3rd 10 - 2014 | 7 comments »

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn

Guardians

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

The U.S. summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.

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Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.

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Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Djimon Hounsou, 2014. ph: Jay Maidment/©Walt Disney Studios Motion

Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.

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The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.

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Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.

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Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.

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But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.

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The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.

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Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.

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Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.

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Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.

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The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.

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What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, too, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.

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To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.


2nd 09 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Don Siegel

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By Roderick Heath

Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.

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Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.

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He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.

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Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.

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Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.

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When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.

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It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.

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Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.

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Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.

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Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.

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The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.

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There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.

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Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.

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When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.

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Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.

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2nd 07 - 2014 | 5 comments »

Snowpiercer (2013)

Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers

South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.

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A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.

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Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.

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The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.

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There’s conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.

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Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.

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Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.

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Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.

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At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.

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If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.

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The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.

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Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.

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The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.

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Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.

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It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.

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Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.

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Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.


19th 05 - 2014 | 8 comments »

Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

Like many young boys, I was once a Godzilla freak. Worse, I was a perpetually frustrated Godzilla freak. For a long time, the only entry in Toho Studios’ banner series I had available to me was Godzilla 1985, the somewhat altered New World Studio recut of The Return of Godzilla (1984), at the time, Big G’s first film in 10 years. Godzilla 1985 was, however, a great place to start with the most famous of atomic monsters, because it stripped its iconic monster back to the force of nature and terror it had begun as in Ishiro Honda’s great 1954 original. That stature had been diluted and then erased through the ’60s and ’70s as Godzilla had been turned increasingly into a giant tag-team wrestler taking on motley foes in increasingly weak instalments. By the time of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the lizard was delivering flying karate kicks and swapping high-fives with his robot buddy.

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Toho’s revived series soon brought back the antagonists and continued until 2004, whilst in between came a film remembered by every scifi fan in fear and loathing, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich’s film wasn’t actually a Godzilla film, tossing out just about everything that separated him from his forebears (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1951) and progeny (The Giant Behemoth, 1956; Gorgo, 1960; every other kaiju eiga) to make him King of Monsters. Another Hollywood Godzilla movie had to make up for this betrayal. The man to try this proved to be Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with a lone, low-budget work behind him: Monsters (2009), an inventive, intelligent if pedantic movie, turning the invasive mutant beasts that littered its North American hinterlands into broad metaphors for many a contemporary ill, including illegal immigration. Edwards’ evident skill was ripe for a richer canvas, and his Godzilla is his play for directorial megatonnage, whilst giving the vintage Toho franchise new life. The carefully hyped product has been generating excitement in everyone with the slightest glimmer of fondness for Godzilla, but it had its work cut out for it to stand out in the field of modern special-effects movie, like Cloverfield (2006) and Pacific Rim (2013), where cities are regularly levelled and colossal beasts are terrorising humankind.

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Edwards, to his credit, makes all the right moves early on, kicking off with a clever opening credits sequence that moves from pages of Darwinian evolution to photos of mysterious happenings and monstrous phenomena around A-bomb test sites, real and fake grainy photos, with cast and crew names flashing on screen in swiftly redacted excerpts. Edwards gives signs early on that his playbook is inflected by Steven Spielberg as much as by Toho. What the rising crane shot to reveal a vista is to Spielberg, a peak into a vertiginous depth is Edwards, commencing with an impressive helicopter shot of a massive sinkhole in the midst of an open-cut mine teeming with antlike humans, a visually impressive and thematically keen vision of what’s to come. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are brought to the mine in the Philippines to behold an amazing discovery in the sinkhole—the bones of a colossal saurian skeleton with two strange pods in its chest cavity, one of which seems to have hatched recently and disgorged something large.

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Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear safety watchdog Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) are alarmed by strange seismic and electrical disturbances at the nuclear power plant where they work. Just as Joe begins shutting the plant down, something bursts into the sub-basement where Sandra and an inspection team are working, and releases a flood of radioactive smoke. Edwards wrings the climax of this sequence for high emotion, as Joe is forced to seal off a corridor, leaving Sandra and the other workers trapped, with Joe saying farewell to his wife through a pane of Perspex before she is sealed away forever.

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The film jumps 15 years to find Joe, now a damaged, hysterical seeker of the truth, venturing into the quarantined zone around the destroyed reactor in search of old data. His and Sandra’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal expert just returned from active duty and reunited with his doctor wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and has long since written his old man off as a crackpot. Nonetheless, he ventures to Japan to bail him out, only to be promptly dragged back into the quarantine zone with him as Joe urgently tries to convince him of strange phenomena that portend another cataclysmic event, an event presaged by the mysterious absence of any radiation in the hot zone. Joe and Ford are captured by guarding soldiers and brought to Serizawa and Graham, who are keeping watch on a mysterious something buried in the ruins, the weird, crusty subterranean beast that caused the initial disaster and has now been growing fat and strong from absorbing all of the fallout. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival coincides just about exactly with the creature waking up and bursting out of its cocoon to wreak havoc. If you’re expecting this to be Godzilla, though, you’d be wrong, because this is rather a colossal, insectoid monster dubbed Muto—“Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism”—that pulverises everything in sight and spreads its wings to fly into the night.

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I was bemused by some early reviews that criticising the film for taking too long to get to the monster stuff, because most of the time, critics (justifiably) bawl out modern genre films for being too quick at cutting to the chase. Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein spend a lot of time setting up a rigorously old-fashioned approach to their storytelling. There’s some nice humour and character moulding early on, like a great little scene in a Japanese police station where Ford waits for his father to be released, entertained by watching as a Goth girl is collected by chastising parents before catching sight of his old man, who looks out with a detectable mix of shame and gratitude to his son. Whereas even the ardent Pacific Rim skipped most of that stuff to revel in the fantastic world it created, this Godzilla goes for an old-school tempo of ominous suggestion, startling glimpse, and finally, grand reveal, in the same fashion as such great monster movies as Them! (1954) and Jaws (1975), as well as the original Honda film. The opening offers wrenching, mythic loss to invest Joe with pathos well suited to a hero in this kind of film, whilst providing a father-son redemption as its key human story pivot, pitching Joe as kin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) Roy Neary as a man driven to frayed extremes by tragedy and intimations of the new and terrifying, with a touch of Unabomber nuttiness to him, counterbalanced by his son’s tepid all-American rectitude (notwithstanding his being played by a British actor). Cranston, still riding the crest of a huge following from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” knows how to do edgy and irrational without losing gravitas and empathy, and his presence in the film feels at first like the film’s most inspired, galvanising choice. Unfortunately, Godzilla then does something rather stupid from which it never truly recovers: it kills Joe in a skywalk collapse during Muto’s hatching, leaving Ford to fill in as hero.

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Losing its most (only, in fact) detailed and engaged protagonist, the rest of Godzilla feels unmoored in a subtle, but dogged fashion. Taylor-Johnson, a good actor who can play oddball heroes effectively (Nowhere Boy, 2010; Kick-Ass, 2011; Savages, 2012), is reduced to a veritable GI Joe figurine. The limits of Edwards’ Spielbergian mimicry, which extends to naming its main hero after one Spielberg hero and the actor who played another, becomes obvious if one were to compare the scenes of Roy Neary’s home life with those of Ford Brody’s, which are far less detailed, realistic, and vibrant. Ford and Elle never cease looking and acting like placeholders where finished characters might later be inserted, and Edwards cross-cuts in ungainly fashion between the pair in their disparate places as the action heats up, with Elle trying to stick out her healing job in the midst of calamity, but this and the final reunion of the family played for uplift remain weightless.

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One motif, amongst many, the monster film shares in common with the disaster film is the need to find convincing ways to have core protagonists somehow manage to be in different places so as to witness the main points of action, but Bornstein’s script manages some awfully contrived methods to keep Ford in play. These include shoving him into the midst of havoc on Hawaii and then having him talk his way onto a squad wiring up and then dismantling a thermonuclear device in northern California. Moreover, the rest of Edwards’ excellent cast is generally left holding the bag. Watanabe is on hand to maintain the film’s Japanese connection, but spends most of the film looking vaguely stupefied, as if someone just slapped him with a fish. Hawkins has quite literally nothing to do except look gawky and worried. Notably, although the filmmakers have named Watanabe’s character after Akihiko Hirata’s troubled genius in Honda’s film, who embodied the position of the nuclear inventor dogged by guilt in creating a terrible weapon, Watanabe’s character has no real function other than to act as sagacious pronouncer (e.g. “Let them fight!” and “Nature will find a balance!”).

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Rather than the firm antimilitarism of the early Godzilla films and their preference for scientists, journalists, and everymen as protagonists, this one makes sure to give us a resolute soldier hero straight from a recruiting poster, even if he is one who specialises in dismantling bombs rather than launching them. The film’s awkward subplot about crusty Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) trying to lure Godzilla and foes to an H-bomb to kill them provokes perhaps the film’s most affecting genuflection to the original, emblematic meaning of all this, as Serizawa questions his decision by handing him his grandfather’s watch, which stopped forever at the time of Little Boy’s drop on Hiroshima. It’s a nicely understated moment that lets both characters and film understand the totem as sufficient unto itself. But the film is really nice to Stenz and his reasoning and cops out of any serious contemplation of the place for nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. Nor even are Godzilla and Muto actually designated as creations of the Atomic Age; rather, they are explained as prehistoric life forms that evolved when the Earth was much more radioactive to live off that energy, and merely revived by a new energy source. This fuzzy take on the key motif behind the series could have been mitigated by a clear new take on the monsters as symbolic phenomena, but nothing really sticks—certainly nothing likely to stick in the mind of any eight-year-old with as much meaning as the chillingly apocalyptic moment in Godzilla 1985 when an atmospheric nuclear blast creates a miniature nuclear winter that revives a felled Godzilla.

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Of course, asking for highly reasoned parables and good human drama from a colossal-budget Hollywood creature feature has its churlish side. Edwards has clearly put a lot of thought and effort to one essential aspect of his film—to return to his monsters the awe and mystique engendered by truly titanic scale and impact. Muto’s hatching is grand spectacle, whilst Godzilla’s first real appearance is left until halfway through the film, savouring every hint, sign, tremor and partial glimpse. His coming is marked by cataclysm that sublimates imagery from the 2004 tsunamis as he comes ashore on Hawaii, until suddenly the whole grand beast is revealed in classic fashion in an upward camera pan that tracks the monster’s body from toenail to brow, before Big G releases his trademark concussive roar. Even better is a later sequence in which soldiers speed to Yucca Mountain, where the second, still-filled Muto egg Serizawa and Graham recovered is now stored, with Serizawa having realised the first Muto is heading to reunite with its female sibling. Soldiers begin inspecting the installation, only to find the entire backside of the mountain has been ripped out by the newly hatched and even more colossal mate, now casually ambling toward Las Vegas like a grumpy, loping teen after its first morning coffee. DP Seamus McGarvey’s images are all smoky, foggy, artfully ragged: Godzilla’s landfall at the Golden Gate Bridge—that perpetually unlucky structure!—creates at least one truly beautiful image, of the monstrous antihero striding away from the shattered bridge in a rainy morning mist. Another visually striking, if logically dumb scene has Ford and other soldiers inspect a rail bridge to see if their transport can cross it, only to realise a Muto is lurking in the shadows of the gorge it crosses, at once impersonal and blank in its scale and terribly immediate and minutely watchful in its predatory awareness.

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Edwards maintains a rigour toward his monsters, perhaps trying to not oversate the audience as he builds a series of crescendos and diminuendos, bringing his visions of the monsters to the edge of declarative view, but then often dodging or averting his gaze. Sustaining this quality, too, seems to have been paramount in the minds of Edwards and his FX team, as they play with how the audience sees the beasts, from the distant, abstracting authenticity of cable news broadcasts to the swooping, fearsome perspective of parachutists falling in between the squirming bodies and snapping jaws of the monsters. Edwards is so determined to lend intangible, almost religious wonder to Godzilla that he explicitly likens it to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by playing György Ligeti’s “Requiem” during the parachuting sequence, a sequence that is the film’s most strikingly staged but also about half an hour later than it should in the scheme of the film. Frankly, this evasive approach is impressive the first half-dozen times or so, but after a while, it starts to get irritating, reminiscent of the frustrating distance the first Transformers (2007) had from its nominal protagonists, as if the filmmakers had failed to really think through how to use their special effects in a dramatic way, a failing never committed by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. This leads me to the singular thought I had in contemplating this Godzilla: it’s a monster movie for people who don’t like monster movies.

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That might seem a strange comment for a film as devoted to the spectacle of giant lizards and bugs scrapping in downtown San Francisco as this one, but it stuck with me because the overall film is so pensive, so evasive in its approach to its raison d’etre. Pacific Rim, a film that stands heads and shoulders over this one for me in most respects, succeeded in providing thunderous effects and cleverly meshing them with its human drama, though admittedly it was easier there because the fate and will of the human characters was tied to their robot simulacrums directly engaged in action with their foes. And it was also beautiful to look at, resplendent in its hallucinatory colours, in a mobile manner sharply different to this film’s oblique aestheticism, which threatens at many points to become ponderous, especially with Edwards’ stop-start approach to action. Edwards has a great eye for big compositions and for depicting mass drama, like an awesome high shot of a highway clogged with cars and a downed airliner lying smouldering amidst the vehicles, suggesting the meeting place of Godard’s Week-End (1967) and the monster movie. Yet, like a lot of contemporary filmmakers who turn their hand to this sort of thing, the type of simple, shot-for-shot visual exposition required to gain more intimate entry into chaos and stage dynamic interpersonal action is lacking, like a late, awkwardly rushed scene in which Ford tries to incinerate the Mutos’ eggs. When the Mutos first converge on San Francisco, Edwards offers stunning shots of the duo clambering over the tops of skyscrapers, culminating in a charmingly odd moment where the two seem to kiss and one gives the other a meal—a nuclear weapon. But several minutes later, it shows dimwit office workers still caught by surprise as the monsters careen into their building.

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On the other hand, Edwards knows how to sharpen his effects to a point for some powerful, climactic moments, as in the finale’s cunningly delayed introduction for his most salient gift, his ability to spit plumes of blue radioactive flame, in a manner carefully contrived to reduce every fan to tears of joy. Edwards and company visualise this as a literal build-up, the spines on Big G’s tail starting to glow, and then the glow rushing forward in a long arc on its back, disappearing into murk and then back again, before it opens its mouth and lets loose. It’s a great fillip of fan service not just because the effects are good, but because it’s staged with relish and visual acuity. And whilst Edwards seems weirdly shy of letting the Godzilla-Muto death match take centre stage, when it does, it’s satisfying, as Big G lets loose with every limb, including its tail, to wallop its enemies, whilst the two Mutos come close to taking him down when they double-team it. One shot of a wounded Godzilla, collapsed in pain and exhaustion, with Ford barely metres away from its colossal snout, captures the disparity between two life forms and also their weird accord as dusty, battered, battle-hardened warriors. There’s a flash here of peculiar poetry, the kind that gives this Godzilla some of the stature it craves. Of course, by the end of the film, Godzilla itself arises with perverse heroic stature, a living embodiment of a channelled, but not tamed power fantasy, even as it stomps out of shattered ruins and disappears back into the ocean, still primal and strange in its individual might, as a TV news title declares it “The King of Monsters.” Yes it is, even when its films are only princelings. It’s still a good night at the movies.


7th 02 - 2014 | 6 comments »

The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Byron Haskin

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By Roderick Heath

Eleanor Parker’s death last December at the marvellously ripe age of 91 saddened me greatly. On top of the loss of a link with history, Parker had long been one of my favourite female stars from classic Hollywood. I’d had a powerful crush on her ever since first seeing her in Scaramouche (1952), where she whips up a storm as the hero’s fiery actress-mistress. The Naked Jungle is sublime stuff for the Parker fetishist and a quintessential work of ’50s adventure cinema. Adapted from an admired short story by Carl Stephenson, the film was produced by George Pal, a former animator who moved into live-action films and became one of the most successful filmmakers feeding the science fiction craze of the post-War era, commencing with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Pal had evident ambitions to become the next Cecil B. DeMille, to whom he paid overt tribute by adapting two of his failed projects, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and mimicking his mix of epic largesse and religious piety. The quasi-biblical flavour of tribulation and transcendence found in Pal’s movies was corny, but bolder than rivals staking out a place in the scifi race in seeking to capture the psychic polar extremes of the era.

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Pal’s brand reached its height when he hired Byron Haskin to direct War of the Worlds (1953). By that time, Haskin had been working in films for 30 years, having made his directing debut in the late ’20s, but was known mainly as a cinematographer until he made the superb Technicolor hit for Disney, Treasure Island (1950). His work with Pal was the next high point of his career, as the pair developed a grand, hysterical, almost hallucinogenically lush Technicolor brand of scifi cinema with War of the Worlds that plugged vividly into the era’s fantasies and colonised the minds of a generation of budding filmmakers: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a host of others have paid homage to it over the years.

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Haskin, like Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, actually directed only a handful of scifi films but remains associated with the genre because he did his most famous work in it and indeed seemed most at home there. The much-derided Conquest of Space (1955) ended the Pal-Haskin partnership until they reunited for The Power (1968), but that sadly confirmed how out of place their brand of craftsmanship was in the late ’60s. Haskin had, in the meantime, continued to work occasionally in the genre, directing important episodes of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” including the famous ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ episode by Harlan Ellison, and the eerie cult film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The Naked Jungle was the immediate follow-up to War of the Worlds and represented a digression into period exotic adventure, though it has aspects in common with scifi cinema’s “creature feature” impulses insofar as the climax involves combating a monstrous animal force. Here, the monster is entirely earthly and real, but no less alien. And yet for much of its length, The Naked Jungle is not a film about man vs. wild, but rather a tale of man vs. woman, though the two are definitely linked within the narrative logic.

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The Naked Jungle is definitely of a piece with When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, with its emphasis on collapsing “civilisation,” individuals standing in the way of almost cosmic-level nihilism, and Haskin’s powerful, colour-sodden, cleanly contextualised images of fire, corrosion, and calamity. However, it avoids piety, perhaps reflecting the strong influence of coscreenwriter Ben Maddow, blacklisted at the time and fronted by Philip Yordan. Maddow’s incisive gall inflects the film’s vision of a capitalist empire run by a repressed yob and very literally eaten away by hive-mind labourers; or perhaps because of its historical 1901 setting, the need for such reassurance was negated. But it certainly has the same thematic stresses as other Pal films, with the emphasis of the film as a whole on the peculiarities of human willpower to both create and destroy and the ghost in the machine itching to tear the works down. There’s an intimacy, however, to these transcendent/apocalyptic visions that far outstrips many of Pal’s inheritors in modern cinema of spectacular destruction like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. As War of the Worlds finds its poetic center in a young woman’s anguished recollection of lost peace and safety, so The Naked Jungle is, for most of its length, squarely and as unabashedly as you could get in the ’50s, about sex. The title isn’t entirely a tease in that regard: animalistic impulses threaten self-appointed titan Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) from within and without. Parker is Joanna, a mail-order bride from New Orleans who travels via steamboat to Leiningen’s coffee plantation in the Rio Negro area of the Amazon jungle.

