreover, as in subsequent episodes, the sense of underlying truths in the world’s mythical pantheons demands a slow adjustment to a deeper empathy and understanding of what those pantheons imply about the human condition and its origins.
Nazis, of course, offer the kinds of villains no one minds seeing get kicked around, and one of the most effective elements of Raiders is that is takes its bad guys seriously, rather than offering only knockabout stooges. The leading villains of Raiders are a troika of appalling traits: the sibilantly sadistic Toht, the stiff-necked Nazi minion Col. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), and the intelligent, inquisitive Belloq. Toht has one of the most effective introductions of any movie villain, though he’s not the major enemy: within seconds of barging his way into Marion’s bar, he has his goons grab hold of her and plans to burn a hole in her face with a white-hot poker, an act only Indy’s fortuitous return forestalls. He’s quickly the butt of a malevolent joke that’s also a clever plot aspect, as his attempt to snatch Marion’s medallion from a fire results in him burning his hand, revealing he’s actually a physical coward, but the imprint scorched into his palm gives the Nazis some clue as the medallion’s vital, coded information.
Marion is, like Jones, an interesting contradiction. She’s one of the most vigorous ladies ever to grace adventure cinema, famously greeting Indy with a walloping blow to the chin for his past sins, a touch that betrays the influence of one of Spielberg’s early favourites, J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), in which Irene Papas greets her recalcitrant brother the same way. Marion is introduced scoffing down shots in a drinking contest she easily wins, a terrific little moment that serves a number of purposes, not simply for its immediate humour, but also in the way it establishes the highly exotic milieu as amicable and familiar. It also introduces a proper plot element that comes into play later when she tries to escape Belloq’s clutches by out-drinking him, a ploy that nearly succeeds. Marion isn’t, like Indy, physically very competent or athletic, and she offers a certain comic relief in the disconnect between her lippy attitude and the way she negotiates danger, improvising like Indy and trying to bring her strengths to the fore but without his physical confidence. Marion maintains the film’s links with Howard Hawks’ sensibility, but unlike some of Hawks’ sublimely confident women, Marion’s not a stoic, and her tough-gal ’tude only gets her so far, as when she orders a Nazi soldier, “Don’t you touch me!”, only to get shoved on anyway. One of the best scenes in the film is one with a tone that, sadly, none of the other Jones films offers: Marion contends with Belloq’s attempts to simultaneously seduce and interrogate her, getting her to change into a fanciful white dress (“It’s beautiful,” Marion declares, a marvellous little line reading from Allen in capturing Marion’s half-embarrassed, half-delighted tomboy reaction) and treating her with a gentlemanly aplomb. Belloq’s charm and aristocratic poise might seem rather more attractive than Indy’s brusque abandonment of her, if for good reason, to Nazi inquisitors, if not for the people Belloq associates with. The scene percolates with an amusing, insistently erotic verve that would barely resurface in Spielberg’s oeuvre until Catch Me If You Can (2002).
Stylistically, Raiders of the Lost Ark kept one eye constantly on the past of moviemaking even as it embraced cutting-edge ideas in others: the old-fashioned montages of Indy’s travels being marked out on maps, are reminiscent of the work Don Siegel did in his apprentice days at Warner Bros., often within films made by Curtiz and John Huston. This is one overt form of attentiveness to a lexicon of cinematic technique that permeates the film as a whole: as director Michael Sarne put it in his slightly snarky 1982 review of the film, it revealed that most film scholars were amateurs in comparison to Spielberg and Lucas, who had seen every movie ever made, and understood fundamentally how they worked and what should go in them without needing to think about it. Whilst at the time Raiders seemed to embody a new ethic of the adventure cinema as a roller coaster ride without lulls or narrative stock-taking, today it seems classically constructed by comparison with the blockbusters that has followed. It has characters, by-play, quicksilver thematic and narrative development, and a carefully machined sense of when and how to spring into action. It’s a constant, synergistic stream of clever bits of business and flourishes of storytelling art: when a touch doesn’t really work, the film moves so quickly it leaves it behind.
These characteristics are perhaps why Raiders still seems to me to be Spielberg’s most perfect, and perhaps only perfect film, for its sheer ruthless energy and intelligence mixed with a lean, compulsive lack of circumspection. Even in his flattest films, Spielberg builds sequences with care, and here, of course, he was at the absolute height of his game, turning what might have been a dull expositional sequence, that in which Indy uses Marion’s medallion to locate the Well of the Souls, into a moment of incantatory force. In that regard, he was, of course, helped by John Williams’ scoring, whose work here, at his most floridly Korngold-esque, set the seal on his status as the movie composer everyone knows. As well as the iconic “Raiders March,” the whole of Raiders pulsates with his deeply intuitive sense of how support Spielberg’s imagistic flow with music; thus the plangent strings and creepy choruses that rise throughout, evoking the constant presence of primeval powers, are as invaluable as the brass horns and drums that thunder in the action. My personal favourite moment where image and sound converge comes when Indy starts his horse pounding down a steep slope to intercept Dietrich’s road convoy as the Nazis flee with the Ark, as Williams’ drums are walloped with titanic verve: no matter how many times I watch it, the hairs on my neck still stand up, and it’s the purest distillation of the swashbuckling essence since Douglas Fairbanks slid down a ship’s sail on a knife.
The sequence that follows is the best action scene of the series and one of the best of all time, one which simultaneously sticks tongue in cheek and yet hews to a careful extrapolation of cause and effect, both absurd and yet done in just such a fashion that it remains corporeally believable. Indy turns the seeming advantages of the Nazis against them, swerving the truck to keep others from firing at it lest they hit the men in back, keeping the chase going at high speed so that everyone’s off-kilter, and shunting aside the pursuing vehicles with malicious, boyish glee. Liberated from all care about what havoc he wreaks, Indy cuts loose with a newly grim relentlessness stoked in him by these people trying to bury him and Marion alive, refusing to be cheated again by Belloq. The climactic stunt of Indy’s climbing under the truck and then being dragged behind borrows directly from Stagecoach (1939), whilst others clearly reference the train climax of How the West Was Won (1962), and, as mentioned, there’s that Buster Keaton influence. The best moments of this scene, like when a bloodied Indy finally resurges to hurl the toughest German out through the windscreen to have the truck run over him, hands and legs splaying just into view in a pure Road Runner moment, are both comic and physically dynamic. But there’s a sense of actual physical pain in the scene, as when Indy cops a bullet in the shoulder that leaves his blood dripping down the glass, and when one enemy repeatedly pounds his wound to debilitate him. The subsequent vision of a badly hurt Indy wincing as Salah hugs him good-bye and seething in pain as Marion tries to minister to him is perhaps the film’s cleverest comic coup in subverting the familiar unbreakable action hero: this job hurts like a son of a bitch. In spite of the many films that owe a lot to the Raiders template—Tomb Raider (2000), Van Helsing (2002), the Pirates of the Caribbean film—it’s fascinating how few of them have actually grasped how this specific mixture of the ridiculous and the realistic made the model work.
When the ship Indy and Marion try to take home with the Ark is met by Dietrich’s U-boats, the crew cheer Indy as he still defiantly refuses to be defeated and swims out to piggyback aboard the sub to its destination. To me, it seems they’re cheering as much, by this time, for the return of the swashbuckling hero as a movie figure as for the man himself, stand-ins for a presumably hungry audience. As the film builds towards its climax, Spielberg’s cinematic keynotes shift from Ford, Hawks, and Republic to DeMille and Fisher. Spielberg had already referenced DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) in Close Encounters, but here the visual similes, from the boiling cloud that hovers over Indy and Salah uncovering the Well of the Souls to the bolts of heavenly fire that exterminate the Nazis in the finale, speak less of transcendent communions than the darkly atavistic side of the Old Testament. Oddly, for a film that concentrates almost entirely on the pleasure of pure, visceral emotions, Raiders was the first film Spielberg made where he began to look at the conflict between harsher historical realities and the fantastical world of movies in the context of his own Jewishness. Not surprisingly, Raiders is, in essence, pure revenge fantasy, as no lesser figure than Jehovah himself delivers a royal comeuppance to the Nazis: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a more self-reflective revenge fantasy, redeploys Spielberg’s climactic images of seething fire, Nazis being torn to shreds by raining death, and a beautiful woman’s face reconfigured as leering angel of death.