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When Joanna arrives in Leiningen’s whitewashed castle filled with trappings of Western civilisation tediously brought in by boat, a trove Joanna is intended to round off, she finds the workforce of tribal folk more welcoming than Leiningen, whose Olympian attitude apparently borders on contempt for her. After several exchanges of strained politesse, Joanna finally loses her cool in a memorable eruption of verve: “Yes – I am exactly as represented. I speak several languages, play the piano, converse intelligently, and have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them?” Joanna then compares herself to a horse Leiningen bought, though at one point Haskin frames him with a statuette of a stallion, indicating he’s the would-be stud. Leiningen’s response is even franker in its conceit: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.” He soon enough sniffs it out: Joanna is a widow, a friend of Leiningen’s brother who recommended herself as the best candidate after he asked her to help him find a wife for the Amazon plantation owner. This leads into the film’s cunningly portrayed central problem. Leiningen is a virgin, having begun his empire building as a teen and resisted the temptation to sleep with the native women: “They have a name for the white men who sneak into the native villages at night. I was determined that no one would ever call me by that name.” As such, he’s initially repelled by the thought of a sexually experienced wife. Gleeful metaphors abound as Leiningen and Joanna compare her presence to the never-played piano he had shipped in. “A good piano sounds better when it’s played,” Joanna retorts pithily, and we all know what she means. Leiningen’s adamantine control begins to crack almost immediately. Taunted by Joanna’s preference of her own perfume to the brands he had imported, he gets drunk, kicks down her bedroom door, and splashes scent all over in a moment of tactile, erotic frenzy before his willpower returns.

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Leiningen begins schooling Joanna in “what you’re up against” in introducing her to both the world he’s carved out with his two hands and the glowering force of sexual frustration. The plantation used to be a swamp, but the water is now held back by lock gates (plot point!); Leiningen extrapolates that a similar mental gate is required to hold the physically and spiritually corrosive power of the jungle—nature itself—at bay, pointing out one of his workers who has Mayan ancestry, “one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known,” but who has devolved into a head-hunter. Lest we mistake Leiningen for one of them exploit-the-natives capitalists, fellow planter Gruber (John Dierkes) turns up with a full head of steam, believing some of his contract workers have run off to Leiningen, and indeed he finds two hiding amongst Leiningen’s crew, identified by the whip marks on their backs. Leiningen outwits Gruber with the aid of the state commissioner (William Conrad), who’s been waylaid by Gruber to help reclaim the workers, by the somewhat torturous but successful ploy of accusing the two men of murder—the shrunken head carried by another worker is used as a prop. His move to hang them gives the commissioner pretext to intervene and hold them for trial, rather than deliver them back to Gruber’s tender mercies. Joanna meanwhile is momentarily shocked out of her formidably wide comfort zone by the spectacle of a native justice ritual that results in a man being killed. She abuses Leiningen’s foreman Incacha (Abraham Sofaer) for letting it happen, but, of course, the dead man is Incacha’s son.

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The Naked Jungle looks back over its shoulder to fetid melodramas like West of Zanzibar (1927) and Red Dust (1932) in using a jungle setting as mimetic canvas to paint perfervid fantasies, whilst its themes both pay heed to and mock late Victorian Freudian theories of repression as the key to constructing civilisations. Neither Haskin nor Heston and Parker step back from the campy edge to the hothouse melodrama, and indeed push gleefully toward and over the edge as Leiningen moves from chilly Pharaonic recline to panther-like lunges and poses over the piano as he probes Joanna about her past and her knowledge of men with the energy of a prosecutor grilling a murderess, with Parker’s blue eyes registering insult and provocation and converting them into energy. Parker, just before delivering that crack about pianos, rises whilst pounding a discordant note on the keyboard, as if the soundtrack has invaded the movie itself to declare infinite offence. Relations devolve into a comically grotesque show before the commissioner as Joanna tries to inform him that she’s leaving but not because the Amazon has proven too much for her, whilst Leiningen tries to feed her dictatorial cues, and the film moves into the territory occupied by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as Technicolor satirists of bourgeois gender relations.

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Young Heston’s odd mixture of physical strength and ability to play febrile personalities was rarely better exploited as Leiningen strikes poses worthy of Bauhaus sculpture, a study in masculine strength who almost immediately starts crumbling within when confronted by Joanna’s all-but-irresistible cache of feminine virtues. Whilst Heston had made his mainstream debut in a DeMille film, the invocations here of primal struggle with plague and flood more clearly point the way forward to his role as Moses. Yet as a protagonist, Leiningen more recalls John Wayne’s Matt Dunston in Red River (1948), a haute macho icon with a vein of rich hysteria just under the surface, and like Dunston, Leiningen engages in a titanic, almost mythic enterprise only to feel the ground slipping out from under his feet: “I was afraid you were disappointed in me,” Joanna announces excitedly as she cottons on to Leiningen, “Instead you’re afraid of me.” Superman loosens up and confesses to having read the books of poetry he has piled around the house. The moment with the perfume has its mirror later as Joanna entices him to put insect repellent on her back, in a scene that approximates the temperatures inside supernovae whilst not even resolving with the traditional kiss. The kind of primeval power a man can obtain in the jungle is transmitted by signs and legends: “Beyond that next bend, your husband has more power than a king,” the commissioner tells Joanna on the boat taking her upriver toward this Amazonian Heart of Darkness. But the jungle’s power is signified at the same moment, as the captain of the steamboat (Romo Vincent) notes birds flying far out of their climes, the first mark of something happening deep within that heart that can upend the peace treaty Leiningen has made with the earth.

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The tension and mystery about what’s out there are built carefully but marginalised for most of the first hour of The Naked Jungle. It’s made amusingly clear just how dreadful it could be, as the commissioner confirms he’s ventured upriver to find out what it is, and utters the dread word, “Marabunta!” to Leiningen, who is so alarmed he makes sure no one could possibly be listening before allowing the conversation to continue, whilst scorer Daniele Amfitheatrof lets loose with his oft-repeated theme of the threat for the first time, a wild-sounding, high flurry on wind instruments that sounds like a bird’s fearful cry. When Leiningen decides to go with the commissioner, he packs Joanna along, intending to send her across land to catch a boat out. But the signs of dread proliferate, with wildlife and villages all deserting the locale. A floating canoe proves to have a dazzlingly clean skeleton in it, albeit still clad in clothes that identify it as Gruber’s. Finally the heroes are confronted by the awesome sight, far more destructive and dangerous than any monster of myth, of the Marabunta: a colossal column of soldier ants, or, as the commissioner dubs it, “40 square miles of agonising death,” devouring all in its path, and working irresistibly toward Leiningen’s plantation. Leiningen, of course, decides to defend his turf, pitting immoveable object against unstoppable force. Joanna half-coerces him into letting her stay rather than leave with the baleful commissioner, pointing out that her presence gives him power over the workers. Not taking chances, however, Leiningen steals a leaf from Cortez—surely a deliberate echo—and burns his workers’ boats to prevent escape.

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The Naked Jungle belongs in a blurred genre zone. In addition to its variation on the themes of Pal’s scifi series and an historical adventure, the story patterns and audience-appeal tropes recall films like The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939) as sexy dramas set in exotic places with climactic deus ex machina transfigurations, and looking forward to the ’70s craze for disaster movies and the horror films of an oncoming age. Although there’s little overt gore in the film, the visceral nature of its implied horror laid groundwork for a significant subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed the model of the Haskin-Pal film in concentrating on a tense romance foregrounding calamitous animal attacks in a vision of truths behind the human condition, and beyond to the craze for animal-attack films in the ’70s exemplified by Jaws (1975), by which time the metaphorical force of this narrative pattern as displaced portrait of invasive forces eating at the western body politic would be more starkly obvious. Paul Verhoeven, a fan of War of the Worlds in his youth, may have remembered The Naked Jungle for Starship Troopers (1997), where the ideas are the same but the bugs bigger, whilst Spielberg quotes it for a gleefully nasty trope in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), though there, the ants eat the communist. Most intriguingly, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo likewise essays the same theme in the same setting. There, the secret brittleness of Haskin’s white übermensch was exchanged for Herzog’s beautiful, nonconformist visionary, but both heroes test their own potential to gain dominion against natural forces and fail in a fashion that confirms them as titans who refuse to become Promethean victims, but instead find revelation in loss. The common link between Pal’s monster movie and Herzog’s arthouse drama is the immediate sense of existential peril, a vivid interest in the contrast of powerful individual humanity against implacable surrounds.

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In Leiningen’s case, this comes in contending with a force that overwhelms and outwits his efforts to hold it off, but finds other things in defeat. Not least of which, natch, is that it seals the deal in his marriage, and the mission is changed not just by the threat of the ants but of Leiningen’s changing perspective and circumstance to become one of protection, and not mere defiance. Haskin’s sense of style is unobtrusive and yet undeniable: the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, a fin-de-siècle trumpet blast for the beauty of Technicolor Academy-ratio pictorialism as the widescreen age was burgeoning, offers rich depth of field and space in the boxy format, seeking out balancing elements in compositions, and smooth tracking shots that dog the characters incisively, like the deft little track forward as Joanna and Leiningen provoke each other as she plays the piano. A keen eye for colour coding is plain as the white walls of Leiningen’s buildings, his outpost of civilisation, and are echoed by the characters’ dress. Joanna arrives clad in a blazing white jacket, an emissary of alien cleanliness and angelic beauty that makes her instantly iconic to the native workmen, whilst Leiningen first appears filthy and clad in earthy colours. Later, as the two stand together to form a united front for the native labourers, both are dressed in pale hues matching the house, symbolising their unity with the world they’re defending, not long before the insinuating masses of black ants begin crawling over the plaster. Pulsating greens dominate exteriors and, as disaster comes, fire rendered in nightmarish hues call back to War of the Worlds, as Leiningen’s last bulwark against the invaders burns away.

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Haskin and Pal’s special-effects team do more restrained work here than in Pal’s other scifi works, offering painterly matte depictions of the oncoming swarm, first glimpsed as a great, grey, teeming gash in the jungle, and then cleverly layered shots of the ants crawling on limbs, stripping away leaf and stem, and reducing Leiningen’s plantation to a skeletal desert. The sense of staging reaches a crescendo in the film’s most famous and excerpted scene, as Leiningen’s rotund lock keeper (Jack Reitzen), performing the vital task of keeping the canals Leiningen’s dug as a barrier to the ants filled with floodwater, falls asleep at his post, with the camera tilting down from his sleeping face to note the masses of ants crawling up his legs. Awakening, he’s flung into a thrall of terror, screaming as his eyes are eaten in their sockets by the horde.

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Haskin returns to the same image, of a man’s hand curling up in pain as the ants swarm on his body, the second time with Leiningen himself as he makes his last desperate effort: whereas that binary moment of him rubbing fluid on Joanna’s body carried potent erotic meaning, here the corporeal sensation is equally powerful and far more terrible, whilst the efforts of both men to hang on to life is reduced to the singular picture (interestingly, the poster of Saul Bass’s new-age variation of the story, Phase IV [1972], depicts an ant burrowing its way out of a hand) that calls back to Luis Buñuel’s love of crawling ants as symbol of irrepressible forces, the tingling sensatory quality of dozens of tiny feet evoking the finest patterns of the nervous system. Of course, Leiningen fares better than his employee and escapes the gnawing death to induce his own destructive flood, destroying the lock gate entirely and allowing the waters to wash the ant horde away, saving lives at the cost of rolling back his labours. Leiningen is caught by the boiling waters, but lurches his way out of the mud and into Joanna’s arms on a water-logged plain as the end title appears. It profits a man everything, it seems, to lose his world but gain his woman.


5th 09 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Man of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder

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By Roderick Heath

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, internet pop culture commentary is essentially split into two camps. There are those who tend to celebrate everything shiny and new and consider it automatically superior to the old, and those for whom all revision is doomed never to measure up to the purity, authority, and warm associations of a classic. In this era of commercial cinema sustaining itself through troubled times by carefully reinventing properties many of us have an ingrained affection for, the schism is all too easy to observe. A caveat here is that in spite of what the selective memory of cinephiles and filtering processes of repute suggest, commercial movie-making has been eating its own tail since its birth, with popular properties remade and reconfigured in an endless tapestry of remakes and reboots, as well as original works that are mostly variations on the same old themes. The difference today is not just in the kinds of properties being recycled, but in the stature of this process: audiences of millions don’t just go to see a movie, but await news of the filmmakers’ choices with merciless scrutiny. Every tweak risks stirring frenetic excitement or irrational loathing. For myself, who grew up very happily watching the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films repeatedly, there’s a certain bittersweet sense of both profit and loss from Zack Snyder’s new take. I know I’ve really wanted Superman to come back strong. Superman doesn’t exist, of course, nor do I want him to, but his symbolic power is still enormous. We still live in a world where awesome abuses of the weak occur, and the promise of absolute justice represented by Superman is, like Sherlock Holmes, one based in a faded era and sensibility, and yet nothing superior has yet been invented to replace him.

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Bryan Singer’s strongly felt, but deeply problematic Superman Returns (2006) already proved the folly of trying to reproduce past glories, attempting anxiously to recreate the emotional and audio-visual textures of the Reeve films but failing through an inert story and half-hearted stabs at heterodoxy. Snyder’s take leaps into the phantom zone of near-complete redrafting, skewing the franchise back toward its rowdier roots. The charming mixture of naiveté and sophistication, mythic feeling and inclusive, good-humoured knowing Richard Donner conjured in his great 1978 take on Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster’s canonical comic book hero seems now to have been an unreproducible alchemy: none of the superhero flicks that have tried to claim its mantle lately have measured up in more than flashes. Like this year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, Snyder’s film is cursed, therefore, with inevitable comparison to a near-perfect totem of fantastic cinema, and like J. J. Abrams’ film, stirs divergent responses in me, only more so.

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Donner and his team updated Superman by leaving his overgrown Boy Scout sensibility untouched whilst making the world he inhabited as vividly, energetically disillusioned as the 1970s and presenting analogues for the audience’s delight at the conceit in the characters sharing his world. Donner’s film wasn’t an irony-free zone, but its power lay in deliberately evoking sarcasm and then being seen to nullify it. Snyder’s take comes under the production aegis of Christopher Nolan, and in many respects Man of Steel obeys the basic demarcations Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer placed on their version of Batman: an attempt to sustain a coherent and grounded take on material once played purely for incongruity, with emphasis on psychological credulity and a variety of selective realism. That’s become a popular approach thanks to the success of Nolan’s films.

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And yet blockbuster movies have started to feel like they’re running together precisely because there are so many of them, and they all seem aware of each other because they have to be. This genre specialises in creating worlds unto themselves, where anything is possible, but the correspondingly conversant audience has come to accept it all without batting an eyelid. The fantastic no longer needs introducing, but rather, mere reiteration. The wayward elements that helped make Donner’s film great are also its weirdest and most esoteric: the mystically tinged space trip Superman takes during his tutelage by his father’s simulacrum, the Andrew Wyeth and John Ford-esque moments of Americana, the goofy, quixotically romantic nighttime flight Superman takes with Lois Lane. Such quirky, spacious indulgences are verboten in tent-pole flicks now, where a risk-averse ethos of the part of both filmmakers and the target audience favours the creation tolerable entertainment. Snyder’s approach doesn’t skimp on set-up, at least: the difference is one of method. Instead of mythical elegy, here we have chain-lightning pulp pace rendered with an overtone of sombre grandeur. Whereas the early ads for the film suggested a soulful, doleful take on Superman as a Terrence Malick-esque searcher, that quality only emerges in occasional flashes in the film, which opens up the possibility, to me at least, that this version was built in the editing room from a more expansive take.

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Snyder’s stuck remixing a familiar story: again Krypton explodes, again young Kal-El is sent rocketing off to safety whilst his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) die. But here things are more baroquely complicated, with Jor-El’s efforts to communicate imminent danger to the Kryptonian high council interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is intent on taking dictatorial control of the planet. Jor-El slips through Zod’s clutches and steals a codex that contains the DNA of all Kryptonians, and has this diffused into his son’s body so that he becomes the living vessel for his species. Zod, unable to stop Kal-El’s escape, kills Jor-El. Along with his followers, Zod is then captured and exiled to an acausal space pocket called the Phantom Zone, just before Krypton finally explodes. Kal-El’s spaceship safely lands on its destination: Earth.

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Man of Steel skips the tale of Kal-El’s earthly upbringing, at least for the moment. His adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), his ostracism and outsider status in Smallville, Kansas and glimpses of his latent powers, like saving his schoolmates from a bus crash, instead emerge in flashback fragments throughout. This peculiar choice evokes a similar one made by Cary Fukunaga in his fine adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) for expostulating character genesis quickly; indeed, it works thematically as well as structurally, placing Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s physical and character growth in counterpoint with the great drama to which his entire life seems to have been leading. Stylistically, Snyder quickly declares intent to do the opposite to Singer, and throws out all hangovers from the Reeve series, including John Williams’ unsurpassable score, which Singer leaned on like a crutch. The music here is provided by Hans Zimmer, who offers what is for him an unusually energetic and expressive score, but which still seems all too standard-issue compared to Williams’ dream-conjuring work. That’s the most overt disparity between Superman 1978 and 2013, though there are other qualities to mourn. The hunky grin and humane openness of Christopher Reeve and the husky-voiced, she-nerd vivacity of Margot Kidder are gone. Everyone here is much sterner, more grown-up, more world-weary. There’s a constant feeling in these modern spectacles that some kind of spiritual Rubicon has been crossed and that the jovial, old pulp and comic book world cannot be invoked again. Whereas Donner and company made the very disparity between youthful dreaming and adult disillusion the fuel of their movie, Snyder and Goyer split the difference.

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There’s been no shortage of good and entertaining work in the superhero genre lately, even if it’s often repetitive and lexically limited, its days as major blockbuster material possibly limited now. My own favourites of recent years, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), stood out for their willingness to stretch into blurred genre borderlands, whilst last year’s The Avengers set a high-water market for pure entertainment, pulling off the difficult task it undertook by limiting its focus to oddball character dynamics and a big, crowd-pleasing third act. Man of Steel has a similar structure and climax to The Avengers, but it’s a far more ambitious work, refusing to relax into geekfest fun and games. Snyder tries to retell the most famous origin story in modern pop culture, not quelling the memory of previous incarnations but coherently setting up its own priorities, and doing it all in a fashion that recreates the specific gravity of this mythos. The big, make-or-break difference between Nolan’s Batman films and Man of Steel lies in who’s actually doing the filmmaking. I am aware that my own disregard of Nolan and evolving admiration for Snyder is largely opposite to most commentators, but I’m happy with this attitude. Snyder is a technical wizard and messy, dramatic filmmaker, with a compensating passion for the big screen as an expressive space. He has more sense of cinematic show and shape and in his little toe than Nolan and most of his ilk have in their whole bodies.

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Snyder’s last two live-action features, the disjointed but impressive Watchmen (2009) and the rich and strange Sucker Punch (2011), were divisive films, but for me, of course, made Man of Steel a film to watch for on top of its provenance as a comeback of the greatest superhero. Superman has come to be seen, awkwardly and even tiresomely, as a figurative superego for the United States, a noble knight who has to retain perfection or lose his status, as opposed to the malleable, id-inflected figure of Batman. As with the criticisms levelled at the new Star Trek movies, the sensation of idealism slowly being replaced with specious “relevance” looms throughout, though the hovering spirit of real-world anxieties always hangs heavy over such inventions. Superman offered a quasi-Jewish messiah figure at the start of the worst episode of anti-Semitism in history. The idea of Superman as a symbolic bulwark against the bleakest of threats takes its power from such circumstances of birth. Aptly, according to his interpretation, Zod, the Kryptonian rebel who has been promoted in the movies to one of Superman’s greatest adversaries, is here characterised as a both an engineered warrior whose reflexes quite genuinely can’t move beyond the bellicose, and a eugenicist and übermensch-proponent who believes Krypton’s past was ruined by weak stock and that its future must be purchased with species-cleansing.

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Whilst I could wax lyrical about the specific pleasures of the older Superman that this one avoids, Snyder’s take nonetheless achieves authority in part for its sense of sobriety, lending the material much more scifi cred than it’s had before: the opening is a sprawl of ebullient Edgar Rice Burroughs-isms, with Jor-El dodging apocalypse and the wrath of Zod’s attempted coup on the backs of flying lizards to get his son Kal-El launched off-world. The rocket-paced élan of the opening is the sort of sequence that illustrates the painterly zest Snyder brings to CGI spectacle, resolving in the punch-drunk poeticism of Lara watching geysers of flame erupt to consume her world. That sort of scruff-of-the-neck gambit is one many movies can’t recover from, but Snyder tries, with varying levels of success, to keep the sense of relentless, junk-epic storytelling hurtling forth with the same unstoppable force as Superman’s flying—and therein lies some of the discomfort. These sorts of films are now expected to do all the heavy lifting that was once dispersed over a dozen modes of popular moviemaking in the 1970s, engaging real-world conundrums and providing parables for questions of morality and political resonance that would have once been only a vague allusion or frosting of agreeable subtext, whilst providing nonstop thrills. Snyder retains, however, a quiescent poetic sensibility, one diffused into his love of spectacle and world-contorting effects, leaking out from such visuals as the glimpses of Clark in youthful exile labouring on a fishing boat, faced with a distant glimpse of a burning oil rig that demands he leap in and save the day. There’s a strong sense of life on the fringe of civilisations here that gives Clark’s status as a man caught perpetually between worlds a grounded, experiential flavour.

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One aspect of the plot here seems to reference intentionally The Thing (1982), as military authorities discover a Kryptonian colonising ship that’s been under the Arctic ice for millennia, and Clark, on the hunt for clues to his hitherto mysterious origins, infiltrates the workforce on the site. There he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Clark has to save her from one of the guardian sentry robots in the spaceship. Clark encounters his father, whose personality survives as an uploaded programme stored in a device salvaged from Clark’s spaceship, and Jor-El is able to school Clark in his background and nature. Snyder provides a neat piece of exposition as Jor-El explains Kryptonian history to his son, events displayed in a kind of moving art-deco, bas-relief that hurls the mind back to 1930s public artwork, a sort of design in-joke that touches on this mythology’s roots. Jor-El then sends Clark on his high-flying way, now wearing his iconic costume, actually a piece of salvaged Kryptonian utility wear sporting the symbol for “hope” that is his family’s emblem. Snyder stages this scene beautifully, revelling in Clark testing his ability to fly, crashing spectacularly but then gaining more perfect control and shooting across the face of the earth with liberated joy, a sequence that confirms that modern special effects really can communicate the essence of the fantastic.

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Clark finds himself just in time, because soon Zod and his cabal turn up. Released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton’s destruction and having scoured the galaxy searching for remnants of their civilisation, they finally locate Clark through the frozen ship’s homing beacon. Zod, with his incapacity to think beyond immediate blunt-force solutions, demands that the humans hand over his compatriot: Clark gives himself up to the authorities, represented by General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff), whilst Lois, having been arrested for her contact with the alien, becomes interlocutor. Clark agrees to be handed over to Zod, but warns that Zod isn’t to be trusted, and this proves exactly right: with his super-opponent immobilised by immersion in the Krypton atmosphere aboard his ship, Zod decides that with a little redecorating, Earth could become a new Krypton, repopulated with the DNA strip-mined from Clark’s body. One problem Man of Steel develops is that it boils down to plot 1-A of scifi action: supervillain wants to destroy the world with doomsday device, superhero sets out to stop the plot with major whoop-ass. But, of course, that’s the essence of roughly half the comic books ever penned, and who are the filmmakers to mess with that? But the attempts to skew the Superman mythos closer to real scifi are smart, and pay off with some lush and spectacular imagery, rejecting the day-glo neoclassicism of Donner’s Krypton in favour of a more organic world, and building to a superlatively envisioned contrast of Clark’s raw, corporeal force going up against the chitinous cyberpunk styling of Zod and company.

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Man of Steel certainly offers a darker, rougher take on the Superman myth than usual, but to its credit, it tries to take the creation of the most elevated of superheroes seriously on a level that the older films essentially avoided. It’s this element that emerges with singular power: what makes a hero? Man of Steel aptly and coherently reflects the notion, dodged or fumbled badly by most movies of this ilk, that we no longer trust heroes simply for parochial reasons: with several versions of “truth, justice, and the American way” jostling for supremacy at the moment, some of them rather ugly, Superman more or less has to reinvent them. Snyder, who tackled Alan Moore’s cynical probing of the theme with Watchmen, offers a kind of dialectical antithesis here, albeit one that still raises awareness of the dark side of being a messiah figure. Man of Steel actually follows through with it, as Clark’s ethical construction as well as origin story is explicated. The paternal dualism of Jor-El and Jonathan is cleverly paralleled by the structure, each offering versions of self-sacrificial communal care: Jonathan is killed, in an affecting twist on the old mythology, trying to save people during a tornado, signalling to Clark not to save him in his certainty that the time for Clark’s public revelation of his gifts has not yet arrived.

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Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s quiescent mix of anguish and acquiescence at his place in the scheme of things becomes the defining motif of his journey, leading to a surprisingly nuanced moment when he returns home to Martha, happily declaring he knows now who he is, and she responds with a stiff, faintly wounded bromide, like any mother hurt by an adopted child’s location of an alternative identity. The sense of overwhelming import that infuses Clark’s growing experience finally pays off in that great first flying scene, and when the creation they start to dub Superman finally appears fully formed, setting off to battle with motivation and character as well as apparel settled. When he launches himself into the fray, telling Lois with quiet charm to step back before he takes off at full power, it’s a genuinely rousing moment.

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Much less impressive are Snyder’s nods towards religious parallels, which Singer plied tediously. A sequence of Clark consulting a priest to work through his issues hits a note reminiscent of the lost-in-translation, fetishized evocations of Christian iconography in Japanese anime—which might actually be the point. Another element of the film that falls unexpectedly flat is Adams’ Lois. Adams knows how to play neurotic, but appealing energy, and as such, she could be expected to follow comfortably in Kidder’s footsteps. But her Lois never feels very important, and romance between her and Clark is frustratingly dampened until a scene close to the climax when Superman lowers her lovingly to the ground. Kate Bosworth’s much-maligned turn as Lois in Superman Returns was actually one of the better aspects of that film, for Bosworth offered a Lois who was more a frustrated career woman on the verge of being half-willingly domesticated. In retrospect, Bosworth’s Lois feels all the better because Adams’ take remains stolid and functional, a reminder that Snyder’s touch with actors can be weak.

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Cavill’s performance holds up under considerable pressure, however: his characterisation is subtler than Reeve’s, if not requiring much flexibility. Cavill sustains the sense of igneous strength under an essential conscientiousness and self-effacing will. Cunningly, Cavill, whose most high-profile role before this was Theseus in the god-awful Immortals (2011), conspires with the film around him to suggest that Superman becomes all the more human, and humane, because of his exceptionalism, rather than in spite of it. The notion that Superman is a hero for whom killing is an abhorrent act, even though he’s finally forced to cross that threshold, finally emerges with force, unlike many superheroes, such as most of the Marvel crew, who are essentially deadly weapons restraining their neuroses.

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Zod and Clark are counterpointed throughout not simply in the broken fraternity that produced them, but because of different ideals. In a sneaky twist on the film’s insistent religious imagery, Kal-El is the result of the first nonvirgin birth on Krypton in centuries, Jor-El and Kara having had a baby the old-fashioned way. By contrast, Zod was the result of Krypton’s long genetic engineering programme, manufactured as a member of a warrior caste, one who cannot see past the end of his own nose, bellowing in triumphalist certainty at his quarry, except, of course, Superman, a product of deviant influences, proves superior. The contrast between battles of the spirit and battles of the flesh is exacerbated by Zod’s icy number two Faora (Antje Traue). She smashes her way through soldiers, facing off against a hapless but unswerving human opponent, Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni), for a knife fight that’s going to have an inevitable end, Kryptonian patronising the human in his Horatius-on-the-Bridge moment: “A good death is its own reward.” Fortunately, Clark comes to the rescue, so that, in the film’s best pay-off, Hardy has a delayed self-sacrificing revenge as, firing her quip back at her, he blows Faora, himself, and most of the other invaders up. Traue’s statuesque villainy actually come close to stealing the film: she’s not really asked to provide erotic crackle or narrative depth, but provides both anyway with clinical brutality and genuinely alien regard for a lesser species that surprises her with its gameness. Snyder likes his women kick-ass, so it’s not surprising that he’s more animated by Faora than Lois, who’s reduced to spouting exposition as characterisation (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!”).

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Shannon’s Zod, on the other hand, is effective without being surprising, as the actor plays in essentially the same key of perma-ferocity he’s handled a half-dozen times before. Terence Stamp’s disco-glam Zod was distinguished by Stamp’s projection of imperious egotism and confident psychopathy even when speaking clueless malapropisms (“So this is planet Houston!”) reflecting the disconnection between his knowledge and his assumptions. Shannon plays a far more coherent and motivated Zod, but he’s inevitably less fun. Crowe, on the other hand, is aging into a superbly relaxed and engaging actor: whilst in last year’s dreadful The Man with the Iron Fists he provided the sole source of fun, here he fulfils one of the most thankless roles imaginable, the guy who always dies in the first act of this story (previously played by Marlon Brando, no less!), with a blend of paternal poise and conscientious anxiety, believably projected even beyond the grave as a model for his son. Costner, never one of my favourite actors, nonetheless does well in counterpointing Crowe as the kind of role model we all wish our fathers to be, someone who can die ignominiously and yet still become practically omniscient through pure character—which is, indeed, what both Jor-El and Jonathan accomplish. Laurence Fishburne provides the third corner for the great paternal triangle in Clark’s growth, playing Lois’ boss Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in a pitch of sceptical authority.

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The much-deplored last act of the film, depicting Clark’s battles with his fellow Kryptonians, is indeed overlong, but also deeply, beautifully in debt to the essential nature of its comic sources, with superbeings rumbling across cityscapes in fistfights that shake worlds, whilst recreating something of the antiheroic tilt of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in making the destruction of Metropolis collateral damage. Snyder and his effects team pull out all the stops to translate the suggested nature of the physical tussling in the comics in a manner the movies haven’t quite managed before. There’s a sense of Superman here as both a bulwark against chaos and also unwitting facilitator of it. Particularly great are a couple of fillips of zest, the first coming when Zod, threatens Martha Clark, only for Superman to come crashing through the wall to drive his foe crashing through fields and silos in a pummelling rage, shouting, “You think you can threaten my mother?” If there’s one absolute law in the fictional universe, it’s that you don’t pick on Superman’s mom.

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The second comes as Zod and Superman duel in a world-cracking frenzy, springing from the midst of a devastated city up into space where they kick about a space station before plunging back to Earth: this sequence is so pure in its evocation of the strange logic of the Superman comics that it could be animated pages of the old strip. The finale builds to an effective climax not just of the fighting but also of the essential moral drama of making Superman choose between various evils, making the right choices but with the personal cost for its hero not elided. The howl of anguish Superman releases after snapping Zod’s neck, to save the lives of some hapless passengers, evokes the one he gave over Lois’s body in the Donner film, but with a new dimension. This isn’t actually so new: after all, Superman actually killed Zod far more casually and indeed unfairly, in Superman II (1980), and of course, the interesting question is raised as to who exactly would be Zod’s judge and jailer? No, Snyder’s film doesn’t displace or eclipse Donner’s, but it does earn the right to complement it, proving that a superhero movie can offer a different brand of class. Welcome back, Superman.


30th 08 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Enter the Dragon (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Robert Clouse

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By Roderick Heath

Enter the Dragon provokes one of those questions that can never be answered: what kind of career might Bruce Lee have had if he had lived? Lee died during the post-production of this film, on the cusp of enormous stardom. His image and mythology still reverberate, like those of James Dean, another movie star to die young with a small body of work, but just enough to achieve iconic status. The film and the question came inevitably back to mind after the death of Lee’s Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly a few weeks ago. Kelly, a martial arts champion and the first black film star with such a background, displayed charisma and cool in Enter the Dragon and earned himself a decade-long movie career, albeit in mostly forgettable vehicles. Whether Lee himself could have become a true global film star, and stayed one through the ’70s and into the ’80s to counter the pumped-up übermensch dominant in that time, is a fascinating proposition.

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Lee is perhaps the most famous Asian movie actor for international audiences. The son of a Hong Kong opera star, Lee moved to the United States in his teens, where he studied at university and became an actor and martial arts teacher. He evolved into a fascinatingly multifaceted figure, with interests in philosophy and poetry as well as the more physical disciplines that gained him fame. He shattered stereotypes of Asian men in the popular mindset of the West, even if he inadvertently created another.

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Enter the Dragon served the function for which it was intended—an icon-forging showcase for Lee’s skills and screen presence. In the process, it became a classic of the movie-going underworld, a genuine, top-shelf cult film—the kind of movie that had its sold-out screenings in fleapit cinemas in shady city districts, and a reason home video was invented, its VHS box swiftly becoming tattered by innumerable rentals. It’s the most successful movie of its type ever made, parlaying a budget of $850,000 into an eventual gross of more than $200 million. I recall when I was a young teen, going to a friend’s house, where his father was watching it on tape recorded off television and pointing out to me all the bits that had been censored, recalling with loving zest the sounds of cracking bone that were supposed to accompany certain moments. It’s still hard to believe that the seemingly robust man on screen would be dead within a few months of shooting so many amazing feats. Lee, like Fred Astaire, had a sense of theatre to his physical craft that contributed to his talent; he acted like the world’s most fearsome fighter, and so he was. His incredible speed and athletic ability were quite genuine, and the camera loved it. The fact that Lee was a canny actor helped. His affectation of taciturn confidence bends and gives way only at appropriate times but leaves you in little doubt he was more than just another good athlete who could look tough and attractive on screen.

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Enter the Dragon represented an attempt, both commercially and aesthetically, to create a pan-Pacific film. Warner Bros. coproduced it with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest studio, and American director Robert Clouse handled the mostly Chinese crew. The film fused aesthetics laid out by the films of King Hu and other wu xia experts in the late ’60s with a flashy plot and tone reminiscent of many a sub-James Bond franchise. Indeed, Enter the Dragon bears far more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice than the film of it did. Like the Steve Reeves Hercules films 15 years earlier, Enter the Dragon accompanied the TV show Kung Fu in helping to kick off a craze for another film culture’s product in the United States, but this time, the gulf breached was broader. Suddenly, cinema and TV screens were filled with the sham-exotic delight of crudely dubbed Shaolin monks and warriors for peace and freedom in the time of the Manchus, worlds far outside the familiar points of reference for Eurocentric cultures. Lee’s prowess became, by proxy, heroic symbol, exacerbated in Enter the Dragon by Kelly’s presence and characterisation, confirming the close link of the growing popularity of the kung fu flick to the Blaxploitation genre’s celebration of personally empowered non-Caucasians—or to put it more concisely, brothers who kick ass.

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Lee’s character, named Lee as if to further the conflation of the hero with the actor, is seen at the outset as a Shaolin disciple, battling another disciple (Sammo Hung), receiving the advice of a sage abbot (Roy Chiao), and becoming a teacher of younger would-be warriors. He’s quickly recruited by British spy boss Braithwaite (one-time-only actor Geoffrey Weeks) to infiltrate the island controlled by Han (Shih Kien), who, Lee learns from the abbot, was himself once a Shaolin disciple but who chose to use his gifts to gain wealth and power through evil. Han now controls a small army of martial arts adherents, and holds an occasional martial arts tournament that entices men seeking fortune and glory to compete. Lee soon learns that he has another, even more immediate reason to take on Han: several of his henchmen, including the senior thug Oharra (Robert Wall), attacked Lee’s sister Su Lin (Angela Mao) and caused her to commit suicide rather than be gang-raped. Lee signs up for the tournament. Clouse offers a neat formal device here as the three main protagonists, Lee, Williams (Kelly), and Roper (John Saxon) join the party embarking by junk for the island, their particular motives for venturing into this viper’s nest revealed in flashbacks as they’re ferried through the floating world of Hong Kong’s harbour. Williams and Roper are Vietnam veterans who fought together: where Roper has skipped from the U.S. ahead of mob loan sharks, Williams has beaten up a couple of racist cops.

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Enter the Dragon’s style is quintessentially early ’70s, from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing, propulsive jazz-funk score similar to his superlative work on Dirty Harry (1971), to Gilbert Hubbs’ zoom-patched cinematography. The New Wave-lite visual flourishes, like those zooms and the expositional flashbacks, help synthesise, on a visual level, the same mood of syncopated flashiness as the music, and this finds perfect accord with the film’s contemporaneous themes and fetishes. Director Clouse had previously made a well-received adaptation of a John D. MacDonald novel, Darker than Amber (1970), which had impressed Lee and co-producer Fred Weintraub. They took visual inspiration from comic books, particularly the popular Terry and the Pirates with its pseudo-oriental colouring to create the film’s specific ambience, which envisions the subsistence of a kind of Chinese warlord-chic into the second half of the 20th century. Williams, the self-empowered black hero, cuts a striking figure on the streets of Hong Kong, picked out on the prowl with energetic zooms in the same manner that John Shaft was in Gordon Parks’ 1971 trendsetter Shaft, evoking a kind of worldly man at once streetwise and fit for his environment but also without a natural harbour, giving potency to his pithy reckoning: “Ghettoes are the same the world over. They stink.”