Belloq’s incredible arrogance and the Nazis who hunger for the power he offers find this god isn’t the god in the crystal chandelier spaceship of Close Encounters, but an angry god, and the gruesome images of the villains’ faces melting in the fire of god sees the film suddenly swerve towards the horror film, already threatened in the Well of the Souls sequence. This finale, offbeat for many reasons, redefines its heroes by their enforced passivity. Indy’s refusal to destroy the object that is driving men mad, and this bowing before a greater force and responsibility, means that he then must resist opening his eyes, resist looking, the very raison d’etre of both cinema and the scholar’s inquiry for the sake a religious taboo. For Spielberg, it’s also an exercise in show-stopping spectacle, veering in another genre and sensibility just for the hell of it, but more than that, it’s a scene that presents to the audience the double-bind of the taboo: the film viewers still watch, even as the sin of looking consumes the Nazis hideously, and Indy and Marion are left alive for their righteousness. Yet are they preserved for not looking, or actually being on the side of the angels, as the fact their bindings are burnt away once the storm has passed might prove? As a climax, it is, again, a commentary on its own spectacle. Jehovah proves an even greater showman than the Nazis, but not better than Spielberg.
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By Roderick Heath
So, what is an adventure film?
Amongst film genres, some are defined by links to a specific time and place, like Westerns, or essential elements and gimmicks, like the futuristic setting or advanced gadgets in science fiction. Others are defined by the emotion they are supposed to inspire: comedies make you laugh, whilst horror and thriller films work as advertised (or try to). Genres are, of course, never impermeable things: Westerns have moved into outer space, comedies can revolve around profound fears, and the adventure film can cross the borders of many other genres.
Today, the adventure film might be considered an adjunct of the action film, but in truth, it’s more the other way around: the action film is the specifically contemporary version of the adventure film, defined by an essential need for kinetic movement and violence, utilising the props of the world as is, an ethic purely of the present tense. The adventure film, on the other hand, is uniquely ancient, possibly the most ancient genre of storytelling in existence, with links to bardic songs, campfire tales, cave paintings. The adventure movie, whilst usually retaining an action element, is defined as much or more by a sense of physical movement not necessarily involving violence, but rather travel and globetrotting, or a sense of having reached and become trapped in the world’s extreme and hostile locales, living on the edge in places of desperate straits. Such adventure tends to take place in settings that old-world, often pretechnological, or at least set in periods where technology is not so tyrannous or has been neutered as a world-ordering force. The adventure can, however, also be futuristic, set in times and worlds where technology restores a level of elasticity to personal freedom and heroism. The adventure film is politically difficult: it can invoke the rise and fall of nations, and stands squarely on the resilience of its heroes and the people they encounter. The meeting of cultures, violence between the two, and also their mutual acceptance and blending, is a constant frontier of the adventure film.
Men are usually the heroes of adventure films, but not always, and if it can be said that the genre is not necessarily one of violence, then some of the hardiest venturers into psychic and physical extremes are women, for example, the cast of William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) and the entrapped ambassadors of western culture in John Ford’s 7 Women (1966). The genre can tread the edge of the utterly fantastical, and yet, as with the likes of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s and William Friedkin’s diptych of films based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear or Mikhail Kalatozov’s depiction of the ill-fated true-life Italia expedition The Red Tent (1969), it can also depict extremely simple, grindingly realistic scenarios. Adventure films are often built around motifs for transmitting knowledge that have roots in human prehistory: the riddle, the map, the quest, the search. Whilst action films are often seen as containing elements that pander to social conservatism, with an emphasis on law enforcers and authoritarian solutions, the adventure film can have links to colonialism and imperialism but just as often can have antiauthoritarian, even radical narratives, often encompassing, sometimes incidentally but also often directly, the establishment (or reestablishment) of legitimate government, or the fight against tyrannies. Such a scenario can be seen as far back as the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, where the hero embarks on his long voyage in order to bring down the usurping tyrant back home, and flows through the adventure swashbucklers of Errol Flynn and the struggles of Indiana Jones and Alistair Maclean’s pulpy heroes against Nazis, or George Lucas’ rebels against the Galactic Empire. The adventure film is also more fundamentally romantic than the action film: indeed, the modern genre has roots in romance, the broad name for all early fiction, and in courtly ballads and poems extolling the knight and lady fair. Saving the damsel, or more rarely but occasionally, the dude in distress is oft a key element of the adventure genre’s ideals.
One reason I’m engaging with this topic is my general frustration with how few great and actual adventure films there are, particularly in the modern pantheon. Recent attempts to revive subgenres like the pirate movie, with the increasingly intolerable Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the find-the-buried-treasure tale, like the National Treasure movies, raked in money but left a bitter aftertaste at their incapacity to develop coherent narratives. Instead, they compiled tropes and gimmicks harvested from a range of predecessors and hurled them onto the screen without even the clear-minded organising principles behind earlier examples of the process, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Much of the thunder of both the classic action film and the adventure film has been stolen in the past few years by the superhero flick. Superheroes, by dint of their extraordinary gifts, are able to keep aspects of the classic swashbuckler alive in the age of drones, rockets, armour-piercing bullets, and nuclear weapons. Superheroes certainly have links to the more-than-human heroes of Greek, Jewish, Indian, and Chinese myth, but in being superhuman and barely vulnerable to all but the most absurd dangers, they cannot really channel the sure reality of physical stamina and witticism, the sense of being merely human even whilst contending with terrible forces, necessary for the swashbuckler. Beginning in the early ’50s, with the likes of The Crimson Pirate (1953), the genre became increasingly comic and self-mocking, with some stronger examples emerging from France, like Philippe de Broca’s giddy duo of Cartouche (1962) and That Man from Rio (1964), and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965); in Britain, Richard Lester’s series of seriocomic deconstructions of the form in the mid ’70s managed to both critique and satirise the genre whilst still engaging it on its own terms.
A question then arises: is the adventure film fundamentally just a mode for playful divertissement, or can it be more serious than is often allowed? Action films are often caricatured as Pavlovian, anti-intellectual fodder for the mindless masses, not without reason, but also often in ignorance of the deft balance of the aesthetic and mechanical ingenuity necessary to make the genre work. Adventure films require similar gifts, and yet it can also be said that the adventure film stands at odds with the action film in that it can more easily be thoughtful, even philosophical, as some advanced examples like Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim (1965), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) testify. Adventurers can be intellectual, scholarly, like Indiana Jones or Sir Richard Burton in Mountains of the Moon (1989), or meditative or even self-destructive: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1983) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974) both push the genre to its physical limits whilst also engaging its deepest meanings in terms of both the psyche and the world where Conradian heroes disintegrate in trying to face down the primal, and civilisation becomes a death-dream from which the adventurers need to be awakened.
Many war films cross the line into adventure film territory: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Great Escape (1963) take place in World War II, and yet they elide the usual brutal realism of the combat genre in presenting neo-swashbucklers, and Apocalypse Now (1979) grafts the Conradian adventure onto a wartime setting. Westerns, too, often cross paths with the genre, particularly the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966): these films involve a scope of action and character beyond the familiar parameters of the horse opera.
And what about films from cultures beyond Europe and the US? The likes of Atarnarjuat (2001), the first Inuit cinema epic, certainly tell adventure stories, and, indeed, document the sorts of folk myth from which the genre evolved. Asian cinema’s classic genres of wu xia and jidai geki are tantalisingly close in nature to the swashbuckler, and though defined by certain specific rules of structure, the kind of action they depict, and their settings, Tsui Hark, Kihachi Okamoto, Akira Kurosawa and so many others have pushed into the realm of the adventure genre.