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Whilst both Roper and Williams were planning to attend the tournament either way, both are on the run from themselves. Williams’ conscientiousness balances the far glibber Roper, a compulsive gambler who tries to live the playboy lifestyle but finds the bill’s always bigger than his resources and is shocked to be confronted with evil of a kind he cannot make peace with. Roper’s the sort of character Burt Lancaster might have played 10 years earlier—a life-loving, appetite-indulging trickster with real skill to back up his braggart zest. The semblance to Lancaster’s characters in films like The Professionals (1966) is particularly keen when Roper claps eyes on Han’s head courtesan Tania (Ahna Capri) and murmurs, “A woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.”

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Clouse’s use of the Hong Kong location is attentive and flavourful, zeroing in on structures that mark the peculiar texture of the city—ultramodern and virtual shanty town, particularly in the harbour’s floating ghetto, coexisting with a peculiar tension that defines the storyline with its many twinning opposites. Michael Allin’s script doubles up motivation for Lee’s vengeance, in haphazard manner, whilst the dramatic development is generally only functional. But the flashback sequence to Su Lin’s death is great stuff, as Mao gives a terrific display of her own kung fu prowess, decimating henchmen left and right, as fate presses in. Su Lin is chased into the recesses of the waterfront until she’s trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by Han’s men as they bash their way in through doors and windows, and the sequence screws inwards towards its climactic point-of-view shot of Su Lin clutching a hunk of broken glass with Oharra glaring down at her, death or dishonour reduced to a singularly powerful picture that resolves with the plunge of the deadly edge of glass towards the camera.

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Oharra and Bolo (Bolo Yeung) are Han’s main henchmen, enforcing tyrannical discipline on their adherents, many of whom have been harvested from a ruthlessly whittled assortment of social rejects and the desperate of Hong Kong. Bolo, in particular, represents the cruel side of Han’s regime, snapping the spines of lesser henchmen who prove inadequate. Han offers his competitors a kind of Playboy-spread macho fantasy, where readiness to engage in primal struggle is countered by a boyish reward of plenty. But Han’s Island becomes a variation on the place in Pinocchio (1940) where the children are indulged with fantastic plenty until they’re turned into donkeys for labour. Han greets his guests with a buffet of easy living and sex, which proves to be a seductive entrée to a process of elimination, weeding out weaklings and dissenters and absorbing talents into his criminal organisation of heroin dealing and forced prostitution.

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Lee’s inevitable battle of retribution with Oharra comes, surprisingly in terms of the film’s structure, half-way through Enter the Dragon, as he comes up against the colossal brute in the course of the tournament and sees the Shaolin master easily and steadily clobbering the heavy. (Wall was another martial arts champion at the time and a pal of Lee’s: their ethos was one of full commitment to the fighting on screen, and a lot of filmed clobbering is undoubtedly and wince-inducingly real, though Lee was occasionally replaced by stuntman Yuen Wah for the more gymnastic shots.) Oharra, infuriated, tries to attack Lee from behind with broken bottles, but he’s still beaten, and Lee jumps on him and breaks his back, cueing the film’s most remarkable shot, a slow-motion close-up of Lee’s face, contorting with warrior rage and grief. This tremendous shot confirms Lee really was an actor, as his façade of stoic intensity melts for a moment, and becomes a fulcrum of the action genre: the immediate moral and psychic impact of killing is apparent on a hero’s face with specificity redolent of the films of Anthony Mann. The audience is aware that Lee, as both a Shaolin adherent and son of pacifists, is painfully violating many codes that are important to him, but won’t let them stand in the way of justice. Enter the Dragon is not built, like many classic Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata [1943], The One-Armed Swordsman [1968], The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [1978], or Clan of the White Lotus [1980]) around the acquiring of gifts in confluence with spiritual and conscientious growth; rather the hero is utilising his gifts for righteousness having long since learned where his sense of that lies, but it’s still a burden for him to wage such intimate war.

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Nonetheless, Lee doesn’t seem too beset by soul-searching otherwise, preferring to give the audience the kind of unabashed good guy that fell out of fashion in Hollywood in the early ’70s. Lee is fun to watch even when he’s not hitting people, which, considering that he’s playing such a clean-cut character, is doubly admirable. There’s wit in Lee’s performance, in his sarcastic eye rolls when listening to Roper’s jive, or his patiently bored expression as he waits for the cobra he’s foisted on a couple of Han’s guards. Most importantly, Lee’s sense of gestural effect, the quality that made him indelible to so many viewers, is easily apparent and unmistakeable: his high, loud screeches before leaping into battle, his habit of widening his eyes and giving a savagely gleeful, tigerlike loll of his jaw after he’s bested an opponent.

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Lee infiltrates Han’s underground operation because he needs to use the only radio on the island, and discovers the depravities within, including women going mad from being pumped full of drugs to make them pliable slaves. When his presence is detected, he rips his way through a small army of henchmen, one of whom is 19-year-old Jackie Chan, in a whirlwind of physical dexterity and badass moves, including kicking two men in the face in one leap. Not the least of Enter the Dragon’s gifts to film posterity was in providing early proving grounds for the talents of Yeung, Hung, and Chan. One clever touch that allows the film to play out as an exercise in pure martial artistry is the fact that Han has banned guns on his island—it’s implied that he lost his hand thanks to one—completely freeing the drama from that usual bugbear of the modern-day martial-arts flick, “Why don’t they just shoot him?”

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Much of Enter the Dragon’s punch is thanks to Clouse’s sense of slick, illustrative style, quoting liberally from various Western film masters as well as mimicking the Hong Kong industry’s templates. Much like Don Sharp’s terrific Fu Manchu films of the mid-’60s, Clouse creates a conversant mix of retro style and sharp modernity in turning pulp-fiction Orientalist tropes into compelling contemporary action fare, with the telling difference that now an Asian could also be the hero and kick Fu Manchu in the face. As with the Bond films, Fritz Lang’s early serials and expressionist thrillers cast a long shadow here. Han has a Rotwang-esque gloved hand that hides the fake he wears, the bones of his real hand mounted in his private sanctuary (“A souvenir!” is how he describes it to Roper). Of course, the fake hand comes off and is replaced by claws and blades in the climactic scenes, a touch that perfectly channels both the traditions of wu xia and the Lang-Bond influence. Clouse belongs in a category with some other American filmmakers to emerge from the matrix of late ’60s industry upheavals, like Tom Gries, Richard C. Sarafian, Hal Needham, and Ted Post, who are always left out of accounts of the decade’s official auteurist sagas, but who made a mark reconfiguring populist filmmaking with an influx of lightly contoured post-New Wave effects and successfully blending the slick, playful expectations of genre cinema with a patina of pseudo-realism. For Clouse, Enter the Dragon proved a problematic success, as he was pigeonholed as a martial arts filmmaker, handling the likes of the infamous Gymkata (1985).

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Lee’s brief oeuvre, which had also included The Big Boss, about a kung fu hero who becomes a unionist warrior, and Lee’s self-directed Way of the Dragon (1973), where he was defending immigrants in Rome from the mob, concentrated on the ideal of accomplished physical champion of the weak, a compulsory aspect of the genre, of course, but also with a level of discomfort and introspection inherent in contemplating a globalising world where exploitation was nascent. Clouse and Allin bypass that anxiety for the most part, aiming rather, in spite of the background notes of racial angst and Vietnam fallout, for a kind of pan-cultural atmosphere. If I’d pick a major weakness of the film, it’s that it could have fleshed out the roles of Capri and Betty Chung, who plays Mei Ling, an undercover agent who has infiltrated Han’s operation. Mei Ling is largely superfluous, used only to set up action scenes. Tania’s peculiar status as Han’s right-hand woman, who nonetheless succumbs quite easily to Roper’s charms, is interesting, but left sadly underdeveloped, particularly in relation to the bittersweet climax. Lee, like a lot of action stars who would follow him, seemed sadly wary of romance on screen, preferring to project a monkish persona in that regard.

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The main characters are well-delineated and enjoyable, however, with Roper and Williams well-used as worldly foils to the fixated brilliance of Lee, in trying to scam Han’s tournament. When Han tries to impress Williams into his operation, the radical resists, of course, prompting Han to murder him. He then tries the same offer with Roper, whose affectation of glib acquiescence to business is shattered finally when he’s confronted with Williams’ mangled, bloody body; in an act of moral decision, he refuses to fight Lee in the ring. Interestingly, only Saxon’s clout as a marketable name resulted in the plot developing this way, as Williams and Roper’s functions were swapped. What the film lost in potential radical clout by having Williams and Lee team up, it gained in entertainment value: Saxon is fun as Roper, with a swaggering, smarmy charm and some surprisingly deft martial arts moves, and his move from comic relief to full-on hero is neatly handled. Roper is forced to battle Bolo after refusing to fight Lee, and bests the hulking henchman at last with a kick in the balls, whereupon all hell breaks loose as the battle lines are drawn between the visitors and prisoners against Han’s army.

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The climactic battle between Lee and Han is a great set-piece, and indeed any showing of Enter the Dragon on TV can arrest me in anticipation of it. Khan, who was cast in spite of his poor English precisely because he could offer Lee a strong foe, slashes our hero repeatedly with his razor-fingered fake hand, leading to one of Lee’s most amusingly tough-guy gestures: licking his own blood from his fingers after touching a wound, before clobbering Han in the face with a flying leap and kick, moves that were Lee signatures.

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Han finally takes refuge in his mirror-lined bathroom, where reflection upon reflection mangles all sense of space and sense. This gives Clouse a chance to work a variation on the climax of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946). As in Welles’ films, this hall of mirrors presents an electrifying visual metaphor for the hero’s destruction of duplicitous images, as Lee recalls the advice of his mentor to smash the illusions his adversary presents and begins breaking the mirrors. Clouse’s visual control in this sequence is genuinely impressive, extracting tremendous visual jazz and excitement from a simple device, with the inevitable pay-off of Han finishing up skewered on one of his own weapons. The final shots of Enter the Dragon find a bloodied and frayed Roper scanning a battlefield of fallen warriors, with Tania amongst them, but still offering a thumbs-up of comradeship to Lee. There’s a rich sense of both the pleasure and cost of victory over evil here, an avoidance of heroic bombast, and a sense of humanity that enriches Enter the Dragon, in spite of its sketchy story, to a point far beyond the usual mercenary reflexes of action films, and marks it as something special.


18th 08 - 2013 | 4 comments »

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, 2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

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By Roderick Heath

(This essay is on the Chinese version, not the international cut.)

Wong Kar-Wai’s return to cinema screens after a lengthy fallow phase carries huge expectations for a man who, alongside John Woo and Zhang Yimou, is arguably the most reputed Chinese-language filmmaker worldwide. Wong gained his stature in international cinema in the 1990s partly for his lushly textured cinematic sensibility and partly because his trove of thematic interests, his simultaneous sense of vibrating modernity and underlying longing for the past, marked him as an artist with a finger on the pulse of the age.

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With the landscape of urban Hong Kong as his hyperkinetic muse, Wong’s visual panache matched, on levels both explicit and sublime, his fascination with the problems of human accord. In films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), he created a version of the modern world where human beings, as compartmentalised as the tiny apartments and hole-in-the-wall eateries they frequented, were floating human islets grazing against possible mates and friends. The simultaneous urges in the density of contemporary life towards isolating, alienating atomisation and compressed, forced communing worked a constant pressure on the psyches of his characters, who then maintained their own peculiar methods for holding the world at bay, like the shopgirl in Chungking Express who blares out “California Dreaming” as a wall of noise against a grubby reality. Wong’s vocabulary of images and ideas, his unique way of filtering them through storytelling conceits that seemed somehow hip and quaint all at once, essayed through one of the most virile, formalistically confident eyes in contemporary film.

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Wong briefly stepped out of his familiar mode with a take on the wu xia genre with the epic Ashes of Time (1995, revised 2007), but that film, which had a troubled production, proved a typically hallucinatory, internalised revision on that style, with Wong distorting it to suit his own mood rather than vice versa. His shift into a semi-historical perspective on his key concerns with In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), presented mesmeric studies in shifting cultural paradigms, his singular men and manifold women living and drowning in seas of neon-lit, corrosive emotions, which clearly continued his favourite themes but now accented them through a love of nostalgic artifice. His most famous characters, the suffering twosome of In the Mood for Love, refused to succumb to amoral pleasures in a quietly upending age, and finished up wounding themselves, but got on with the painful business of living. The general critical failure of Wong’s U.S. excursion My Blueberry Nights (2006) after 2046’s mixed response nonetheless demanded Wong retreat and reorientate. The Grandmaster sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended, The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.

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The grandmaster of the title is Ip Man, a figure with folk-hero lustre in Hong Kong for popularising the Wing Chun kung-fu style and, amongst many students, most famously taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man has already been the subject of films and TV series, including a pair of popular recent films starring Donnie Yen. But in Wong’s hands, Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) proves as much mediating viewpoint, conceptual linchpin, and witness to an era’s passions and tragedies as he is protagonist. Wong’s film ultimately becomes more akin to a heroic epic in the original sense, in that it’s partly about the deaths and births of nations, in this case the severance of modern China from its past, and the creation of modern Hong Kong. Wong tests Ip Man’s folk-hero status less by de-romanticising him than by studying the forces that create such figures and bury others. Thus, Wong turns the stuff of paperback heroism into raw material for one of his elusively poetic meditations on time and fate.

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Whereas Wong’s early, young characters were always nagged by ennui, because of their sense of disconnection from the past, his later, older ones are always haunted by its contradictory loss and simultaneous, unavoidable influence on the present. Ip becomes one of Wong’s dreamer exiles, first glimpsed engaged in spectacular battle with challengers on the streets of his native city of Foshan, possibly in the course of his actual job, which was as a policeman. The opening credits see architectural and decorative patterns and inky credits warp and dissolve in water, introducing the film’s constant motif of water as visual conduit for time, whilst the fight takes place before a set of iron gates that become a recurring image invoking Ip’s life and losses. Ip is glimpsed in a bar pronouncing the essence of Kung Fu: “Two words. Horizontal. Vertical. Make a mistake—horizontal. Stay standing, and you win.”

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This essentialist formula for fighting could make an equally good one for life in general, and Wong proceeds with that very assumption, albeit in a fashion that explores the different ways one can win and lose, fail and fight. Wong immediately depicts the more thrilling version, as he starts his film in the midst of a violent melee. Ip smashes his way through a dozen street toughs, including one fearsome opponent, Tiexieqi (Cung Le), who squares off with him in a one-on-one battle, the duo churning in the tempest like saurian beasts. This scene is an ecstatic deployment of cuts and camera moves, rendered in stark, near-monochrome colours: shots alternate blindingly fast moves and slow-motion close-ups of hands, feet, clothing, raindrops, broken glass, and walloping blows. A rickshaw is hilariously crushed by the simultaneous blows of Ip and his opponent, and the enemy finishes up sprawled on a toppled iron gate, flattened by a fearsome flying kick by Ip, who then strides away tugging the rim of his jaunty white hat like a Chinese version of a Bogart hero, confirmed in his Herculean talents. Other battles like this recur throughout The Grandmaster, but they’re largely untethered to any specific sense of narrative cause and effect. They are, rather, sufficient unto themselves as islets of furious action, displays of the physical genius of Ip and “Razor” Yixiantian (Chang Chen), exiles from the Mainland now surviving in the urban wilderness of mid-century Hong Kong, more depictions of their existential situations than battles for any real end. Wong’s fragmentation of the fights into impressionistic affairs turns the battlers into cosmic forces, working upon beads of water and other objects in the same way history at large works on these people.

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Wong sets up a dialogue between his narrative in shifting between Hong Kong in the mid ’50s, and mainland China in the late ‘30s, when Ip, a citizen of Foshan and then on the cusp of his forties, first gained real fame in the martial arts community when he was chosen to represent the loose confederacy of southern Chinese martial arts schools against a northern fighter. Ip’s voiceover says that at the time, we was in the long spring of his life as a wealthy family man married to the lovely Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo), who watches over her husband with a solicitous, indulgent eye and is described as “a woman of few words, because she knew their power.” But the stability of his life was counterpointed by his accomplishment as a martial artist, having been anointed as a promising figure in his youth by the aged founder of the Wing Chun school, Chan Wah-Shun (illustrious director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping).

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The challenge from the north is brought by a potentate of martial artistry and the values attendant to it, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Gong unified northern schools into a federation and has nominated formidable protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his successor. But he still plans to duel a southerner himself, as he believes Ma San is too aggressive and hungry to make a name for himself. Ip volunteers as a challenger in noting that he’s a comparative nobody, but his challenge is accepted because the battle in the rain has gained him notoriety. His nomination as champion is controversial as he’s still largely unproven as a fighter, and he’s rigorously challenged by fellow southern experts to make sure he can handle the various northern styles. Gong himself has a young daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who’s learned her clan’s famed “64 hands” technique, but whom her father wants to become a doctor and avoid the sometimes brutal world he inhabits.

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The film’s early scenes, taking place in 1937, are set almost entirely within the Republic House, a brothel nicknamed the Gold Pavilion by clientele, which the southern Kung Fu adherents frequent as a kind of clubhouse and occasional field of battle. Wong’s recreation of the vanished world of classy, institutional bawdyhouses and the martial arts fraternity is similar in mood to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s studies of fin-de-siècle moods and aesthetics in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2006). In contrast to Hou’s static panoramas, however, Wong’s rendering is replete with dreamlike, elliptical and obtuse framings that suggest the bustle and intimacy of this world, as well as its claustrophobic, clannish qualities. Wong’s camera is as happy caressing the hems of dresses and shoes of its characters, like noting the tiny bound feet of the Peking Opera artist who gives Ip one of his tests wearing dainty boots that belie her amazing athleticism and skill, as it is recording the fearsome speed and detail of the fighting styles. The ornate atmosphere is violated when fights take place, as when Ma San swats aside several southerners who try to challenge Gong, sending them crashing through walls and down stairwells, or flipping them right around with casual contempt. Ip prizes precision above all things in kung fu, a trait that serves him largely well in fights that take place within the stately confines of the Gold Pavilion, but which later foils him in a telling fashion.

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When the time comes for his fight with Gong, however, Ip finds the master has more than a mere match of physical skill in mind. He poses a problem that demands philosophical rigour as well—to try to break a cake Gong holds and simultaneously ponder the dumpling as a symbol for China itself and the martial arts community’s place in it, as the pressure of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the flailing responses from the Kuomintang seem destined to cause the south to secede. Ip succeeds in snapping the cake and answers the riddle by dismissing its precept, in arguing that their kind can look beyond their own borders and consider the world their field of interest. There’s a clever confluence here, in anticipating the effect Ip’s ideas would have on the international popularity of kung fu, whilst also paying heed to a great genre motif of posing a challenge to the young would-be master that’s as much spiritual and intellectual as physical. Gong warns Ip that his victory will make him famous and a target because everyone will want to fight him. He’s immediately confronted by Gong Er, who is determined to regain her family’s honour. Thus, another great stock figure of wu xia enters the tale, or rather two: the vengeful offspring of a defeated champion and the plucky female warrior wanting to prove herself in the arena.

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Wong assiduously deconstructs these figures, but also elevates Gong Er’s conflation of them to a status of classical tragic heroine. When the old men who patronise her suggest her predicament is the will of heaven, she retorts with razor-sharp contempt, “Maybe I am the will of heaven,” a statement of tremendous pith but also hubris on her part, highlighting the tragic theme most precisely. Unsurprisingly for a director who has tended in the past to luxuriate in his actresses as both performers and imagistic fetishes, particularly the veritable harem of 2046, to a degree scarcely seen since the heady days of Sternberg and Dietrich, Zhang soon becomes the magnetic pole of the film. Gong Er and Ip’s battle in the Gold Pavilion sees martial arts mastery take on cryptic sexual qualities, bringing the equally talented man and woman into the most startling intimacy possible without any actual erotic contact, faces brushing within millimetres of each other as their bodies orbit, gravity made nonsense by their will and skill. Gong Er technically bests Ip by forcing him to land heavily on a step and break it, thus violating his own rule, and the two part seemingly as friendly equals. They are haunted thereafter by recollections of the fight and its dreadful intimacy, and they continue to correspond in planning a return bout for which Ip will head north, even buying his wife a coat for a winter journey. But the outbreak of new war soon sees Ip lose his two daughters, his money and home, his wife, and finally, his country.

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Many of Wong’s films are close to being omnibus works, collections of interlocked short stories in which elements mirror and repeat with algorithmic variations, with characters and situations that comment on each other sometimes in isolated episodes and other times in counterpoint. The Grandmaster is looser in this regard, as his shifts of time zone and focal character are less formally precise, in keeping with a story that works more as a chain of vignettes than a linear account. Although Wong certainly tells a story, he privileges loose ends and fragmentary insights as much as he does the core plot, justified by the nature of his tale and his essential point about Ip Man as an avatar for an age that tore societies to shreds. People are lost to time and memory. Both Ip’s wife and children are ripped away from him by war, and the world he knew disintegrates under the pressure of history, which he describes as going from spring to winter in one moment. Wong’s filmmaking follows suit, as he leaves behind the amber tints and fraternal bosom of the Gold Pavilion for visions of Gong Er standing in snowy vistas and riding steam trains bustling with industrial-age power. Gong Er encounters Razor, a nationalist spy and another superlatively talented warrior who’s been wounded and is trying to hide from Japanese soldiers searching the train that’s taking Gong Er to medical school. Gong Er pretends to be Razor’s sweetheart, and, once the soldiers leave, Razor and Gong Er share a charged moment of tactile communion before he flees.

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Wong employs film references galore throughout The Grandmaster, and this scene particularly recalls Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), except with Gong Er the willing saviour rather than randomly chosen target in fake romantic contact to throw off pursuers; hints of Brief Encounter (1945) percolate as well. Here, as elsewhere in the film, however, Wong employs melodrama tropes only to fracture them and study them like facets of hallucinatory beauty and artifice, creating a romantic dream expostulated in fetishized textures: the ice on the window, the blood dripping from the seat and caking Razor’s hands as he fondles Gong Er’s fur coat, all forming a moment of distilled fantasy-nostalgia. Razor never becomes a major protagonist like Ip and Gong Er in spite of his seeming lode of lethal cool and ability; rather he becomes a contrapuntal figure to both, finding a niche for himself later in Hong Kong as a barber and pacifier who keeps gangsters from taking control of the street. But Razor never gains the kind of status Ip does in spite of his action-hero background. Wong here ventures into territory similar to Quentin Tarantino (a fan and proponent) as he invokes the metatextual nature that often inflects genre storytelling, particularly in wu xia, based in a common pool of mythology, with characters transgressing the boundaries of tales and tellers and gaining some life of their own. Razor, who could be the hero of his own story, becomes a memorable bit player in Gong Er’s, just as she is one in Ip’s legend as Wong tells it. Gong Er’s own fate is bound up with her fervent need to prove herself a worthy vessel for her clan’s legacy.

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When Ma San became a collaborator with the Japanese, Gong disowned him and the two fought, with Ma San killing the old man. Gong Er was aggrieved and further stung by the requests of her father’s clansmen and adherents that she desist from reprisal. Only her bodyguard and clan loyalist Jiang (Tielong Shang), sticks by her. She asked for a sign whilst praying in a temple if her father approved of her desire for vengeance, at the price of giving up all other worldly fulfilments, and received it in the form of a candle burning before a Buddha statue. Wong certainly offers everything one could hope for in the mode of a romantic-action epic. There’s a tale of unrequited love, thunderous fights, a grand revenge saga, a strident bad guy, a determined revenger, a vast scope, and extraordinary vistas portraying an exotic, lost world. Only Wong breaks it all with his conceptual hammer and then pastes it back together as pulp travesty transformed into poetic saga—and yet there’s reality behind even some of the film’s more romantic conceits. Gong Er, for instance, is based on a woman who shot a warlord in the back after 10 frustrating years of seeking revenge against him for killing her father. Such touches confirm the sensation that there’s another element in play here, detectable even without reading interviews with Wong that confirm it: he’s trying to recreate the Hong Kong he grew up in, where men and women with legendary pasts had retreated into hidey-holes in their new home, getting on with the banal business of living. Because of the outlawing of the martial arts schools by the Maoist government in 1949, all of the masters vacated en masse for Hong Kong.

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One might contrast Wong’s investigation of this fecund theme with a far less imaginative film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which could only state, not find dramatic irony in the fact that its irrepressible real-life protagonists finished up running a Brooklyn trucking firm. Wong takes a step further back than In the Mood for Love and 2046, films which achingly recreated the Hong Kong of Wong’s youth in the brief time of pacific grace between the Maoist triumph in China and the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia and looks to the even crueller crucible of the age before, transmuted via legendary characters. Characters like Jiang, who was once an imperial executioner (and the character in The Grandmaster who most clearly looks like a classic wu xia stock figure), and Gong Yutian’s contemporary and fellow in pre-Republic revolutionary assassination Ding Lianshan (Benshan Zhao), harken back even further to the forces that dragged China into the modern age. Crucial to the film’s structure is the disparity as well as the attraction between Ip and Gong Er: whereas Ip obeys the precepts of his Wing Chun creed and keeps moving forward in spite of awful loss, Gong Er renders herself a prisoner to the past. Wong underscores the mirroring in Ip and Razor’s experiences by depicting both in thrilling, visceral battles in the rain, except that where Ip’s fight is bloodless, Razor has to contend with assassins trying to knife him. Shots of blood falling into rainwater and sullying it communicate the essence of a more primal, brutal aspect to Razor’s experiences, as he’s pushed from nationalist patriot to lone-wolf survivor in the Hong Kong street.

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Wong, who spent a year obsessively editing this film, finally turned in a rapturous mural of oneiric images, all carrying the powerful sensatory charge of sights, sounds, even scents recalled from a past just over the horizon: the whole thing could be an opium hallucination breathed in by Gong Er in her declining days, much like one of its evident models, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Grandmaster is feverishly drunk on its own highly romantic, deeply aestheticized take on a lost past. Undoubtedly for wu xia aficionados there are references and genre tropes aplenty here to masticate, but its cinematic language and references are far wider. Its closest relative in recent western filmmaking as a realm of thundering steam trains, stylised elemental extremes, and fervent human feeling, was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), and David Lean seems a point of common reference. But whereas Wright’s film was dancelike and theatrical, Wong’s is at once dense and aerated, musical in texture.

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The opening fight sequence seems to take up the gauntlet thrown down by a great scene in Yimou’s Hero (2002) where action, rain, and music entwined in a synergistic dance. Indeed the stylistic gauntlet Yimou threw down with his deliriously stylised wu xia movies has remained a standing challenge for action filmmakers worldwide since, as Yimou turned his artful eye to aestheticizing genre precepts with Hero and House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with formalistic brilliance and purified, archaic, thematic concerns. Wong’s aims are ultimately different: he doesn’t offer patriotic apologia as Yimou did in Hero, nor create an uncomfortable crossbreed as Yimou did in The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), but rather meditates on the nature of modern peace as a catharsis bought by conspicuously ignoring the horrors of the recent past. Wong confirms his debt to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America by including a music cue from that delirious saga, but the kinship is equally signalled by shared traits and motifs, like railway stations, exile, and opium as both plot devices and style keys. Indeed, if Tsui Hark hadn’t already claimed the title, Once Upon a Time in China might have made a good name for this film.

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Where Leone and Lean were sleek, spacious, classical stylists even when adopting elliptical storytelling devices, however, Wong is situated in some post-Impressionist zone, piecing together his vision in points and patches of colour and light. Wong manages to produce a film that is both intensely thoughtful, replete with sequences of quiet intensity that nonetheless remains in near constant motion, achieving a kind of ecstatic flux that can, like a great kung fu fighter, shift from any stance to another with ease. The beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is both heightened and undercut by Wong’s fast-paced, occasionally enigmatic, eliding approach to cutting. Potentially languorous tracking shots are constantly cut off mid-flow, and early scenes are filled with vertiginous barricades between figures within frames, capturing the hermetic aspects of the time and place, as esoteric soup recipes and ancient creeds have their last moments of exacting consequence. One recurring shot depicts two fighters facing off with one centre-frame, the other circling into the shot closer to the camera, and the cut coming as they block out the opponent, cumulatively creating a tension and amplifying the sense of physical intricacy. Conversely, when he’s shooting fights, Wong becomes fiendishly precise, opposite to most other contemporary filmmakers, often alternating from eye-level shots to high, overhead views in obedience to the lateral-horizontal precepts of Ip’s philosophy.

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Leone’s influence is particularly strong in the nominal climax, in a railway station on New Year’s Eve, 1940, when Gong Er finally ambushed Ma San and taunted him into a duel. Wong partly spoils his own climax with a flash-forward already depicting Gong Er in 1952, a cagey, still-beautiful but frail and haunted woman who resists Ip’s entreaties to teach him the 64 hands technique. Her battle with Ma San, the culmination of her campaign of payback, is an instant classic and indeed perhaps the best individual sequence in any movie of the past 10 years. Similar to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), it commences with a long wait in the railway station as Gong Er studies flames in a brazier whilst Jiang sits on the platform, drifting in a wintry reverie where even the flicker of light bulbs and the swirl of snowflakes seem invested with ineluctable sense of momentous forces gathering: Gong Er strides through steam and smoke like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), anointed as a titanic hero. In her furious bout with Ma San, they badly wound each other. Ma San seems to come out the worse, as he ricochets off a moving train and is left sprawled on the platform, admitting defeat and allowing Gong Er her moment of triumph. But when she returns home, she coughs up blood and faints in a shot of deeply morbid ecstasy.

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Wong provides the pay-off for the grand revenge saga the audience expects, but with a radical tweak that fulfils a note many other action films only suggest. For Gong Er, her defeat of Ma San is the highpoint of her life, a moment after which everything else, thanks to her vows, can only be addendum, anti-climax, and wastage. The Grandmaster‘s concluding passages are a return to classic Wong territory as it reduces its vast tapestry to a portraitist study in frustrated romantic melancholy, as Gong Er and Ip Man encounter each other in Hong Kong. Gong Er confesses her pained and resigned desire for Ip, whilst never releasing herself from the strictures of her vows, and a button, saved from the winter coat Ip bought for his wife for their planned trip north, becomes the orphaned relic of their mutual desire. Ziyi’s face, tearful and yet perfectly composed, becomes at last a pool of wan splendour, calmly studied after the furious onrush of the film preceding this moment. Gong Er dissolves like a dream in a welter of opium and visions of herself as an impossibly perfect girl practising her moves like a dancer in the snow. Ip finds himself stranded in the present tense, taunted by his own emotional imperfection and losses, with his wife dying on the mainland, separated from him by more than water or politics. Nonetheless, he survives, artfully clobbering his way to preeminence in Hong Kong and becoming mentor for a new generation. Undoubtedly, The Grandmaster might prove a frustrating experience for viewers expecting a traditionally structured story that delivers familiarly neat character arcs and studious explication. Indeed, Wong’s original concept was just such a movie. But the finished film is a different, far more adventurous success, a bold, extraordinarily executed fusion of approaches that adds up to a genuinely great cinema experience.


11th 08 - 2013 | 9 comments »

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro

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By Roderick Heath

One of the great filmmakers working in modern genre cinema, Guillermo Del Toro has worked his way up to becoming one of the anointed few: a director of Hollywood mega-productions. And yet, although Del Toro has affinity for the sort of material that today fuels most blockbusters, a true top-tier success seems frustratingly out of reach for the portly Mexican auteur. Since his debut with the haunting, witty fable Cronos in 1992, he’s found his greatest critical success in the Spanish-language diptych of dark fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Many of his films for the Hollywood market, like the fun and stylish Mimic (1997) and the Hellboy films, did middling box office, but gained fearsome cult followings. Well, at least they did with me. Hellboy II: The Golden Army was probably the best film of the past ten years to have a comic book source, offering both rigorous personality and teeming strangeness. That film’s sequence with the forest god clearly signalled Del Toro’s desire to make an unrestrained monster movie. Only Blade 2 (2004) has proved a true big hit in ratio to its budget, whilst Del Toro’s involvement with bringing Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen ultimately proved a wasted effort, and he handed reins back to fellow nerd-lord Peter Jackson.

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Del Toro’s surprising incapacity to truly score with a mass audience, which seems confirmed by his latest attempt at a world-conquering work achieving only soft box office, seems rooted perhaps in the fact that his affection for fantastic film retains a nerdish delight in genre esoterica, his desire to build rather than merely remake franchises, and an old-fashioned ethic that’s determinedly inclusive, refusing fashionable filmmaking postures in favour of emphasising character interaction and particularity in the worlds he creates. In short, Del Toro is a native of this land rather than an interloper, and he lets viewers know the difference.

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Nonetheless, Pacific Rim is an overt bid by Del Toro to claim his rightful place at the top of the cinematic food chain. The oneiric, decidedly adult fantasy visions of his Spanish films that ironically involve children and their place in a dangerous world are balanced by the looser, goofier studies in misfits and oddballs cohering in his American works. But the hemispheres of his oeuvre still feel unitary not only in their lexicon of images and ideas harvested from centuries of folk tradition and mythology, but also in their essential tone, their emotional largesse and formal beauty, rendered in bold and fleshy, Renaissance-art colours and highly mobile, vigorous camerawork that maintains nonetheless classical rigour. Pacific Rim nominally annexes territory laid waste by Michael Bay, but is at odds with the preferred approach of most Hollywood big-movie directors like Bay.

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The annoyingly vague title, which seems to have aimed for a Cloverfield-esque obfuscation, should have bit the dust during production: to get a sense of this film’s gleeful inner nature, it should’ve been called “Fury of the Mecha-Men” or “Hell-Beasts from the Deep”—something flashy, trashy, and vulgarly poetic, perfectly in tune with this film’s B-movie roots. Easily the best big-budget film of the year so far, Pacific Rim is gloriously corny and entirely unashamed of it, and no small work of formal artistry. It suggests a joie de vivre in its own absurdity and cinematic nature as well as confidence in its cornball dramatics and audio-visual force that’s been frustratingly lacking from the endless series of reboots and franchise instalments of the past couple of years. Even this year’s estimable Man of Steel had an uphill battle to erase memories of earlier versions. Del Toro, on the other hand, may well have made the best monster movie since the original King Kong (1933).

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Of course, I am biased, both towards Del Toro as a filmmaker and his choice of references here. How much one enjoys Pacific Rim depends on one’s hunger for adventure, mayhem, and spectacle on the big screen, but will almost inevitably be augmented by a certain affection for ’50s scifi cinema and Japanese fantastic cinema and anime or kaiju, exemplified by the first and greatest, Godzilla (1954), and massive super-technology that offers symbiosis between human and machine, found in the likes of Godzilla director Ishirô Honda’s follow-ups like The Mysterians (1958) and Atragon (1961). Del Toro co-penned the script with Travis Beacham, who previously penned the lackluster Clash of the Titans (2010) remake, which shared at least two qualities Del Toro could appreciate: love of big, monsterish thingies and a certain democratic quality to the way it approached heroic quests. In pointed contrast to Bay’s fascist visions, Del Toro’s desire to create a more internationalist, multicultural vision of world saviours than one usually gets certainly comes out in the course of Pacific Rim, but that again is another way the film accords with old models, like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Conquest of Space (1955). With some emphasis on cooperation between talents of different nationalities and cultural resources, and brave new world solutions, the main plot hinges on the desperate need to create subliminal accord between two historically polarised entities, an American male and a Japanese female.

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This accord becomes vital because, sometime in the near future, colossal monsters start crawling out the Pacific seabed, and attacking major cities. Del Toro gives an immediate nod to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) as the first monster attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, severing its span while assaulted by jet fighters who find their weapons hopelessly outclassed by the terrifying beast. The animal is finally brought down after several days and apocalyptic damage to several cities. Soon, however, a steady number of of the so-called kaiju crawl out of some kind of dimensional portal hidden deep in the Pacific rift to create more havoc. A counter-weapon to the epidemic of monsters is rapidly developed and deployed: colossal, hard-to-control robots called jaegers (German for “hunters”) that are piloted by specially chosen people who have the ability to “drift,” that is, symbiotically join minds through technological linkages. People tend to drift best with people they already share connections with, so many jaeger pilots are related or have similarly close bonds. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, who pilots a jaeger with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Vigorous and unorthodox fighters with an elastic approach to the rules of their trade, Raleigh and Yancy venture out of their designated defence zone off the Alaska coast one night during a fearsome storm to save a fishing trawler in the path of a kaiju. Although they succeed, the kaiju they thought they killed surfaces. The monster slices open the jaeger, and Yancy is ripped away to his death. Raleigh manages to keep enough control over the machine to finish the beast off and bring the mangled jaeger to the coast, where it flops on a beach before a grandfather and grandson (David Fox and Jake Goodman), fleetingly reminiscent of the main characters of Cronos.

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Yancy’s death marks another turn in the tide of the kaiju war, as more of the tougher, more intelligent breed of beast that killed him emerge. Raleigh, left bereft and mentally scarred in more ways than one by the loss of his brother and drift partner, spends years in exile working construction shifts on the new sea wall the United Nations has directed be built to hold out the kaiju. There seems here to be a bit of a satirical pot-shot at the infamous Israeli security wall as well as “pragmatic” solutions to the eventuality of flooding from global warming, or a genre conflation of the idea with Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China. But it’s still really a broad metaphor for any problem that can be blocked out of sight and thence out of mind. Of course, that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile the jaegers have their ranks thinned, and finally the marshall of the force, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is told by assorted bigwigs that the jaegers are to be decommissioned. Just as soon as Pentecost is informed of this, however, a kaiju easily bashes a hole through the wall in Sydney, and is brought down by Aussie father and son jaeger pilots Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky).