Can adventure films even be chamber pieces, or purely psychological? The likes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984), and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) all take place in their hero’s headspaces. But how about the psychedelically derived adventure, as in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)? Dennis Hopper, who cowrote that film, was a kind of adventure filmmaker, expanding on the notion through his definitive hipster odysseys Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971). How about sexual adventures? Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990) described itself as “A True Adventure More Erotic Than Any Fantasy,” and, indeed, erotica has always had a certain structural affinity with the adventure tale, with wandering, assailed, curious individuals delving into realms far beyond the normal. So what about Emmanuelle, or Deep Throat? Okay, now I’m just teasing, but you get my drift.
In any event, this series is going to look at both iconic and some less well-known works of adventure cinema: I am open to requests and petitions for works to be covered, and I’ll be interested in whatever suggestions you have. Please keep in mind that I won’t be dealing with films Marilyn or I have already written about here or at This Island Rod.
Now, hold onto your hats. We’re on our way.
The series so far:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sea Hawk
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge
The Black Swan
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Farewell to the King
The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Necklace/The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
The Avengers could well be the most hyped movie ever made, surpassing the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), and other singular icons of globe-conquering audience awareness, if you consider that some of the predecessors in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations were basically teasers, primers, and set-ups for the cast of superheroes it features. The task of living up to such hype would be unenviable for any director, let alone one with only a single, middlingly successful feature to his credit, but the job of tethering together a dizzying sprawl of characters and plot gimmicks from other films into a single, grandiose bash-‘em-up finally fell to such a man: Joss Whedon. Whedon, who has long been known as the nerd’s nerd thanks to his engaging TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and stints writing storylines for some of the proper source comic books, inspires cultish devotion from many and an equal detestation from others. I confess to considering him rather a talent with great but hitherto unfulfilled potential. Whedon’s actual filmography is slight, having directed the cinematic conclusion for Firefly, Serenity (2005). Serenity suggested that Whedon’s talent for creating interesting characters in a stylised genre milieu, and witty, if occasionally gratingly arch, dialogue could be transferred to the compressed demands of a feature film, and that he could mount an exciting adventure story.
But it also frustrated with its lack of visual imagination and blandly TV-shaped sense of staging, and faltered in clarifying the whirl of storylines being resolved from the show for a new audience. Neither lack in Whedon’s touch was a good sign in approaching The Avengers. The first 20 minutes or so of The Avengers could be switchback-inducing for anyone who hasn’t watched the earlier Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) in particular, and, indeed, for those who didn’t wait through the end credits of those films to see their hidden kickers. Whedon also has to revive a rather different kind of film, one with deep roots in Hollywood but which has been fairly quiescent for a long time now: the all-star extravaganza, a form not simply defined by featuring a number of famous faces, but by having to sustain and balance them in parts that suit their aptitudes, fans, and dramatic necessity. Yes, this is the Grand Hotel of superhero flicks.
Thus The Avengers hits the ground running with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the clandestine SHIELD security service, and scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), trying to deal with the sudden coming to life of a powerful alien artefact, the Tesseract, which was retrieved along with the frozen Captain America from a watery Arctic grave. For a few minutes even I, who did watch those earlier movies, felt a little riled at such a headlong introduction, and the film takes a while to settle down, as it reintroduces the characters and sets the story into motion: because we already “know” the team, Whedon only goes through the motions of the Seven Samurai-esque gathering of the heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), exiled brother of “god” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and former usurping king of the alien realm of Asgard, has hooked up with a race of mysterious and very ugly extra-terrestrials who control a galaxy-crossing portal, and the Tesseract, as it happens, is the other end of that portal. Loki, having successfully sold the aliens on invading Earth and installing him as ruler, teleports into the SHIELD headquarters and takes psychic control of Selvig and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), dubbed “Hawkeye” thanks to his awe-inspiring prowess with bow and arrow, and Fury fails to prevent the Tesseract’s theft by bringing down the headquarters about their ears. Fury, recognising that the sort of situation he’s been preparing for has arrived, calls in his sinuous superspy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and sets about tracking down the various powerful weirdoes who will comprise his Avengers team.
Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is tracked down to where he’s working as a medic in an Indian slum. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still trying to adjust to life in the new millennium. Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) has just built a New York skyscraper powered entirely by his miraculous arc reactor and resents being called away from the arms of his lover-assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thor is still apparently trapped on Asgard, having demolished the portal between the two worlds. Whedon’s rush of opening action betrays an uncertainty, perhaps inevitable, about how to get this contraption off the ground: still, I don’t think David Lean could have taken on such a burden and managed to make it flow perfectly. The opening offers a little tough-gal action with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, a cool and sturdy SHIELD agent who continues to bob up distractingly throughout the rest of the film, but whilst Whedon does snap into focus, unsurprisingly, when he can focus on a kick-ass female hero, it is in this case Johansson, who, after enlivening the torturous Iron Man 2 (2010), maintains her form as Natasha in a droll introduction. In the middle of being tortured by sleazy Slavic arms dealers, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls Natasha’s mobile phone and she irritably resists having her mission cancelled now that the “interrogators” are inadvertently telling her everything she needs to know, but, obediently, she clobbers her captors whilst still tied to a chair and makes her escape. She is sent to track down Banner, whose Hulk alter ego, although he’s been keeping a lid on it successfully of late, is regarded as an unreasonable danger; it’s Banner’s scientific knowledge SHIELD wants.
Ruffalo, taking over a seemingly cursed role after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, far outshines them for grasping Banner’s essence, not having the physical presence of Bana and more convincingly anxious than Norton; he instead pitches his performance as a savant gnawed at by the beast within, his skin sallow and his soul seeming to droop nearly as much as his purposefully oversized wardrobe, and so the Hulk stands as the Most Improved Superhero in this movie. Loki makes his presence known in Stuttgart, Germany, where he tries to browbeat a crowd into kneeling before him, only for an old man (Kenneth Tigar), having seen all this before, to resist. Before Loki can blast him away, Captain America arrives to block the exterminating bolt with his shield: he too has seen this sort of thing before. Such a scene is a punchy reminder that Whedon grasps not only the essence of good melodrama but also the powerful underlying thematic ties of this material to the anxieties of the last century. Whereas Stark’s Iron Man, who arrives to give Rogers some needed aid, constantly trails the association of the Cold War his father fought and the American hegemony and embodies the cognitive dissonance of this age, Rogers is still the WW2 fascist-fighter, and recognises Loki’s übermensch mentality. Interestingly, as the least colourful and the most old-fashioned of the heroes, Rogers emerges as the film’s axiom, all the more surprising as Captain America was saddled with the least inspired of introduction films. But Rogers’ air of faintly forlorn, antiquated idealism is compelling as Fury states apologetically that “we’ve made mistakes…some very recently”, and inevitably grazes against the post-modern wise-assed diva act of Stark.
Evans, a surprisingly restrained and grounded actor considering that he first came to attention playing the insufferable Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, absorbs Downey’s stream of flip with a shield of earnestness far more impressive than the metallic one he carries. Whedon aptly makes Coulson a closet Captain America fanboy, and wants his childhood hero to sign the trading cards he’s collected. Rogers offers Whedon an obvious avatar for exploring not simply the boyish fantasies at the heart of the superhero mythology, but also the powerful pull of nostalgia, and the sense of being a devotee to any creation with a legacy, not just seventy-year-old comic book heroes, which means living both in the past and the present. Rogers searches for something, anything, to give him purpose and direction: when, having sat through a stream of modern techno and military babble, someone’s crack about “flying monkeys” makes him shout with joy that he recognises the reference. Rogers however instantly adapts to crisis situations, and emerges in the finale as the team’s natural leader, as an experienced soldier and strategist, barking out a stream of instructions to the team to take up positions, ending with the immortal last order to his least sophisticated warrior: “Hulk…smash!” That said, Downey, so beleaguered in Iron Man 2, is in fine form here, especially as he mocks Thor’s initial appearance as “Shakespeare in the park,” (“Doth your mother know that you weareth her draps?”) and later dubbing him “Point Break”, and, surprised to recognise in Banner a fellow genius, taking pause to praise him for his work, including turning into an “enormous green rage monster.”
Hemsworth’s Thor, still charmingly arcane in speech and unsubtle in method, arrives trailing fraternal issues, and makes several ill-advised attempts to talk his brother into ending his campaign of violence. Loki’s familial status is key to one of the film’s funniest lines, as Thor demands respect for the villain from the humans because he’s part of the Asgard royalty: when Natasha points out he’s killed eighty people, Thor can only bleat, “He’s adopted.” Whilst it would be easy to make The Avengers sound like a stream of Whedon-speak, the erstwhile writer-director actually for the most part contours his style into the material, which demands a more consistently classical sense of weight than Whedon’s usual pitch offers, with success. Somehow, he manages to squeeze in the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, an early sign that Whedon’s aiming higher than usual, as the leader of the baddies Natasha bests at the start, and Jenny Agutter and Harry Dean Stanton also make some wryly stirring cameos for the movie fan with more than the goldfish memory of current pop culture. The Avengers takes some time to find its groove, in part because there’s so much going on, usually the opposite problem to what comic book adaptations have to deal with, and Whedon’s experience at smoothly drawing together story elements as an audio-visual as well as literary entity still isn’t that strong. Whedon instead feels his way along through what is for him the much more comfortable device of making The Avengers, in essence, a TV episode about forty minutes long, getting his characters into a small space, in this case on SHIELD’s amusing new command base, an aircraft carrier that turns into a near-invisible flying fortress, and listening to them argue, snipe, quip, cajole, threaten, butt heads, and bond. Rather than hurting the film, this segment gives the film its traction and the vitally needed human element, as Whedon carefully exposes the raw nerves of the team, their isolation, traumas, guilty legacies, and potential weakness. This puts The Avengers unshakeably on track for the first of the film’s two genuinely epic-scaled action sequences.
Before they start working as a team, in time honoured tradition the heroes clash incessantly, even violently, as they first come into close proximity, as when Thor first appears on the scene, manifesting on the back of a plane and snatching the captured Loki away from Stark and Rogers, sparking a forest-levelling tussle between the demi-god and the mechanical man, which finally the thawed-out ‘40s square has to quell like a teacher interrupting a schoolyard brawl. Later, as it turns out that Loki is plotting to destroy the Avengers before they even really get going by exploiting their fractiousness and unleashing the supposedly uncontrollable Hulk, Hulk rampages first after Natasha, who, although tough as nails, finishes up a quivering foetal ball in hiding at the spectacle of the green monster, and Thor finishes up having to take him in a ship-shaking brawl. In terms of story structure and imagery, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to call The Avengers a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Like the former, there’s a team of famous if conflicted and volatile personalities drawn together to fight a nefarious villain, and they initially prove their mettle by saving a super-futuristic craft from sabotage, a craft which looks like something out of the latter movie, as do the flying alien invaders they take on in the finale. Perhaps that merely reflects the relatively limited lexicon of the supposedly endless permutations of such fantasy material. It does however behove me to point out that Whedon’s film does everything bigger and, more importantly, better: better detail, better effects, better characterisation, better drama.
Most vitally, Whedon knows that this sort of tale has to reach a moment of iconic power where the heroes click as a team, and he offers this as the heroes gather in a circle with their enemies about them, but also that the heroes have to all have their distinctive moment of glory, which requires coherence in the style and saves the finale from being a singular mass of tedious action. And everyone gets one, from Natasha pulling off an astounding hijack of an alien flying craft thanks to her gymnastic skills, to the Hulk, irritated by Loki’s mockery, grasping him and slapping him about like a rag, finally reducing the sneering hunk of malevolence to a groaning wreck in a moment that could well come out of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. Loki isn’t as interesting a villain as he was in Kenneth Branagh’s terrific Thor, where his pathos and pathetic neediness underscored his treachery; now he’s a mad and unrepentant would-be dictator, but Hiddleston still serves him well, playing him as the most vicious English boarding school bully imaginable, with a strut archer than Ziggie Stardust-era Bowie and a nice line in antique insults. Renner has the most thankless task in the film, playing the one team member who hasn’t had a substantial prior introduction, and he spends half of it under Loki’s mind control to boot. Hints of his and Natasha’s connection through a personal debt and perhaps, although she denies it, something deeper, does nonetheless clear the way for some emotional urgency in Hawkeye’s return to the fold. Renner projects the same taciturn sensibility of a warrior wit honed to the finest edge that caught the eye in The Hurt Locker (2008), with an added hint of reserved gallantry: thus Hawkeye seems, in his way, the most “real” character in the film.
Of course, whilst the outlay of story elements is busy, the actual plot, once in motion, is actually very simple, even scanty, an excuse to give the Avengers a decent threat to go up against – not always an element these films remember to provide, as Superman Returns (2006) sadly forgot. The real stress is on character conflict, and Whedon smartly makes this the essence of Loki’s plans as well as the general story dynamic: he pricks the heroes, especially Natasha, with their own hang-ups, in his attempts to divide and conquer. The team comes close to disintegrating when they learn Fury and SHIELD have been trying to create new weapons with the Tasseract’s power, the act which alerted the aliens to its presence in the first place. But when Coulson is fatally wounded by Loki, Fury gives them a little propagandist push by soaking Coulson’s trading cards in his blood and presenting them to the team as a spur, an interesting stab at trying to complicate the film’s morality, and consider how such spurs can be both manipulative and dishonest, but perhaps sometimes also necessary. Fury himself has to defy unscrupulous masters in trying to hold off a shadow World Security Council from using the nuclear option on Manhattan, something he fails in, demanding a final sacrificial effort from Stark. On a purely incidental level, it’s cool to see Jackson’s Fury finally get to do some proper badass work, and I kind of wish someone would make a “Young Nick Fury” movie: surely there’s room for a black superhero with ‘70s Blaxploitation motifs in his background and atomic-age power in his hands in the modern pantheon.
When it comes to the crunch, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that The Avengers finishes up as one of the most spectacular and visually well-organised special effects extravaganzas ever made: it’s certainly trying to be such, although it can’t quite reach the level of imperative Peter Jackson managed in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), where there’s a dizzying sensation in the action of multiple elements long in the setting up colliding head on, or the finale of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith (2005), where the settings and the effects ebulliently describe the emotions being enacted. This is more spectacle for spectacle’s sake, turning a basic punch-up into something like three-dimensional chess using a city as a playing board, but damn, what spectacle. Whedon, or at least the special effects team provided him, invokes the dreaded Transformers movies at points, especially as the final battle in a cityscape superficially resembles the climax of the first of Michael Bay’s series. The always unpleasant sensation Bay’s films radiate, with their unreconstructed militarist fetishism and sense-contorting editing styles, has been seen by many as transmitting a kind of covert fascism; Whedon answers this by not simply emphasising democratic themes in his tale, but by making his film entirely fluent and thrilling through access, not assault, for eye and mind. I don’t know if it can yet be said that Whedon has any kind of definable visual style, but he does have a fondness for long-take sequences as a way of facilitating that democratic spirit, and this strategy culminates in one utterly bravura shot that seems to move along the breadth of Manhattan, finding each of his individualist heroes engaged in their station of battle in a fashion that unites them strategically and emotionally, from Captain America brawling on street level to Hawkeye atop a skyscraper to Thor and the Hulk riding the back of one of the grotesque mechanical leviathans the aliens employ.