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The jaeger force’s science team, garrulous American nerd Geiszler (Charlie Day), who finds the kaiju unremittingly cool, and snooty, fussy Oxbridge type Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who loves numbers far more than the messy elements, predict that kaiju will start to arrive in massed groups. Realising that the human race’s days might be numbered, Pentecost tries to get as many jaegers in the field as possible for a last-ditch attempt to close the portal, and particularly wants Raleigh because he’s the only one apart from Pentecost himself who ever managed to pilot a jaeger alone. Nonetheless, a new drift partner for Raleigh is sought, and the best candidate proves to be Pentecost’s assistant Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In good contemporary fashion, Mako proves her grit and equality by besting Raleigh in a kendo battle. But Pentecost is reluctant to field Mako, for good reasons: she has personal, tragic spurs to want to take on the kaiju, with the kind of trauma in her past that can turn drifting into a destructive psychodrama. As both she and Raleigh share such trauma, they are a combustive team—risky, but also potentially extraordinary. Many films have explored how traumatic past experiences can both bring people close in kinship and retard their capacities to operate in the urgent flow of life, but here they’re quite crucial to the way the plot unfolds.

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An immediate, stand-out quality of Pacific Rim is how good it looks, not an entirely superficial piece of praise. There’s been some criticism in various quarters of the photography of the fight scenes, and indeed, Del Toro occasionally frames his action close to the battles in that modish fashion that makes them blurry, dizzying studies in motion. But Del Toro never lets the action devolve into the kind of gibberish that some directors like Bay or Jonathan Liebesman have wrought lately, trying rather to break up the potential visual monotony of big things hitting each other. Del Toro knows how far to take it, and where to step back, and frankly, the inability of some observers to discern the difference worries me. Raleigh and Yancy’s first battle takes place in a churning squall: following Raleigh’s comment that the jaegers make their pilots feel able to take on hurricanes, the notion that these machines can compete with the very elemental nature of the Earth is rendered thrillingly literal in combat. More importantly, Del Toro sees no reason why special-effects-based cinema can’t be not just thrilling, but actually beautiful in a fashion that avoids the plasticity of a lot of CGI work. Pacific Rim is absolute eye candy. The lysergic vivacity of the colours comes to resemble some brand of modern art, with a palette close to Ridley Scott’s early films, in a peculiar, visual tone poem of modern urban noir, except on a far larger scale and blended with a techno-gothic largesse. His delight in swathing battles in rain and night helps contribute to the sort of visual density that distracts from flaws in the effects, of course, but also helps Del Toro create a rich atmosphere for his battles, apt for a director who loves his Universal horror films.

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To expect Del Toro to offer the kind of polymorphic strangeness of his far smaller films in something like this would be pretty foolish. Pacific Rim doesn’t try to upset the apple cart in terms of genre rules; on the contrary, it tries to recreate the naïve tone and deceptive simplicity of classic models whilst blending it with the supercharged spectacle modern cinema can offer. Whereas Jackson’s take on King Kong (2005) was an enormous, gorgeous, but defanged and unwieldy love letter to the ideals of the monster movie, Del Toro keeps focused on the mode’s basics: titanic entities wailing on each other. At the same time, Pacific Rim manages to introduce some scifi gimmickry with genuine depth without getting bogged down in its own conceptualism: the concept of “drifting” delves into cyberpunk territory where barriers of the psyche are broken and definitions of physical reality and human intimacy lose some of their traditional meaning. It also presents a speedier version of the construction of empathy between people, which in most human experience, begins on a familial level, then extends to romantic partners and, if we’re lucky, close friends and immediate colleagues. When Raleigh and Mako first drift and take charge of their jaeger, Raleigh’s traumatic recollection of Yancy’s death shoves spiralling Mako into a recollection of her own formative trauma: the memory of wandering the lanes of decimated Tokyo with a colossal kaiju stalking her after killing her family.

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Del Toro’s feel for the roots of such fantasy in childhood phobia is keen here in the nightmarish evocation of abandonment and the fear of a colossal force that feels straight out of any number of childhood bad dreams, and plugs back into the same mythopoeic zone Del Toro investigated with Pan’s Labyrinth, particularly in the totemic red shoe which Mako clutches in her memory and which adoptive father Pentecost hands to her to signal her graduation to monster killer. However, here the children are not abandoned in the face of horror, but rather the jaegers stand for all parental strength to hold back the nightmares, according with Mako’s ascension to full adulthood. Pacific Rim doesn’t mimic the feel of a fairy tale, and yet its underpinnings certainly maintain those qualities, as well as employing a delightful fetishism for taxonomy and offering peeks into bazaars of the esoterically charming and strange, in the colossal barns that house the jaegers and the kaiju party emporium run by Hannibal Chow (Ron Perlman) that captures the essence of being a kid and wandering into some pit of nerdish delight. Another thing Del Toro succeeds in which filmmakers who try to make monster movies often fumble is making their creatures not only malicious enough but also tough enough to make seeing them smote actually enjoyable, as the difficulty in killing colossal monsters is charted vividly: the rise of Raleigh and Mako is depicted purely in relation to their building ability to kill kaiju, from desperate and frantic tussles to lethal efficiency.

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The film’s central battle takes place in Hong Kong, as the kaiju seem to hunt Geiszler following his invasion of their hive-mind, tracking him down to a public shelter, whilst the jaegers are faced with defeat by the new, specifically engineered beasts, including one that generates a charge that knocks out the electrics of the jaegers. Only Mako and Raleigh can save the day, and save it they do, marching into battle with a container ship wielded like a club, and finally bisecting a winged demon with their suddenly revealed super-sword, a compulsory mecha flourish saved for the most beautiful reveal and pay-off. The ebullient absurdity and grandeur of Pacific Rim can and should impress itself upon any receptive viewer, but if you’ve ever shared any of the fetishes I listed earlier, you’ll be especially tickled.

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Neither the monster movie nor the concept of the giant or humanoid robot are concepts peculiarly native to Japan, of course. Godzilla was directly inspired by the Ray Harryhausen-enabled The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), whilst men driving robots has been a genre fixture since the early 20th century. But the kaigu eiga or “strange creature film” that Godzilla defined has its roots in the moment following World War II, as Japan faced modernisation in the face of atrocious destruction. Godzilla stood in for all the awful, impersonal threats of the atomic bomb and the modern age, and the kaigu eiga became a hugely popular style as a result; overseas, they became perhaps the key introduction to Japanese cinema and literary culture for most people. Soon enough, in the likes of The Mysterians and King Kong Escapes—epic technological reactions to these metaphoric menaces—began to appear, big enough and brash enough to answer such awful figurations with force, but requiring evolutionary boldness from humankind. The notion of humans forming symbiosis with machines became a fulcrum of the mecha genre, which has analogues in the American tradition like Iron Man, but which remains distinctively Japanese nonetheless. In mecha, an emphasis on collective power is always nascent, the notion of parts fitting together to make a whole on both a human and a technological level, a sort of gestalt power.

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This aspect is realised in perhaps the most surprising and resonant edge of the traditions Del Toro is quoting here in how Del Toro perceives and draws out the faint mystical quality that often underlies them. Having recently made a repeat viewing of Tsui Hark’s gloriously loony-tunes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1981) just a few days before seeing Pacific Rim, I was freshly attuned to the degree Del Toro and Beacham evoke the same conceptual fulcrums as their models. As in Zu, the ultimate unity of two different people linked on a supraphysical level to become a greater entity becomes the necessary ideal for conquering evil, though here it’s achieved on a techno-psychic level, rather than a spiritual one, but the difference is negligible, especially as there’s often a mystical edge underlying the fetishized futurism of a lot of anime. Notably, another recent film to channel the same influence and with similar configurations was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), which also paraded an anime influence, but in an entirely different key. The functioning accord needed between Mako and Raleigh is echoed by the need for the entire jaeger team to work together with their multitudinous nationalities, and the biology/abstraction schism of Geiszler and Gottlieb’s concepts of science and their radically different personalities, and the brain/hand link between the scientists and the warriors. Geiszler eventually decides to try drifting with the brains of the kaiju to learn about their motives, and successfully divines the forces employing them. Not surprisingly for Del Toro, Pacific Rim eventually edges into the sort of Lovecraftian territory he adores, that realm on the borderline between science fiction and psychological monstrosity.

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Del Toro also finds peculiar humour and thematic heft in the sight of a whole kind of illicit industry growing off the literal detritus of the kaiju wars, giving him a chance to revisit the kind of mischievous black-market economics and underworld life he’s explored before in Hellboy II’s troll market sequences, evoked here as Geiszler travels down into the boondocks of Hong Kong, in a neighbourhood called the Bone District that’s sprouted in the shadow of a gigantic kaiju skeleton. Geiszler searches for an intact kaiju brain he can drift with, and with Pentecost’s guidance, he tracks down the distinctly un-Chinese Chow: “I got the name from my favourite military leader and my second favourite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn,” Chow explains, which sounds exactly like Del Toro and Beacham explaining how they thought the name up. Perlman’s appearance gained an appreciative laugh from the audience at my screening: he’s finally become a popular cinematic icon.

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Geiszler is startled and excited to discover that Chow’s operation has mastered preservation and exploitation of the kaiju in a way the biologist thought impossible, with grotesquely amusing touches, like the colossal, squirming ticks Chow’s operatives pry off the fallen beasts. Chow ends up as, well, chow for a baby kaiju after airily proclaiming one dead, but Geiszler and Gottlieb joins forces in drifting to invade the kaiju’s mind and extract the dreadful truth about their origins and purpose. Geiszler’s adventures in Hong Kong see the bespectacled boffin singled out for annihilation by the kaiju who attack the city, and, thrown out by Chow who realises this, he’s forced to take refuge in a public shelter, where the panicking denizens thrash around him trying to get away from this Typhoid Mary but unable to escape their supposed shelter, as a kaiju bashes its way in from above.

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The character postures—Pentecost is the armour-assed leader, Raleigh the bruised saviour, Mako the talented neophyte who only needs to get her act together—are fundamental, but handled with such verve and straight-faced force by cast and director that it fits this fare perfectly. There’s a merciful lack of Joss Whedon-esque flippery or pseudo-hip humour. Even Del Toro’s casting of two Americans to put on cheesy accents as an Australian father and son, and perpetual xenomorph Clifton Collins Jr. as the team’s Chinese-monickered tech wiz, has a certain aptness in recreating the pasteboard tone of many B-movies, and there is a music hall sense of humour underlying the regulation Alpha male head-butting of Raleigh and Chuck. Although this could just be a by-product of watching it as an Aussie with an audience of such: hoots of delighted derision were exploding around me whenever Martini and Kazinsky opened their mouths. Even if there’s nothing as happily off-message in the film as Hellboy 2’s hilarious Barry Manilow sing-along, Del Toro still manages to offer fillips of character comedy, from making Mako a bit of a perv, constantly trying to catch a glimpse of Raleigh with his shirt off through her cabin door peephole, to Gottlieb enthusiastically, if cluelessly trying to match Geiszler’s homeboy handshake. Del Toro’s riffs on stock characters are much like his riffs on anime: gleeful in recreating their essence whilst also subtly undermining them or warping them to his individual purpose.

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Hunnam, who’s been hovering on the edge of a major career ever since appearing in the original British version of TV’s “Queer as Folk,” and his enticing performances in Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and Cold Mountain (2004), leaves behind his smooth-cheeked Dickens hero for a modern variety with bruises on his soul. He’s entirely likeable, to the degree Raleigh’s an upright and solid hero, though the film’s one lack is a protagonist as flagrantly cool and richly conceived as Hellboy. Kikuchi and Elba ultimately own the film. Kikuchi, who broke out with her performance in Gael Garcia Bernal’s very different fable about internationalism, Babel (2006), and provided a slyer pleasure in The Brothers Bloom (2009), still looks barely out of her teens even though she’s over 30, and offers a slightly oddball elegance to her roles; here the mix of supple humour and emotional immediacy she brings to her part is vital. Normally I don’t like iron leader characters (in films or real life), but the compensating factor for Pentecost is being played by Elba, whose capacity to project formidable authority overlaying a contemplative depth, hinted at in Thor (2011) and Prometheus (2012), is utilised here and mixed with a certain fearsome humour, as when he chides Raleigh, “Rule number one, don’t ever touch me. Rule number two, don’t ever touch me,” and serves the lippy Chuck a harsh character analysis.

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The thunderous finale is gloriously over-the-top, as multiple hell-beasts attack our heroes, noble sacrifices and hair’s-breadth escapes are made, dimensions are crossed, and alien swine are righteously roasted. It’s certainly possible to wish that Pacific Rim had more down time for its characters and time to expand on some of its trippier ideas, but it ultimately remains faithful to its chosen brand. Many films try to make me feel eight years old again; this one succeeded.


4th 07 - 2013 | 18 comments »

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) / The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler

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By Roderick Heath

Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.

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Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.

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Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.

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Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.

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Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.

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In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.

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7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.

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Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, the film dumps into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.

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The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.

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The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.

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The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.

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The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of lost civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.

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The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).

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Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.

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Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.

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Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.

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Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.

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“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.

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The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What was rendered passé was Harryhausen’s attempt to make special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work: Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.

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It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.


21st 06 - 2013 | 5 comments »

A Chinese Ghost Story (Sien Nui Yau Wan, 1987) / A Chinese Ghost Story II (Yan Gaan Do, 1990)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Tony Siu-Tung Ching

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By Roderick Heath

Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.

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You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).

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Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.

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The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.

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The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.

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Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.

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The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.

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A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.

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A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.

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The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.

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But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.

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The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

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The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.

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Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.

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The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.

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Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.

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Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.

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Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.

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Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him, a last flourish for the rare melancholy underlying the series’ general joviality.

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Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.


9th 06 - 2013 | 10 comments »

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Director: J. J. Abrams

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

I know modern movies are essentially treated by many viewers as dialogue filler between action sequences: certainly young audiences in movie theatres act that way. But I’m still stuck back in the age of storytelling, antediluvian-hearted animal that I am. When I wrote about the first entry in J. J. Abrams’ cycle back to a retrofitted version of the original Star Trek in 2009, I commented that although the USS Enterprise was back boldly going where no one had gone before, what it seemed likely to find was far more limited and generic than in Gene Roddenberry’s epochal, probing, often weirdly poetic TV classic. To a great extent, Star Trek: Into Darkness realized my expectations, provoking schismatic reactions in me.

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Abrams offers fun and derring-do with only a thin veneer of the inquisitive humanism and speculative eccentricity that was the point of Roddenberry’s creation. This edition provokes suspicion, reinforced by Abrams’ own admissions, that he uses the superstructure of the Trek mythos in service to space opera malarkey whilst ignoring the richer and stranger texture of the source, the patina of flower-child idealism emphasising the multitudinous possibilities for contact and communication in the universe. Of course, that tone coexisted in a vision of the future with corny politics, guys in polyester stockings wrestling with men in plastic lizard suits, and storylines synthesised to justify whatever spare costumes and sets were lying around the Paramount backlot, from Nazi uniforms to gangster threads. The best movies in the Trek cinematic strand are essentially fast-paced pulp yarns that play ably on the fact that with all of the elements of essential drama long in place, it was easy to whip through worlds and ideas.

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A greater problem that Abrams courts here is having his take compared to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a gold standard of scifi and franchise filmmaking. The stature of The Wrath of Khan lay in the near-perfection of its balance of character, theme, action, and plot rather than in its wobbly production, making it the complete opposite to so much big-budget fare today. The older film’s balance came to a certain extent from the accumulated affection for its cast and the substance of its repeated motifs, something a relatively callow franchise can’t swing nearly so confidently, especially one that has to fight for space on the multiplex screens and win over the popcorn crowd. Into Darkness doesn’t compete in regards to storytelling skill or provocation of wistful emotion. On the other hand, Meyer invested a depth into the characters that they’d never really had before, and played up their aging, worrisome quirks to deliver that rarest of creations, a zippy pop-culture work that grazed the edges of tragedy and myth. Therein lay a contradiction: Meyer both fulfilled and reinvented the brand. Abrams does the same thing, by dealing with a version of the characters defined by youthful volatility and the struggle to learn who they are, rather than the warhorses of the older movies and the crisp professionals of the series. Abrams’ signature touch at the start of his first instalment, one indeed he’s finding hard to top, was an epic sequence of generational loss and birth, signalling his intent to annex Star Trek as a place for genuine character drama. With its early reliance on broad stereotypes and the later series’ generally flaccid placeholders, the human element has always been the weak point of Trek, ironically only really gaining urgency through the perspective of characters who were not human, but who sought to understand that state, like Spock and The Next Generation’s Data.

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Never mind the old show: some of the best qualities Abrams and company instilled in their revision aren’t really done further justice. John Cho’s butched-up Sulu, Zoë Saldana’s substantial Uhura, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley-by-way-of-Robert Newton take on Bones McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s comedic Chekhov, all ripe for expanded roles, get odd moments of action, but are all somewhat left holding the bag. Abrams concentrates again on the Kirk and Spock Dioscuri, though the tricky relationship dynamic of Spock and Uhura—sage and communicator—pays off with a satisfying sop to the strength of mutual care. Klingons make it into this entry, but they’re just swarthy menaces who provide story fodder and a fight scene without much chance to show off their weirdly specific, perverse warrior pride and intelligence. Okay, one could wax lyrical about how Into Darkness doesn’t encompass the old Trek brand. It’s still a very enjoyably, impeccably made action flick that follows its predecessor and (mostly) surpasses it, standing up with John Carter (2012) as a rocking yarn that breathes life back into the near-asphyxiated field of mainstream scifi spectacle, purely through the vivacity of its visuals and pacing and the energy of its conceptual universe, coming at a time when scifi spectacle has seen entertaining entries like Avatar (2009) and Oblivion (2013) that are nonetheless dispiriting in their derivativeness. Rejigging Trek for the umpteenth time is also derivative, but Abrams, having jolted the timeline of the series into an alternative reality for the sake of giving a shock to the material (and to the inertia of fan-obsessive continuity), at least has a sense of purpose, glazed in a sense of colour, light, humour, and movement that approximates the best of the old popcorn flicks we all watched as kids.

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However, Abrams’ screenwriters, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, having proven themselves gifted at harvesting the tropes and ideas of other, better writers and remixing them into superficially clever narratives, have benefited greatly from the annexation of scifi properties by blockbuster cinema. Lindelof’s incoherent screenplay for last year’s Prometheus pointed sadly to just how much artisanal love and craft have deserted the medium. Yet Star Trek has a strong, but malleable, bedrock of lore that can accommodate almost any mode of storytelling, whilst Abram’s gusto and love for his medium is reliable. Abrams dumps the audience into an extended fusion of Indiana Jones adventure and the TV show’s cheerily tacky evocation of the alien as James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones distract a hostile aboriginal tribe on a far-flung planet long enough for Spock (Zachary Quinto) to drop a cold fusion device into an erupting volcano that’s threatening to wipe the planet out. Spock takes a tumble into the volcano’s mouth and expects to die. After escaping the natives, Kirk violates the Starfleet Prime Directive of not interfering with the evolution of species, and reveals the Enterprise in order to beam Spock aboard. Spock officiously reports the incident to Starfleet: Kirk is dressed down by his mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and fired from his captaincy. Pike takes over the Enterprise and rehires a chastened Kirk as first officer. But a mysterious schemer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has engineered a terrorist attack that decimates a Starfleet facility in London, and a meeting is called of senior commanders to consider the danger.