The sight of Thor’s red cape swirling as he rides a colossal beast of dull grey steel over the equally dull grey New York skyline catches the eye like the essence of some secret genre poetry, in which both fantastic invaders and familiar urban architecture are equally complicit in a war against the unrelieved colour and power of the primal individual, and both lose big time. Whedon shoots for some of the supercharged emotion glimpsed once upon a time in the climaxes of the early Superman films or Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) as Stark tries to call an oblivious Pepper for a goodbye as he prepares to sacrifice himself for humankind, an act Rogers earlier said he could never consider: Whedon doesn’t quite hit those heights, but it’s nice that he tried. Some touches do become repetitive, especially characters falling from great heights for bruising landings, but all in all this is a brilliantly made sequence that dwarfs almost all rivals. The Avengers doesn’t escape all the familiar blind spots of this kind of filmmaking. In addition to the stuttering start, it sadly forgets to include a satisfying ending where the characters have a proper farewell, there’s a tacked on promise for another sequel, and a certain amount of fragmentation sets in with Whedon’s need to keep all his elements in some sort of focus.
There’s a constant, uncomfortable reminder with these Marvel movies that they can never just be movies sufficient unto themselves. Romance is mere theory, and sexuality is expressed through the tight pants of its heroines. It’s these lacks that repeatedly stand in the way of the superhero genre truly becoming the heir of the swashbuckler, which was always defined not only by its basis in the immediate reality of the athleticism of its actors, but also by the incision of personal concerns that are definably adult – looking forward to the future, trying to reproduce, and reshape nominal barriers of gender and class to find a place in a society worth living in – rather than the kind of pouting angst, detached from such concerns, so often found in modern superheroes and which makes them so relatable for teens; the reasonably strong romantic element of Thor was one reason it stood head and shoulders above most of the recent pack, and Tony Stark’s former playful licentiousness is down for the count. But it feels a bit churlish to stress such lacks considering that The Avengers as a whole really does hit the mark as surely as one of Hawkeye’s arrows. It has to be said that between this and the fiscally ill-fated but still glorious John Carter, 2012 has seen the blockbuster bar raised pretty darn high for the next few years.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Gary Ross
By Roderick Heath
Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful novel and its follow-ups about Katniss Everdeen, teenage huntress at war with a futuristic dystopia, were obviously written with the hope they would become major motion pictures. With their driving plots, experiential style, and unremitting forward-march pacing, The Hunger Games cunningly condense a host of popular hooks and iconographic-ready ideas, and crafts them into an attractive package for our era. Chief amongst these is Katniss, the tough, skilful, emotionally discursive heroine, of a breed far more common today than they used to be but still sufficiently unique to earn plentiful encomiums in critical commentary. She is coupled with a plot that, like similar recent cult hits, including the Japanese novel Battle Royale and its 2000 film version by Kinji Fukasaku, the Australian novel and film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), and even the Triwizard Tournament of the Harry Potter tales, evokes the darker sides of modern teenage existence. The joyless competitiveness forced on it by adult social expectations and the cruelty asserted within itself, as well its very familiar fantasies and hopes, are placed in heightened situations that sharpen the metaphors to melodramatic points.
If I’m sounding a little jaded about Collins’ creation, which I enjoyed reading, it’s because the more I thought about The Hunger Games, the less and less satisfied I was. It’s a novel that carefully sets up a situation that is, by definition, a zone of moral nullification, and yet contrives to have our heroine emerge smelling like a rose without ever having to make a genuinely hard choice, in a tale that counts finally as neither effectively elemental nor symbolically rich, but rather as efficiently marketable: In fairness, the second two novels do amass genuine complexity, and admittedly, there’s only so far one can go in engaging with moral ambiguity and depth in a book aimed squarely for a young adult readership. But Katniss remains such a clean-cut moral avatar for her audience, in high contrast to a hellish scenario, that its starts to feel somehow dishonest.
There are many things that seem right about Gary Ross’s film adaptation, especially most of the cast. Jennifer Lawrence, so strong in Winter’s Bone (2010) and so dispensable in X-Men: First Class (2011), returns to form as Katniss, the prematurely hardened lass who’s become an excellent archer thanks to years of having to provide for her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and shell-shocked mother (Paula Malcomson) following her father’s death in a mine explosion. Katniss is a citizen of the poor, retrograde District 12, a mining commune that forms one of the dozen oppressed fiefdoms of Panem, a future state that has risen from the ashes of a North America wrecked by various, fleetingly described calamities. Katniss enjoys hunting in the woods outside the boundaries of the district with her hunky guy-pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but fate, and the peculiarly vicious futuristic version of the social contract, has nasty things in store for Katniss.
Since a rebellion many years before against Panem’s ruling elite in the Capitol, a sacrificial tournament is held every year in which a boy and girl tribute from each district has to engage in a gladiatorial fight to the death in a carefully prepared natural environment. At “The Reaping,” the lots are drawn for the District 12’s anointed duo; in spite of the stacked decks of economic necessity that mean Katniss and Gale are far more likely to have their names drawn, it’s Prim who is chosen. Katniss frantically volunteers to take her place, and she and male pick Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of local bakers who once did Katniss a good turn, are initiated, albeit briefly, into the decadent lifestyle of the Capitol, where they’re manufactured into fitting media idols for the duration of the Games. You see, it’s not simply one’s survival skills that can affect the outcome, but one’s direct appeal to an audience of potential sponsors who can pay to have desperately needed items dropped into the battle zone. Katniss and Peeta are prepared, in varying styles, for their oncoming ordeal by their appointed mentor, District 12’s only living Games winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and the surprisingly empathetic Capitolian stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
Ross was clearly chosen for this project on the back of his previous works as director, the obvious fantasy satire Pleasantville (1998), where the destruction of oppressive regimes is relayed through media images, and Seabiscuit (2003), where scrappy underdogs triumph in a time of privation. Ross’s direction, as with those previous films, is often facetious in its cinematic techniques, if also well-calibrated in places. Such is true of an hallucinatory sequence where, affected by the sting of genetically engineered wasps, Katniss dreams of her father’s death, and a patch of raw impressionism in the first moments of the games: the well-trained Tributes from richer districts for whom competition is an honour brutally exterminate as many competitors as possible, scored to an eerie piece of ’70s experimental music. Both of these scenes hit the right note of apocalyptic dread.
But elsewhere, Ross reveals an inability to create a truly textured mise-en-scène or sustain real tension, badly corroding the story’s basic strengths. What’s supposed to be the acerbic portrait of the Capitolians as a race who have taken plastic surgery and body modification to infinitely more ludicrous levels is poorly rendered: Ross’s Capitolians look more like art students attending a New Wave dance club circa 1982. Where a cleverer director with a stronger sense of staging might have presented a jarring intrusion of super-technology into what is otherwise a 1920s mining town, Ross casually tosses it at the screen, much like he does with the disorienting contrast of the ludicrously dolled-up Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the drab environs and populace of District 12. It’s a warning that the kind of superficial realism Ross tries to invoke with his jittery hand-held camerawork doesn’t always suit tales where the need to absorb surface contrasts is part of the dramatic texture, never mind futuristic fantasy-action-satires. By contrast with the environs of District 12, smartly utilising the real detritus of modern industrialism, the Capitol is a hunk of unspecific CGI, and flatly derived contemporary televisions graphics are proffered to fill out this curious future brand of reality TV. Characterisation of the archly artificial Capitolians that ought to blend with supple anxiety and personal insufficiencies, like Effie and Stanley Tucci’s smarmy TV host, are steamrollered into mere theory.
Ross is a “serious” filmmaker, and he puts his broadly successful main effort into taking Katniss’ terror and bravery earnestly, but the film deals with her background and history in District 12 is such cursory terms that Katniss is reduced to little more than a pretty, bland protagonist: her nominal toughness and strength of character are barely troubled by any depth, only a kind of blank stoicism, and her love for her sister is signalled with tepid devices. Ross leans entirely on Lawrence to flesh out Katniss, a reasonably smart move as Lawrence delivers, but not therefore a forgivable one. Her attitude is conveniently laid out for us when she retorts to Peeta’s stated desire that he find a way to remain an autonomous moral unit in the Games, “I can’t afford to think like that.” Of course, the film will constantly undercut Katniss’ expedient sensibility first by making sure that the only deaths she has a hand in are mercy killings or entirely deserved in the name of self-defence against creeps. The set-piece of grim, wrenching loss in both book and film is the death of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the youngest of the Tributes who reminds Katniss of her sister and who is impaled with a spear by another tribute trying to kill Katniss. The film’s most interesting addition follows: because Ross can’t quite get across how Katniss deliberately turns her funeral for Rue into an act of political theatre because he cannot offer any technique that gets into her headspace, he provides instead a literal result, a riot in Rue’s home district sparked by fury over the girl’s death and Katniss’ gesture of solidarity.
Collins’ novel, whilst many miles from being a literary masterpiece, utilises its first-person, present-tense style cleverly to lay out a tale that engages with a modern phenomenon, the layering of media that’s pervasive in a world where it’s possible to experience, record, and critique experience all at once, and where internal and exterior realities can be disconnected in some puzzling and alienating ways. This is accomplished through Katniss’ constant meditations on the opacity of Peeta’s motives as well as her own, and the necessity of playing up to the crowd before, during, and after the Games. The idea is deepened in the follow-up novels, in which Katniss is constructed in variations of media idol as required by the moment and the authorities laying claim to her. This is the new element Collins brought to the basic story, which has roots in prehistory but which comes to us most clearly from models like Richard Connell’s oft-filmed story The Most Dangerous Game and Cornel Wilde’s rough-hewn classic The Naked Prey (1966): the basic point of such tales is that if you strip down the average human and place them in a situation of animalistic, life-and-death struggle, you find something both frightening and pure, even noble.
More recent works with similar motifs, like Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1986), added the idea of such battles being media events, taking place under an incessant, totalitarian scrutiny. Collins’ tale, through the way the Games are constructed as instant media artefacts, moves beyond such templates, as even in situations of ruthless combat and mortal struggle, there’s an element of psychological duplicity, of unreality: even a battle to the death can still be punctuated by worrying about achieving the right pose and losing your audience appeal. When I, like many others, first heard of the Collins tales, the likeness to Battle Royale seemed inescapable, but upon actually reading The Hunger Games, I immediately realised there’s little actual similarity—ironically, to The Hunger Games’ detriment. Battle Royale presented a ruthlessly cunning metaphor for the pressure placed upon students to conform and perform, and dug with insidious brilliance into the dark side of being adolescent—the operatic emotional intensity, the protean fluctuations between pure ardour and utter hate, the way petty social interactions and competitions can stir outsized reactions.
The Hunger Games, by contrast, essentially treats its central conceit like an interschool sporting event, tossing people who don’t know each other into a cauldron. The film barely introduces the other Tributes, most of whom are just glowering, smug hunks of threat. That was egregious in the book, too, but at least the first-person perspective made it acceptable. Ross violates that perspective at any opportunity, chiefly so he can use the Games commentators as exposition spouters. The sight of the most skilled and ruthless Tributes, who form a unit to pick off Katniss, calls to mind a pack of prefects hounding the solitary misfit on a school excursion and has some punch in evoking true high school dynamics, but this is throwaway. Whatever relevance The Hunger Games has to its target audience is all but surgically removed beyond obvious placards like “rely on yourself” whilst “sometimes working together is good.”
Also banished is any real political significance, as Panem is left such a vague and specious dystopia as to make the film’s pretences to commentary on haves and have-nots (or the 1% and 99% to put it in laboured contemporary slogans) thin to the point of meaninglessness, especially considering that the film cops out of implicating its audience in the acts of watching thrilling blood sports for entertainment. In the novel, the social structure of Panem is left fairly vague, and therefore the situation of Katniss and fellow Tributes has a faintly Kafkaesque quality of random victimisation by unseen forces; here the villainy is given specific shape by fleshing out the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the chief of the “Gamemakers,” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Sutherland, who’s as sublimely menacing in his leonine fashion as he’s ever been, aptly links the film to a cinematic history of anti-establishment films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and MASH (1970), which is odd, because otherwise, The Hunger Games represents the franchise film without specific history or future, only the necessity of the moment’s dollar.
Collins’ novel offered a fascinating take of the ambiguity of some youthful rites of passage: Katniss’ engaging in a play-act with Peeta that may or may not be a play-act, for the benefit of success in the Games and also because Katniss is still essentially learning who she is. By going through the motions of certain experiences, she channels a common way young people engage in self-discovery, more common than is often noted. This theme is completely lost on screen. The film even sucks away some of the book’s wryer touches that offer thematic heft, like the way Katniss begins to feel the pull of the hated exceptionalism and decadence of the Capitol’s lifestyle as she’s waylaid by plentiful food and the beautifying treatments and styling Cinna gives her. Cinna’s own most memorable line of self-assessment that offers the hint that not all is well amongst the Capitol’s citizenry, “How despicable we must seem to you,” fails to make the cut, too. It’s no wonder pundits of both left and right have been able to lay claim to the film, because it’s so equivocal as to be practically a Rorschach test for the viewer’s specific viewpoint. The Hunger Games has and undoubtedly will continue to inspire a suitable welter of articles in magazines and term papers about empowerment for young women, metaphors for the global financial crisis and third-world poverty, reflections on social networking and reality television, and blah blah fricking blah. This is the perfect material for our era where subtext has become, well, text, the theoretical turned into pedagogic narrative literalism without real entertainment value.
Ross and Billy Ray cowrote the script with Collins herself, and the film follows the novel with a painstaking refusal of new imagination, and yet it still manages to leave out much that made Collins’ work specific and original, and rushes not only the scene-setting opening but also the interestingly off-beat, melancholy conclusion. After decades of complaints about filmmakers ruining novels by changing them, today filmmakers ruin novels by adapting them with scrupulously lead-footed fidelity, as if there’s no essential difference between literary and cinematic narrative techniques. Rather than intelligent synergy, what we get is rote extrapolation of the good bits (Katniss shooting the apple from the roast pig’s mouth to shock the Gamemakers; dropping the hive of mutant wasps to see off her persecutors) without any care for narrative sophistication or novelty, leaving only a glorified TV pilot. There’s so little nimbleness, wit, concision, and visual pleasure in this film that it begins to feel like a chore to get to the end of it. There’s something about these carefully packaged franchises based on hit novels that’s becoming increasingly stultifying, being as they are essentially two hours of moving fan service rather than independent-minded cinema. Whereas that was acceptable with the Harry Potter novels, which, with their intricate plots and their overflowing delight in a fantasy world, both enabling and offering relief from mere plot, a neat correlation is now established: Hollywood gets to milk every last dime in exchange for fans, that ever-nebulous body that is today regarded as a body of sacred worshippers, especially if they’re young.
Perhaps all this wouldn’t mean too much if The Hunger Games, which is basically an action-adventure tale in spite of its pretensions, was actually any good as an action-adventure movie, but it’s simply passable in that regard. Whilst the moment of Rue’s death is leveraged for maximum impact, it’s so carefully arranged to leave Katniss free of any implicit guilt and absent any sense of physical pain that the effect is calculated and mawkish, as if the filmmakers have no sense of the irony implicit in the scene. The film’s best moment of violent epiphany comes when Katniss is defeated by one of her more evil opponents, a knife-hurling girl named Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), who, taunting Katniss about the death of Rue, earns the wrath of Rue’s district fellow Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). He beats her to death, her wide-eyed corpse falling to the earth besides Katniss in the sort of moment that carries the authentic jolt of supercharged emotion blending with the sudden switch between villain and victim such a situation must entail. But the moment doesn’t count for much—a flaw shared with the book—because the other Tributes are all functional cyphers who give shows of wickedness, emotion, and mercy precisely when it’s required for our heroine’s sake, whose nominal qualities are, again, constantly undercut by external chance and happenstance when it comes to staying alive. Even the moment when Katniss decides to defy the Gamemakers in their final cheat, and proposes that she and Peeta poison themselves, is clearly signalled to be her cunning plan, assured to end positively. Lawrence shares barely any chemistry with her unremarkable young costars, so any proto-erotic frisson is irrelevant. I began to find myself, heaven forbid, actually missing that gauche, girly, campy enthusiasm that drives the Twilight tales, where at least there’s supposed to be some pleasure in the fantasy.