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Evoking The Godfather Part III (1990), Harrison assaults the meeting with a hovering attack ship, killing Pike and other Starfleet grandees. Senior commander Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) survives and gives Kirk the Enterprise to chase Harrison to where he’s fled: Kronos, the home world of the ever-ornery Klingons. Marcus equips Kirk with a number of drone photon torpedos to decimate the remote region in which Harrison is hiding. Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock argue the foolishness of such an act when relations with the Klingons are so fragile, and Kirk relents, choosing instead to capture Harrison with the help of Spock and Uhura. The Klingons are less than welcoming, and the trio are forced to fight, only to be saved by an awesomely talented warrior who proves to be Harrison. Harrison surrenders to Kirk upon learning of his strange cargo, and reveals his true identity: he’s Khan, a genetically engineered, super being exiled from Earth three centuries before. He was reawakened when the spaceship taking him and his fellow genetically engineered savants into exile was rediscovered in deep space, and Khan’s intelligence had been put to use by Marcus. The torpedoes actually contain his shipmates, held hostage to the Admiral’s nefarious designs.

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The opening sets a template Abrams follows efficiently: essential Star Trek tropes are employed in a witty style that doesn’t forestall serial-like escapades, paying off in a boiled-down version of many an episode’s lesson, as the natives have an epiphany, drawing the image of the Enterprise in the dirt as a new sky-god. Abrams’ attempts to dovetail the TV show’s traditional themes with a good-humoured, spring-heeled approach are at their most successful here. The consequences of Kirk’s brazen style, in saving Spock who had been entirely willing to die according to the limits of his role, are also followed through in a way that the series rarely required of Kirk. This rule evoked the similar ones holding Superman and Doctor Who at bay from dabbling in social engineering. A hesitation here is that Kirk’s actions are only reprehensible from a strict rule-book perspective: he saves a native species and his first officer both from annihilation at the small expense of providing the natives with a glimpse of things strange and wonder-provoking, a possibly mixed blessing. Kirk’s disgrace puts in motion a drama about the inefficacy of always obeying seniors, even as Kirk has an extended crisis about his own leadership capacity clashing with his tendency to buckaroo improvisation: “I don’t know what I should do,” he says to Spock at a crucial juncture, “I only know what I can do.”

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The original Star Trek asked questions redolent of the era’s concerns regarding race, war, and society: what constitutes “humanity” and life worthy of respect? How does one maintain a balance of peace against inimical opponents? Does one intervene in societies beset by growing pains or keep hands off for fear of playing god? What indeed is “god” in such a universe? Stirring and engaging as these questions were in such a medium, they were already pretty old-hat for science fiction by the 1960s. Whilst ethical and scientific inquiries are far less important in the context of Abrams’ films, here the questions are manifested in the push and pull of the Kirk-Spock relationship, with a new third corner in Khan, relating to morality and responsibility in leadership, whilst the larger story almost too obviously seeks to channel anxiety over terrorist blowback, manufactured war-justifying threats, and drone warfare. This “dark” slant of terrorist supervillains and warmongers is actually thematically similar to Meyer’s other Trek film, The Undiscovered Country (1992), which reconstructed the Cold War endgame into scifi argot. Into Darkness’ assumptions about institutional power are, at least before the plot cleans up neatly, far from the semi-utopian assumptions of the old Trek. But it does give a new urgency to Kirk’s desire to puzzle out how to do the most good when the responsibility is his, one Spock reiterates in the classic formula from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

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Roddenberry’s patina of idealism was also always inseparable from the surprising rigidity and old-fashioned quality of its space-age notions of hierarchy and responsibility, something Meyer recognised when he played up Starfleet’s Hornblower qualities, and which Abrams tweaks here to more menacing purpose. Starfleet’s attitude and costuming are becoming distinctly more militarised: Kirk and his crew now occasionally wear peaked caps, which hint this future is now only a stone’s throw from the overt fascism of Starship Troopers (1997), and Scotty quits the Enterprise crew in protest of this creeping militarisation. Here, much of the leadership of Starfleet is exterminated, except for the very head honcho who proves to be a ranting General Ripper-esque psycho. Thus, Kirk and company find themselves caught between two different versions of the same evil. This narrative is definitely more sceptical than the traditional Trek story, but not necessarily more cynical. What’s more frustrating about Into Darkness is that where Abrams proved with his extended movie brat homage Super 8 (2011) that he could replicate the careful unfolding of narrative that made the brand of Spielberg et al. so powerful back in the day, here he’s still at the mercy of the lazier reflexes of the contemporary blockbuster. Khan’s motivation, history, and perspective aren’t gradually and effectively revealed, but dumped in an exposition speech delivered in the now-compulsory interlude where the villain is briefly imprisoned, as per The Dark Knight (2008), Skyfall, and The Avengers (both 2012).

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The story is complex, but all of its elements are essentially in place already as the film jumps into it. Khan is awake. His crew are already stowed in cryogenic chambers hidden in photon torpedos with no convincing explanation for this strange choice of hiding place, nor how Marcus found them. Marcus’ plot has already largely progressed, and he chooses the least sensible patsy imaginable to deliver his Pearl Harbor/Gulf of Tonkin/9-11 on the Klingons. Khan and his crew’s backstory begs so many questions, most of which remain unanswered, that it could cause your forehead to turn inside out if you think about it too much. Into Darkness exacerbates an ever-more apparent problem with a lot of contemporary screenwriting—a story that is at once dense but also essentially treated as baggage. The story has already happened: Kirk and company are roped-in patsies who have to mop up the debris. What is left, then, is basically an extended third act of chase and battle. Whereas in The Wrath of Khan, the war to control the Genesis device was beautifully contoured into the story on several levels, providing thematic gravity, motive, and payoff, here Khan himself is turned into a variation on the device—apt as he is always associated with cyclical destruction and rebirth, which give the Vedic overtones of his name some coherence, with his blood possessing incredible healing properties. At the film’s outset he gains himself a suicide bomber (Thomas Harewood) by saving his deathly ill daughter with a transfusion, whilst this element bides time to provide a deus-ex-machina in the finale. The larger drama in play—Marcus’ attempt to force a war between the Federation and the Klingons—is timely, but not forceful, a significant idea dismissed as mere plot device.

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But there I go again comparing, and to a large extent that’s unfair. I can only illustrate why it’s unfair by example: it’s akin to faulting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for not concentrating on the same elements of an evident inspiration like Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Whilst definably linked by aspects of character and image and genre, the older film is an exotic adventure movie, but also a situation-comedy about character, whereas the later movie is a full-throttle action film built around linked set-pieces. There’s still room for character and thematic depth in the action film, but it’s subordinated to an ethic of rolling cliffhangers. The problem here is that we already have so many would-be roller-coaster rides on modern cinema screens, making one ache for a more considered brand of genre delight. The positive aspect is that so many of those rides suck, whereas Star Trek’s rigid place in the pop cultural firmament helps give this style rare integrity and power. The day when Kirk and Khan could not only trade physical blows, but also blows of wit and ego laced with literary references seem sadly gone. One of the reasons Khan made such an impact on Trekkies and casual fans alike was because his leonine intellectualism, as well as great physical strength, made him a rare kind of villain befitting a show with a penchant for cerebral stimulation. Khan’s genius is stated, but scarcely given real scope: the film is filled with products of his brilliance, like the souped-up warship he’s designed for Marcus, but again, they’re already present and ready for use.

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In its middle third, Into Darkness does shift into the kind of strategic gamesmanship The Wrath of Khan did so well, once again forcing the heroes to take on an enemy who seems to have all the advantages. A seemingly impossible situation is set up, which must be solved with both grit and smarts—a common quality of all versions of the series. Caught in deep space, sabotaged by Marcus in his plan to make them magnets for punitive Klingon action, the Enterprise crew first have to get their ship going, but then are chased by Marcus in the massive and lethal new Dreadnought-class spaceship Vengeance Khan designed. The Vengeance knocks the Enterprise out of warp close to Earth, and only the fact that Scotty has smuggled himself aboard prevents the Enterprise’s complete destruction. Kirk forges a brittle alliance with Khan to take out their mutual enemy, and the two make a thrilling, high-speed flight through a debris field to plunge into a narrow airlock that Scotty has to pop whilst under guard. Khan unleashes unvarnished, megalomaniacal rage, crushing Marcus’ head with his bare hands in another movie nod (to Blade Runner [1982]) and forcing the Enterprise to beam over the torpedoes containing his frozen friends. However, Bones and Sulu pull off a (not too) malicious switcheroo, allowing them to blow Khan out of the sky just as he fires on them.

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Into Darkness pulls off something that some other recent films, like the awful Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes series, have tried but not quite swung: putting characters better known for brains into situations requiring brawn, whilst not entirely asking them to abandon the former. Casting Cumberbatch, who plays a modernised Holmes on television, as Khan suggests a move towards embracing the intellectual as well as violent kind of villainy and in keeping with Ricardo Montalban’s characterisation of Khan as a wily, chess-playing, Moriarty-ish kind of enemy as well as a bristling he-man who delighted in his prowess and competitiveness but could only find the satisfaction of exercising his gifts against challenging opponents. That promise doesn’t really eventuate here, in part because he’s bestowed with a new trait that makes him less Nietzschean but also a more apt, shadowy doppelganger to Kirk: he’s consumed by his sense of care and duty toward his fellow mutants as a crew equal that dampens his capacity to act according to the ruthless predatory instincts of his genetic programming. This is a clever exacerbation of the basic theme flowing throughout Abrams’ Star Trek: finding drama in two inimical versions of the same sense of duty. The Kirk-Khan death dance takes on new dimensions, then, as each is forced into positions and choices that test their essential makeup. Cumberbatch invests Khan with pride and an exclusive variety of empathic feeling reserved strictly for his fellow übermensch, but also apocalyptic anger when offended. The “otherness” of Khan, with his distinct ethnic identity, has been removed, relying rather on Cumberbatch, with a mop of black hair and a deep, mordant voice, to embody malefic brilliance. That voice is capable of the same purr, redolent of a panther starting to think about its next meal, that made a star of Alan Rickman. Cumberbatch, whose early roles mostly stuck him playing swots and bluebloods, was hitherto best used for villainous purposes in Atonement (2007). I half-hoped he could find someone on the Enterprise to enjoin, “You have to bite it!” Even if Khan can’t be all that he should be in a modern multiplex blockbuster, Cumberbatch still inflates himself to fill Montalban’s large shoes.

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Likewise Quinto, who doesn’t possess Leonard Nimoy’s lode of abyss-throated gravitas, makes up for it with his poise. Some have said that the new Trek has essentially become Spock’s series, and there’s a lot of truth to this, if only because the contemporary sensibility finds the internally divided, outwardly stoic figure much more compelling than the squarer Kirk. This seems to be the season for digging up fallen ’80s heroes, following William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s contributions to Iron Man 3; Abrams goes one much better in giving former Robocop Weller a lip-smacking bad-guy role. Rounding out the cast is Alice Eve, playing Marcus’ daughter Carol, a scientist who gets aboard the Enterprise to find out what her father’s up to: according to Trek lore, of course, she’s destined to be the mother of Kirk’s son David and supply a dash of silly cheesecake to a Peeping Tom Kirk, suggesting sexuality in Hollywood hasn’t progressed beyond the 1950s. Also, why Admiral Marcus has an American accent and Carol a British one is left sadly opaque.

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Chris Pine’s performance is stretched in ways here that threaten to reveal its limitation: Shatner’s Kirk was always smug, but supremely competent, a man who wore his captaincy naturally. Pine’s, on the other hand, still feels a bit too much like a high school football captain suddenly beset by existential angst about life after graduation. But he and Quinto do still pull off the propulsive aspect of mutual reliance and affection in spite of violently contrasting temperaments. The harum-scarum rush of bluff and double-dealing, mixed with intense, vivid, physical action, is pretty tremendous stuff, and once Abrams is in his action element, Into Darkness rips and roars. The major set-pieces of the finale see Abrams trying to one-up the crashing spaceship sequence of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), first by having the Enterprise go into free-fall in Earth’s atmosphere, the heroes caught inside what amounts to a colossal tumble-dryer, and then Khan crashing the Dreadnought into San Francisco Bay in a suicide run at Starfleet Headquarters.

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Abrams revels here in the scale and detail and force of what the contemporary special-effects palette can do for him, rejoicing in assaulting the prim environs of the Enterprise and the whole idea of colossal battleships in space, and subjecting them to violence on a grand and entertaining scale. Abrams, a famously transplanted TV talent, has been displaying ever-evolving cinematic gifts since his debut, the strong Mission: Impossible III (2006), a film driven by a peculiar tension between his grasp of kinetic pace and the sense-battering editing endemic to contemporary Hollywood. Abrams has been conquering the latter trait, and though his first Star Trek still displayed those bad habits. The classicism he forced on himself with Super 8 has paid dividends here: the spectacle is gorgeous and the fighting mostly comprehensible. But what really keeps Into Darkness humming is the clarity of Abrams’ focus on emotion that, in spite of the whiz-bang elements, still provides a sturdy superstructure. Where the first instalment ran with one of Abrams’ favourite themes—personality crises in the young and talented played out through the heightening tropes of genre urgency—here the crux is rites of passage that could also be life climaxes. Kirk loses Pike, the last link to his youth, right after he’s sent back to the minors, and, as in The Avengers, the swaggering hero is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, saved only by convenient screenwriting (and the mutual model for both films is, again, The Wrath of Khan).

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The gag is that whereas The Wrath of Khan saw Spock giving his life to restart the Enterprise’s engines, here it’s Kirk, building to an outrageously conceited yet peculiarly stirring mirroring scene to the older film’s climax. Spock sets off in vengeful pursuit of Khan culminating in an essentially superfluous but aptly grandiose and thrilling chase across the futuristic San Francisco skyline, battling on the backs of flying vehicles hundreds of feet above the ground, with Khan’s super-strength, lethal to humans, checked by Spock’s alien physique and way with a mind-meld. The beauty of this battle is twofold: the running theme of Abrams’ films—Spock’s deep-buried, but powerful sense of rage and feeling for his friends—is stoked and leashed upon an apt opponent. And, of course, there’s the sneaky joy of Spock, killed by Khan’s machinations in another reality, now kicking the superman’s ass, with some help from Uhura.

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What’s ultimately true here is that Abrams has made a spectacular, bouncy, ripping-paced swashbuckler, largely transcending its flaws and niggling disappointments, but not the moment of its creation. Whether anyone will still watch this in 30 years’ time like they do The Wrath of Khan is a minor point; perhaps more important is that we’ll be watching it for different reasons if we are. The film’s very rushed wrap-up dismisses Kirk’s revival from the dead like something that happens every day, flinging Khan back into deep freeze and sending the crew off on their canonical five-year mission without any note of promise, mystery, or new horizons. By any standard, this is a weak and frustrating conclusion to a good ride, one that again reminds me too sharply of how much emotional fullness and storytelling relish are held as less important than getting the film wrapped up in the permitted running time. Even at its corniest, Star Trek was about wonderment, curiosity, and awe, but these seem to be aspects our screen culture has lost. At least we have gained a good action series.


27th 05 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Lord Jim (1965)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Richard Brooks

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By Roderick Heath

Amongst his achievements as an author, Joseph Conrad intellectualised the adventure story. In his tales of high seas drama, derring-do, conquest, and exploration, he concentrated consistently on the psychological makeup of his heroes, and the problems inherent in their attempts to find inner peace with external action. Even if this did, in the reckoning of some colonial voices like Chinua Achebe, who died this year, essentially turn the rest of the world into a playground for unravelling white men, Conrad diagnosed something vitally important in the state of the modern world as it entered the 20th century: that its demons were not at held at bay by official perspectives, that its roots were its present and future, and that its securities and reassuring institutions were about to collapse due to processes already in motion but unexamined—evolutionary theory, industrialisation, scientific advancement, Marxist economics—all phenomena that questioned the truisms that had governed so much human activity. Lord Jim, a blend of heroic myth-making and interior tale dismantling its own myth, was one of Conrad’s best-regarded works. Richard Brooks’ film version is for me one of those films all movie lovers have tucked away in their psychic cupboard, something beloved but pain-provoking in regarding how few others share the love. Lord Jim is one of the great adventure films, but I know I’m lonely in this opinion. Indeed, I suspect the reasons I love it and others dismiss it are the same: the film gives us the adventure, but much more: the psychology, even philosophy, the forceful and committed exploration of its hero and his friends and enemies in terms of how they see and react to the world. Jim is presented as a proto-existentialist desperately trying to recreate the fabric of not only his own sense of self-worth but all of humankind’s sense of security in its own works and capacities.

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Richard Brooks is a badly undervalued figure now, but he was, at the height of his career, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors, included in at least one serious survey made of the most important directors of the 1960s. Brooks, like John Huston, for whom he worked on Key Largo (1948), first gained repute as a screenwriter, and specialised in literate but muscular cinema. One quality of his that was distinct from Huston was a sharper concern for immediate issues: Brooks, whose real name was Reuben Sax, had made his name chronicling the anti-Semitism he grew up with in the novel Cross-Fire, filmed in 1948. His early films saw him working in thematic territory close to the new breed of New York blow-ins like Elia Kazan et al, but in a manner closer to genre blacksmiths like Phil Karlson, combining forceful aesthetics and hot-button topics in sweltering interplays of ethics, social concern, morality, and character, from his debut Crisis (1950), through Trial (1955), and to his most famous early film, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). After the latter film’s huge success, he became a prominent studio helmsman. His neurotically romantic Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) confirmed he had a way of sustaining emotion and substance through layers of studio gloss and compromise, and that he could get good performances out of Elizabeth Taylor, which he proved again with the first of his two Tennessee Williams films, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Many of his subsequent films were adaptations of notable literary works, like his solid version of The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and his Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry (1960). Later, he combined his social scientist and litterateur sides in films like In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978), gritty true-crime tales raking through the fallout of modernity. At the same time, he also made several high-riding action films just for the hell of it, starting with Lord Jim and continuing with his superlative, hip western The Professionals (1966), the caper flick $ (1972), and Bite the Bullet (1975).

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Lord Jim stands in the shadow of another elevated adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Certainly there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two, if only to the extent that Brooks’ adaptation of Conrad gave O’Toole a chance to explore a similarly strong but mentally fraying antihero, and Lawrence’s hit status made it seem for a very short while as if audiences might now have a taste for grown-up, substantial epics. Although hardly exclusive, it can be said broadly that where David Lean’s film was an exercise in cinematic poetics built upon the framework of an historical character study and adventure tale, Brooks offers rigorous and textured filmic prose. Where his versions of Dostoyevsky, Williams, and Fitzgerald were hampered by Hollywood niceties, Lord Jim came in a window when Brooks could make the film he wanted without bogus happy endings imposed, but he still revised Conrad’s tale to a degree that irked many. Brooks’ approach had some felicities, however, particularly in the way he changes the warlord that Jim battles in the remote South East Asian nation of Patusan from an Indian bandit to a French militarist, exacerbating the sense of Jim battling doppelgangers and the misbegotten by-products of colonialism.