The novel’s bizarre climax, when the remnant Tributes are hunted by dogs genetically engineered with DNA from their dead fellows, a concept and image with truly Sadean ramifications, is rendered dead on arrival because Ross shoots it in the dark. Which made me newly conscious about one aspect of this type of movie: whilst The Hunger Games goes through the paces of making itself coherent to an audience of newbies, for people who know the book, it essentially relies on them to fill in all the blanks it leaves. Of course, none of this is to say that The Hunger Games is bad: and no, it’s not bad. But it still manages to amplify the faults of its source material and add more of its own. In the end, it is competent and sufficient, and, all things considered, that’s what’s truly, dismayingly disappointing about it. Still, it’s not just Lawrence who emerges with dignity intact: Kravitz is surprisingly good as the commanding, yet gentle Cinna, and Stenberg is unforced in her embodiment of plucky, doomed youth. On the other hand, Harrelson and Banks, often amongst the better things in movies they appear on, get barely any chance to suggest pathos for their characters. Perhaps this series will improve in its later chapters, especially the dark, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” kicker in the last episode, but only if it learns the same lesson as Katniss does: it’s not enough to merely turn up and act tough; you need a good stylist, too.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Stanton
By Roderick Heath
I take the popular dismissal of John Carter a little bit personally. When I was young, I loved films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels—any version of Tarzan, of course, but also the lively battery of Burroughs-derived films made by British director Kevin Connor in the mid ’70s. I owe a considerable amount of the growth of my love for the fantastic genres to those movies, and therefore to Burroughs. Yet I’ve read a lot of commentaries blaming the relatively poor box-office performance of John Carter, the new Disney-produced, $250 million movie taken from Burroughs’ beloved, much-imitated Barsoom series, on its being adapted from esoteric material, as if a great bulk of what is popularly thought of as science fiction doesn’t derive specifically from Burroughs’ ideas, and as if his tales don’t offer a wealth of interest for the fantastic filmmaker and filmgoer. Of course, those ropy old flicks I loved didn’t cost such colossal sums of money, but attaching discussions of the decadence of modern Hollywood to its less successful products is, in a strange way, still playing Hollywood’s game, considering the way the industry and its pseudo-populist champions wield the successful ones, even the ones that are terrible, with bludgeoning contempt.
When Hollywood is starved for strong stories to tell, as it certainly is now, one way to get out of that slump is to dig back into the vast trove of great material provided by scifi, fantasy, and other genre writers over the past century, most of it largely ignored in favour of shallow appropriations and constant recycling. John Carter’s failure to connect is especially bitter, from this film viewer’s perspective, as blockbuster cinema has stooped to adapting board games and fun park rides rather than solidly conceived tales. John Carter is weighed down with a painfully bland and obfuscating title, one which hardly solves the presumed problem of esoteric material and betrays the real sensibility of pulp thrills and soaring space opera that the film itself communicates, in what is nonetheless one of the most purely enjoyable, rousing, and dashing examples of big-budget cinema I’ve seen lately, perhaps indeed the best since the last The Lord of the Rings film. It’s Avatar without the new-age ponderousness, Star Wars with more ideas and strangeness, Flash Gordon with a deeper hero. Although it lasts more than two hours, it moves with the rapidity of a serial from the 1930s.
Director Andrew Stanton does not defeat all of the familiar problems of modern blockbuster cinema, which resists that personal sense of the mythic that made, say, the early Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman movies so particular for their makers and audiences. The first half-hour of John Carter, whilst doing nothing especially wrong, does nonetheless wrestle with problems of exposition and locating the emotional gateway into the tale—vital elements of the fantastic drama that many modern franchise flicks treat increasingly like chores, tossing them away in rushed, voiceover-laden prologues. Star Taylor Kitsch, who made his name in the TV show Friday Night Lights, is a competent and mildly likable but also frustratingly unspecific leading man, in a role that needs wit, gumption, and a real air of both grievous hurt and eccentric heroism. Kitsch just seems like a knock-off James Franco with a buffer body.
But John Carter sports a screenplay cowritten by Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon, who has long burrowed into the serious underside of the pulp pantheon. They infuse John Carter, as it evolves along with the world it portrays, with a depth of feeling and crowded panoply of detail that soon takes on a feverishly enjoyable aura. The script expands on and conflates Burroughs’ original tales in numerous ways, particularly in the wraparound narrative that frames A Princess of Mars, the first of Burroughs’ novels set on the red planet its inhabitants call Barsoom. The film conflates the young first-person narrator whose uncle John Carter is in the book with Burroughs himself, and he becomes party not merely to Carter’s supposedly posthumous tale, but also to a clever plot that pays off in the very conclusion. Carter’s experiences gold prospecting and his attempts to survive frontier dangers are, likewise, recast to reflect the more exotic, off-world scenes he will encounter as he shifts from ethnic conflict here on Earth to those on Barsoom.
Stanton, who, of course, has come to features after several hugely successful animated films and moves immediately in the footsteps of Brad Bird’s success with Mission: Impossible 4 (2010), retains an animator’s necessary sense of pace and humour: indeed, an early series of gags that Stanton pulls, as Carter keeps trying to escape the custody of army officer Powell (Bryan Cranston), would be funnier if rendered in the quicksilver technique of animation rather than in bruising three dimensions. Stanton does, however, display a remarkably fleet-footed capacity to keep his story and visuals in motion, with a narrative that threatens at times to be top-heavy, and after that initial uncertainty, Stanton nimbly keeps pace with our hero’s efforts to keep an even keel as he’s presented with multifarious strangeness. As Burroughs learns through the journal Carter leaves him along with his whole, vast estate, Carter survived the Civil War where, serving for the Confederates, he emerged as a hero, only to find his wife and child had been killed in raids. To make his fortune and leave behind the humanity he now detests, he goes prospecting for gold in Arizona, where he is picked up by the bullying Powell, who wants to force him to help fight against the Apaches. John resists and escapes. When Powell and his men give chase, they instead earn the wrath of an Apache band, and in the ensuing fight, Powell is wounded. John drags him to the cave, known as the Spider cave because of a motif carved within, where he’s been finding gold. As John ventures into the recess, a mysterious being beams into the cavern, and John shoots him. An amulet about the dead man’s neck is actually the control device for the wormhole that opens and sends John, or rather a kind of facsimile of John, across space to the Martian hinterland.
John finds himself in the midst of a knotty civil war that’s been engulfing Barsoom for centuries, between the kingdoms of reddish-skinned humans, Helium and Zodanga, and the green-skinned, horn-faced, four-armed Tharks, amongst whom John first finds himself captive. The Tharks, formerly a sophisticated civilisation, are now violent and degenerate. John soon discovers he has great strength and a talent for leaping incredible distances because of Mars’ low gravity, traits that endear him to the Thark king Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe). Tars, more emotional and open-minded than the other Tharks, knows that the much-victimised Sola (Samantha Morton), to whom John is mockingly given as a baby to raise, is actually his daughter, unusual knowledge when most Tharks are adopted indiscriminately after hatching from eggs. When circumstances force Tars to take John and Sola’s side, he is toppled by nasty warrior Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, Helium is at risk of finally losing to Zodanga because its king, Sab Than (Dominic West), possesses an incredible new weapon that fires the elusive and powerful “ninth ray” given to him by a race called the Therns, one of whom John killed in the cave. The Therns pose as immortal and priestly, but they actually control fantastic technology, and they’re really stage-managing a victory for Zodanga which will lead to the final deterioration of Barsoom, an act of entropy which the Therns feed off. For a cruelly exact final victory, the lead Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), instructs Sab to marry the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), scientist daughter of Helium’s king Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), and then kill her, an act that will both cement his hegemony and, with Dejah’s attempts to master the ninth ray coming too close for the Therns’ comfort, eliminating her dangerous intelligence. When Dejah tries to escape Sab, his flying ship catches hers above the Thark city.
It’s in the action sequence that follows that John Carter truly snaps into full working order. John, enraged to see a human woman being terrorised, springs into action and devastates Sab’s warriors and ships with his unbound earthly talents like Errol Flynn slipped free of earthbound laws, ripping loose in sheer spectacle with dashes of physical comedy and surrealist absurdity, as John’s sudden superhuman prowess swings between awesome competence and jarring clumsiness, and Sab nettles under Shang’s restraining influence. Again, Stanton’s background in animation, where the laws of physics can be bent easily, comes out here to more perfect effect, and the film retains a visual fluidity that makes sense of crowded scenes of action. Likewise Stanton, in a fashion familiar for animators, has a gift for finding the appealing quality in seemingly grotesque things, like the wailing, slimy Thark babies who cuddle up to John lovingly in their lair, and a super-fast creature that looks like a lump of silly putty with legs, placed menacingly on guard outside the Thark nursery, but which proves to be essentially a weird kind of dog. When John defends it from being beaten by the Tharks, it becomes his inseparable companion.
Stanton and his production team seem to have carefully parsed old comics, book covers, and illustrations for the conceptual universe, combining elements of steampunk and retro-futurist wonder with the edge of oriental exoticism so common in that old artwork—Mameluke guns, neo-Trojan armour, and Scheherazade dresses. Zadonga, a mobile city that moves along on gigantic crawling mechanics, is an almost casually employed wonder of design and execution teeming with detail, and so is the great cathedral of Helium where gigantic rotating lens and arcane religious ritual converge. But perhaps Stanton’s most impressive sequence of visual control comes when Matai Shang, having taken John prisoner, leads him through the city’s crowds and explains his plans with casual arrogance, whilst changing forms, forcing John and the audience to move with the flow of convenient guises.
Keeping a plot that is complicated less by intricacies of action than by an array of competing sides is difficult, but John Carter is never less than entirely coherent, even in the multilayered battle that wraps it up, something like genius compared with the dizzying incomprehensibility of the Transformers films, where even simple brawls are impossible to follow. The greatest fantasy-adventure films tend to have an elegiac sensibility, a sense of space that allows time to breathe in the landscapes and drama with hues of awe and tragedy, but John Carter largely moves too fast for that. Such films also usually tend to have a breath of the otherworldly, the exotic, and the erotic, for example, the gleefully perverse scene in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) where the narrative takes time out to portray the seedy old sultan stabbed to death by the alluring facsimile of id-filtered femininity provided by the evil sorcerer. The erotic only gets a look in here in the alluring fleshiness of Dejah’s apparel, and even that’s pushing it for a Disney film, but there’s an underpinning of emotional seriousness to the tale that means that it never descends into shallow pictorial splendour. This quality is especially embodied by Collins’ breathy earnestness as Dejah in a strong performance that elegantly and effortlessly bestrides the schism of luscious physicality and intelligent conscientiousness so well she subverts any notion of a disparity. Her radiant humanity contrasts the coldly calculating Matai Shang, well-played by Strong, a figure whose affectation of incorporeal imperative and godlike power hides a cynical program of profit by exploitation and degradation, an idea with interesting resonances. Stanton admirably tries to wield a certain amount of darkness of the kind that Disney have usually tried to keep out of their movies since the bad old days of The Black Hole (1979) and Dragonslayer (1982), from the sorry spectacle of Sola being branded—she has so many brand marks there’s no room left on her body—for her perceived transgressions, to the marks of visceral tragedy John carries upon his soul.
Whilst the pitch of the depressed and disillusioned war veteran has become a tired motif in action-adventure movies, like the pseudo-historical variation on this theme, The Last Samurai (2003), Stanton wrings it until it pays off in a legitimately great sequence in which John, refusing to be chased further by an army of evil Tharks called up by Shang, and to give Dejah and Sola a chance to get away, launches himself into the alien horde and hacks it to pieces with astounding fury. Stanton presents a dialectic montage, cutting between the action and John’s memory of coming home and finding his house destroyed and his wife’s corpse, and then burying her; Stanton aims here for the furthermost reaches of emotive grandeur, coalescing old trauma, new love, and innate heroism into a singular whirlwind of expressive carnage. One distinct pleasure of John Carter is indeed that it looks and sounds like all that money finished up on screen: the film’s special effects have a rich, beautiful intricacy that suggest that CGI-based cinema might only now be starting to come into its own, particularly wondrous when John, escaping Shang’s clutches, flees in one of the Zadonga flying machines that look like sculptures of large insects fashioned out of Victoriana crystal and brass, avoiding the city’s colossal motivators.
The fact that the Barsoom tales have been so endlessly filched by moviemakers over the years, including, yes, Avatar, Star Wars, and Flash Gordon, and the fact that the film sticks firmly to some familiar templates—the scenes where hero John and Dejah wander in the desert bickering resemble the dreaded Prince of Persia (2009), for instance—do mean that to a large extent it can never feel entirely fresh. But John Carter outdoes the many films it resembles simply by doing such things better and by keeping its feet planted firmly in the legitimate quality of its source material. Burroughs’ stories, like most prototypes, were joyous in having few set rules for how they should proceed; thus, they could be both romantic adventures and speculative fiction all at once, and something of their fulminating strangeness makes it into the movie, with its breathless procession of alien customs and reproduction habits and intricate religious sensibility. Just as The Land that Time Forgot and its 1974 film version offers up an old canard—a lost island populated with dinosaurs—but adds a notional interest in evolution and presented a microcosmic version of it that proves to have a strange, deistic motivation behind it, so, too, is there substance under all John Carter’s freewheeling invention. There’s an environmental message, most obviously, as the wicked Zardongans consume endlessly and contribute to their planet’s decay, but also an engaging amount of space for probing the nature of emotion in species that do not reproduce like humans, as in the Tharks, and a note of poetically opposite senses of wonder for John and Dejah, whose different kinds of ships sail different kinds of oceans, both equally strange and impossible for them to imagine. John trails faintly religious associations, as a messiah with the initials JC prone to resurrections and stepping in and out his corporeal form, but his enemies are false deists who visit people and guide them on to a destiny which is designed to be self-destructive to suit the Therns’ needs. And perhaps that’s the real reason why nobody knew what to do with John Carter: it doesn’t carefully and neatly beat one essential theme into the ground like most of these colossal blockbusters, but serves as a big, tottering, server platter for a truly complex universe.
It helps that Stanton avoids belabouring things that other directors might stretch out, with an occasional anticlimactic flourish, as when John challenges Tal Hajus for the kingship of the Tharks: Tal Hajus hurls himself down from on high, John leaps up, and in the next moment Tal’s head is rolling away on the sand. Similarly near-satirical is a subsequent sequence where the Tharks make a grand charge to the rescue of Dejah, only to arrive in Zadonga and find the wedding is taking place in Helium, and Tars Tarkas can only express frustration by slapping John in the back of the head. Later, when the Tharks have to do something they fear and loathe—trying to fly—the inevitable last-minute arrival sees Tars Tarkus crash-land through the cathedral wall and groan his pleasure that’s over with. But the film’s set-piece action scenes are doozies, like the aforementioned flying chase, and John, in space opera’s compulsory arena battle, taking on colossal blind white apes, swinging huge chunks of stone on the end of chain to pulverise them, and Sola, finally angered to breaking point, tossing her constant foe Sarkoja (Polly Walker) into the arena for the fleeting pleasure of seeing her stomped. The climax is a wild melee as both John and Sab are targeted for assassination by Matai in the midst of a grand battle, and John tries to stop the Thern villain from escaping. Even after the story seems to be over, and John marries and beds Dejah, Matai’s traps ensnare him and exile him back to Earth, which seems now a cold and dreary exile for which his only answer is an intricately woven plan that involves his young nephew. John Carter, or John Carter of Mars as finally and properly amended, is one of the most satisfying rides I’ve had in a movie theatre in recent years. I do hope more of you go to see it, not because Disney needs the money, but because of a selfish personal motive: I want to see more movies like this one.
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