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Stylistically, Lord Jim is a portrait of cinematic technique in transition, poised between the mystique of Hollywood and the intensity and tactile authenticity of a more modern brand. It’s not just the common roots in Conrad that makes Lord Jim feel like a precursor to Apocalypse Now (1979) amongst others, but its yearning to engage more seriously with the percolating themes of race and sexuality, politics and personal character that thrum beneath the surface of such storytelling. Lord Jim also offers the pleasures of big-budget cinema seriously handled and engaged with superior material, a rare combination.

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Conrad’s story was based upon a real person, James Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah of Sarawak”, who founded a ruling dynasty, with the patronage of the Sultan of Brunei, which governed part of Borneo from the early 1800s until after World War II. Whether the real Brooke ever had as much introspection as Jim is unknown, but Conrad’s fantasia on his theme presents Jim as a study in human potential and limitation. Brooks transmutes him into a figure at once titanic and pathetic, troubled by his own nature as he tries to sustain himself between cultures and harboring a complex identity based in a veiled background. The character of Jim was a fittingly abstract vehicle for Brooks to explore his own identity, just as Elmer Gantry had given him scope to explore his status as elevated flim-flam man. Brooks furthers the emblematic quality of Conrad’s narrative by excising many names, like a mixed-race woman (Daliah Lavi) Jim falls in love with, whose name is Jewel in the novel but here is merely “the Girl,” accompanying “the General,” the “French Officer,” and the polar temperaments of “Lord” Jim and “Gentleman” Brown, a faintly Kafkaesque reduction to type of each figure to render them universal.

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Brooks’ take opens with a clipper ship knifing the ocean with majestic grace, matched to Bronislau Kaper’s soaring score, providing the essence of a certain fantasy about an age of sailing and venturing. But this is a dream-vision, both evergreen and about to be dismantled. James “Jim” Burke (O’Toole) is introduced in retrospect by the narrator Marlow (Jack Hawkins), the old salt who also guided the reader into the Heart of Darkness, speaking here of his days training cadets, and the remarkable Jim who stood out as the most enticing and ambitious of his students. Jim’s fantasising cues mocking moments of his imagined rescue of Marlow from pirates, holding off a mob of scurvy villains with a Union Jack flowing behind him. This funny pastiche looks forward to the more intensive lampoons of British Imperial-era heroics in films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Royal Flash (1975). But Jim’s fate is to find what he wants only through the most agonising of trials.

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Serving as an officer on Marlow’s ship in a frustratingly workaday career, Jim breaks his leg and has to be put ashore in Java. Once recovered, he signs on with the first ship he can, a disgraceful rust-bucket called the Patna. The captain (Walter Gotell) is a burly, aggressive drunk; the engineer, Robinson (Jack MacGowran), a scruffy coward; and the ship is jammed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca like so many cattle. On a dark and foggy eve with a storm rolling in, the ship seems to hit an underwater object, and Jim, inspecting the damage, is so rattled by the situation that he imagines the slightly leaky hull is about to give way to sink them all. As the storm buffets the Patna and the crew launch a lifeboat to save themselves, Jim assures the pilgrim’s spokesman (Rafiq Anwar) that he won’t abandon them. Nonetheless, he gives in to the appeals of the crew and jumps ship with them, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. The crew hope the sea will erase their crime, but upon reaching a nearby port they find the Patna already in the harbour, having been found and taken in hand by a French officer (Christian Marquand). Whilst the others scurry off into hiding, Jim hands himself over for judgment.

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In a degrading public hearing, the French officer dubiously regards the moral certainties of the spokesman for traditional sailing virtues, Brierly (Andrew Keir), but this does not prevent Jim having his ticket cancelled and official disgrace hung about his shoulders. Jim buries himself for years as a common labourer about the Far East, still pursued by infamy as he learns of Brierly’s suicide, seemingly caused by the gnawing uncertainty about any man’s reliability and nerve. But fate gives Jim the second chance he wishes for, when, working in an unnamed South East Asian port, he saves a launch loaded with cargo, including a shipment of repeating rifles and gunpowder, from sabotage. The weapons have been imported by an aging trading company representative, Stein (Paul Lukas), for the citizens of Patusan, who are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited by tin mine owner, The General (Eli Wallach). Stein commissions Jim to take the weapons to Patusan for the day of resistance, and an encounter with Robinson, who needles him for money, inspires Jim to accept Stein’s offer. Stein’s plan is stalled when the steam launch he was counting on hiring becomes unavailable because its sleazy owner, Schomberg (Akim Tamaroff), has been bought off by The General. But Jim is now determined, and he and some coolies laboriously row and sail a boat upriver to Patusan. One of the coolies is an agent of The General (Ric Young), and he escapes to warn his boss. Jim manages to get the weapons into the hands of the Patusan rebels before being captured.

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Enter Wallach as a more intellectual, imperious version of his malicious Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960): The General, equipped with great intelligence and a vividly strategic mind, is a strutting sadist who makes a show out of his ability to find men’s weak points and hurt them. He’s turned Stein’s trading agent in the area, Cornelius (Curd Jürgens), an alcoholic and craven failure, into a pet. Whereas The General is merely wary of Jim as an enemy, Cornelius develops a real hate for him, as a man of moral fibre and endurance. When Jim is delivered into his hands, The General tortures him to discover the hiding place of the weapons. In a scene laced with discomforting undercurrents, The General’s delight in his own psychological insight and desire to find the quickest way to the best result meets an equal and opposite force, in Jim’s distinctly masochistic hunger to redeem himself by way of intense suffering. This means that in spite of his talents in terror, The General finds himself only satisfying Jim’s desires. Only when he comprehends that Jim must only fear death does he know how to break him. The erotic dimension of all torture and especially between the two uncommon men is given a mediator when The General grabs the first girl on hand, one giving water to the captives of The General’s regime: he rips open her shirt and proffers her as a last sensual indulgence to Jim before his next round of questioning, a taunt to his sensual enjoyment of life before that life is extinguished. That Girl, however, is one of the rebel leaders, daughter of a local woman and another European interloper, and she helps Jim escape. Once free, Jim’s moulded officer’s mind gives him an edge in planning how to use Stein’s weapons gainst The General’s fortified compound, but his ever-threatening instability in the face of horror still lies in wait.

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The insurrection that follows is a superb, intricately detailed action sequence that pays off in a terrific feat of arms that provides Jim with his greatest repudiation of his past. The General tries to fend off the attack he knows is coming by shielding his men with captives, including Buddhist monks, cueing a scene of sacrifice and slaughter that sends Jim into another dissociative fit, whilst his fellows charge the enemy. A whirlwind of slaughter ensues, from The Girl hacking men to death with glowering fervour, to the monks beating at their captors with their chains. An attempt to knock out The General’s ammo dump with an antique cannon fails when the artillery cracks and explodes. But Jim conceives of a way to break open the fortress by filling dozens of spears with gunpowder and throwing them against the doors. Jim and Waris (Jûzô Itami), the son of local elder Du-Ramin (Tatsuo Saitô), work in concert, with Jim making a devil-may-care dash with a barrel of gunpowder on a wheelbarrow that blows up The General, the remnant of his men, and the ammo in a thunderous crescendo. Only Cornelius escapes, ironically through a secret passage The General intended to use himself, and, still desirous of the large amount of loot and treasure The General possessed, he contacts Schomberg, who puts him on to Gentleman Brown, another malignant Western profiteer.

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Brooks and his cinematographer Freddie Young paint Jim’s story in lush, incisive colours and tones and a wash of intricate mise-en-scène that stands with the best-looking films of the ’60s. The film shifts steadily from the wide open seas of Jim’s training days, flush with tones of sea blue and white, to earthy, organic tones that bring out the electric distress of O’Toole’s eyes, the jewelled perspiration on Wallach’s skin, the damp and filth of Jürgens’ jacket that signals Cornelius’ rotten soul, the smouldering, nocturnal mysticism of the Patusan temples, before reaching the expressionistic, intensely psychologised fog and dark, whittling reality down to the starkest human contentions, and haunting, smoky interiors, of his reckoning in Patusan with Brown. These stylised later scenes deliberately echo early scenes on the Patna, where the small world Jim appoints himself responsible for and then deserts is painted in deep contrasts and slivers of light and colour, as encroaching psychological terror gives way to erupting chaos as the storm rises and Jim disintegrates, clinging to the ship’s steering wheel like his personal crucifix and then giving in to the temptation to flee precisely because of the crushing terror of the lofty status for which he had longed. New Wave-inspired film tricks were just starting to infiltrate large-budget cinema at this time, and Brooks adapts them sparingly, in an opening montage that offers up a sprawl of human life, teeming and strange all at once, amongst whom Jim is to be sighted, and flash-cuts to the memories and associations that torture Jim. Jim’s intense torture sequence anticipates several variations on the same technique, intercutting The General searing Jim’s flesh with battling martial artists, the swirling music and vigorous action counterpointing and transmitting the impression of Jim’s livid agony.

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Jim’s status as a philosophical figure and exemplar of a powerful modern question emerges intact, a singular achievement for an adaptation so top-heavy with distractions and blockbuster elements. Conrad’s story seems predicated around questioning the simplistic assumptions behind the bravery in a story like A. E. W. Mason’s much-filmed The Four Feathers, where the hero exculpates his guilt over wimping out from battle by performing feats of bravery. Conrad dug into the issue of what such feats really meant for the state of the hero/coward’s soul and psyche, and moreover what they meant to the social ideals they served, an aspect that particularly interests Brooks. But Conrad’s story was a story of an enigmatic man through the eyes of other temperaments—closer to what Lean and Robert Bolt did with T. E. Lawrence—whereas Brooks places Jim’s perspective at the centre after Marlow’s narration concludes. Brooks’ heroes often tend to wrestle deeply with their own natures in the context of their immediate worlds. Jim’s great failure on the Patna for Brooks is not his fear, but his abandonment of his post, a failure both of his own heroic self-image but also of the only real element of that image, which was his duty of care to passengers. The French officer’s cautious replies to Brierly’s questions knock away old canards like going down with the ship, which the officer describes in return as a myth propagated by insurance companies to ensure a stricken vessel can’t be claimed as salvage.

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The true substance of the problem, which opens up chasms of existential angst, is whether men are equal to a role whose robust self-security must remain unquestioned, one of upright conduct and self-sacrificial worthiness: the entire presumption of Victorianism is called into question. Jim’s failure, as Brierly says with tinges of hysteria, casts doubt on every other professional sailor, a terrifying notion if one has accepted such things as god-given securities. Jim therefore hunts not only to restore his self-respect and worth, but to reprove the ethic he failed, without recourse to abstract principles but in himself, overcoming the worst lapses with acts of bravery only to realise how close in nature they are: “I’ve been a so-called coward and a so-called hero and there’s not the thickness of a sheet of paper between them.” Thrown into sharp relief by Jim’s romantic masochism are the degrees of quality and frailty others display: Jim’s heaviest burden is in his very human self-awareness, where others scarcely care, and therefore scarcely can be called human. The psychopathic General and Brown are spared such tortures because for them life is a bartering of force and ego, so they can’t be consumed by the id like Jim. When Cornelius asks Brown what Jim has done when Brown comprehends his guilt complex, Brown replies that it doesn’t matter what he’s done, only that it will operate like a button to be pushed to their own advantage. Cornelius seeks to destroy whatever is stronger than himself, or attach himself to it. When Jim asks The Girl if she would have had sex with him if he’d wanted it when The General “gave her” to him, and she replies yes, because it would’ve been necessary, an opposite extreme of subordination of self to a general cause that is beyond degradation, a sagacious note struck by a proto-revolutionary entering an age of upheaval.

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Lavi, an Israeli actress who first found success as a singer and actress in Europe, including a stint as a replacement for Barbara Steele in the eye of Mario Bava in The Body and the Whip (1963), had a brief moment of wider stardom in the mid-’60s, but this was certainly her most major role. Her strikingly vivid eyes and intensely sensual looks give her the aspect of an embodied fetish, and she inhabits her role here with poles of spiritual serenity and Amazonian fury. She is as defined by her place between cultures as Jim: when he asks her if she wants him to stay, she replies, no, “only because I do not wish to die crying like my mother,” whose “golden god” of a European lover went back home. It’s peculiar then that Jim’s eventual journey toward self-destruction is evidently happier for her than such an abandonment.

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Brown, when he arrives with Cornelius and Schomberg, forces another crisis for Jim, one that involves his new authority in Patusan. While trying to raid the treasure kept in a Buddhist temple in a heavy night fog, Brown kills a boy. The locals manage to drive off the raiders and capture their boat, and Brown, figuring he can manipulate Jim from what he knows of him, calls to parlay. Brown’s nickname is both accurate—he maintains the appearance of a dapper Londoner complete with bowler hat—and ironic, as he’s really a vicious pirate. Schomberg describes him: “This ‘Gentleman’ Captain Brown has given more business to Death than the bubonic plague. From Java to Fiji, he’s wanted for piracy, slavery, mutiny, rape, murder, and some things that aren’t even mentioned in the Bible.” He’s the incarnation and image of the evil underbelly of European colonialism, and his suppositions about Jim are correct, as he twists Jim’s conscientiousness and horror of bloodshed into a double-bind that forces Jim in spite of the entreaties of his friends and his own doubts to give Brown and company safe conduct.

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Mason’s late appearance in the film, although brief, is nonetheless superbly succinct, contrasting the epic, neurotic power of O’Toole’s performance with his own serpentine skill with words, as Brown easily turns the damaged man’s mind inside out. “Perhaps your justice is tempered by the colour of your skin,” one of the Patusan elders (Marne Maitland) says sharply. Whilst the elder’s statement fails to appreciate the specifics of Jim’s dilemma, it does potently summarise the contradictions of his larger position. Both Jim’s battles, with The General and Brown, are as much about intelligent men fighting with psychology as with guns, and for competitive ascendancy as much as worldly gain. Brooks’ attentiveness to the narrative form transforms Conrad’s saga into a kind of passion play, but one with Buddhist inflections: each phase of Jim’s life pits him against forces inner and outer that eventually prepare him for death as the consummation of his journey, and the wheel that is the constant refrain of his fears is revealed not as crucifix but as the wheel of life. Not for nothing does his final conquest of Brown, and his own defeat, converge in a Buddhist shrine, rendering coherent the flickering spirituality throughout the whole film. Brown, Cornelius, and others raiders sneak off under the cover of the fog after Jim has released them, and they attack and mortally injure Waris, who dies in Jim’s arms.

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Jim has already declared that his life is forfeit if one person dies for his decision. Jim exterminates Brown and company by discharging two of The General’s cannons, kept as prizes loaded with gold sovereigns in the temple, but Du-Ramin, grief-stricken by his son’s death, promises Stein that he’ll extract Jim’s life if he’s still in town in the morning. Just as his obedience to his moral compass forced him to deal with Brown, now Jim cannot leave, and in spite of Stein’s arguments (“There’s too much pride in your humility!”) he nonetheless presents himself for Du-Ramin’s judgment in the morning in his full uniform. The gunshot that ends Jim’s life segues into the pyre of rebirth that consumes him, Waris, and the rest of Browns victims. Jim’s end, whilst tragic on one level, is nonetheless heroic not merely in his sublimation to a creed, but also in the completion of his journey of reproving the individual in the face of awesome forces. As Stein sails away in salutary contemplation on a river transformed into a flow of dappled light, The Girl weeps not in pain but in joy.


21st 05 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Forever Amber (1948)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Otto Preminger

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


18th 05 - 2013 | 8 comments »

Les Misérables (1934)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Raymond Bernard

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


14th 05 - 2013 | 9 comments »

The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Necklace (1973) / The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Richard Lester

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In this way, Lester looked for the submerged link between slapstick comedy and swashbuckler action, but in a different manner to earlier films that tried such a crossbreed, like the George Sidney version of The Three Musketeers (1948), which featured Kelly, or The Crimson Pirate (1952). Lester adds a ruder physical edge to the rough and tumble that’s actually quite authentic to the rhythms and methods of street fighting from the period, part of an overall texture that suggests this was a far less elegant and gentlemanly time than commonly depicted, for all its fertile aesthetics. Lester’s approach is also at odds with the way blockbuster action would increasingly take on the essential mechanics of slapstick cinema and replace laughs with suspense (at least theoretically) generated by ridiculous destruction of infrastructure and unlikely physical robustness: Lester rather looks for the humour in ridiculous situations that action films usually encourage us to accept straight-faced. This fits well with Lester’s sinuous blend of selectively deromanticised derision and boisterous comedic energy. As such, though Lester’s take on the adventure canon would be supplanted by the more earnest stylings of Lucas, Spielberg, Milius et al. within a few years, the sensibility of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) isn’t actually that different: the marketplace kidnapping in Raiders is actually a riff on a similar scene in the second episode of Lester’s epic. The constantly misjudged or overstretched legerdemain of its characters is the great source of Lester’s visual humour. For example, early in the diptych, D’Artagnan tries to take out Count Rochefort (Christopher Lee), the snotty, one-eyed villain he encounters whilst travelling to Paris, by swinging on a crane rope to knock him off his mount; where Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks would’ve succeeded effortlessly, D’Artagnan misses and finishes up lolling in the mud.

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In spite of all this mischief, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas’ tale faithfully and capture its essence. Like his distant descendant in adventuring, Luke Skywalker, D’Artagnan journeys from bumpkin to knight of the realm, leaving home with romantic ideals and paternal advice that soon prove inadequate to reality’s shifting mores. With his family sword smashed and his head battered by Rochefort’s goons, he faces up to the Musketeers’ commander Treville (Georges Wilson) weaponless and penniless. Forced to find a way to prove himself up to membership in the Musketeer corps, he quickly earns himself three duels in a row with the scabrous trio of Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finlay) during an attempt to chase down Rochefort. Before he can fight Athos in the courtyard of a convent, however, the quartet are interrupted by members of the personal guard of Cardinal Richelieu, who, seeking a chance to bust Musketeer heads and increase the Cardinal’s power under the cover of enforcing an anti-duelling edict, assault them. The Musketeers and D’Artagnan win against the larger force, however, and, accepted as a new friend by the loyal trio, D’Artagnan gets a share of money taken from a defeated enemy’s pocket.

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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.

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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.

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Reed was cleverly 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 aspects apparent in the relationship. Lester turns the camera back to the bloody bath to visualise the morbid underpinnings and innate hatefulness of the partnership.

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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.

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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.”


27th 04 - 2013 | no comment »

Farewell to the King (1989)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: John Milius

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


22nd 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Centurion (2010)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 traditional belief that the Ninth Legion 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.


19th 03 - 2013 | 10 comments »

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai, 1954)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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2nd 12 - 2012 | 8 comments »

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

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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