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Director: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declared war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor: Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with almost fearsome glee, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Otto Preminger
By Roderick Heath
Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.
Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.
Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.
Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.
When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.
Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.
Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.
Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.
The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.
If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.
Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942) and Captain from Castile. Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.
Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castille, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.
Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.
Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall
By Roderick Heath
English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the 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.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
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Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, although Guzmán tries to keep the regime’s decision to make René their guru quiet, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, in the desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity, the war of messages allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach but soon infuses their street rallies. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jan Troell
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.
Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.
At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.
The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the fact of overwhelming misery and threat from without.
One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.
The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August leant a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.
I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.
Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.
The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.
The Last Sentence screens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Michael Curtiz
If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The Budapest-born, eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk fascinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.
By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.
The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to competing with it for managing both livid intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.
Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.
A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.
Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.
It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.
Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.
Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur (1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.
Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One (1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.
Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.
Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.
Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.
The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.
The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.
The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.
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Director: John Ford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The year 1939 stands out in film history as a banner year, when such megaclassics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Dark Victory, and John Ford’s Stagecoach came out and competed for the best picture Oscar. You might say that 1939 was an especially good one for Ford as well. He premiered two other noteworthy films that year, both starring Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, his first Technicolor film. All period films, Drums Along the Mohawk has the feel of a Western, but covers the period just before to just after the Revolutionary War. Noteworthy for its realistic period detail and a level of hardship and brutality I had not remembered from my first viewing of this film many years ago on a local TV show called Family Classics, Ford exposes just how hard and fragile was the life of early American homesteaders.
The film starts in the elegant city home of the Borst family, where Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) is being married to Gilbert Martin (Fonda). After the simple ceremony, the film cuts to the young couple leaving in a covered wagon for a homestead in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, towing a wedding present—a dairy cow—behind them. The long day’s journey through varying terrains, shot with Ford’s signature expansiveness, brings the Martins to an inn, where Gil persuades Lana to have some vodka to toast their marriage. The innkeeper (Spencer Charters) embarrasses them by teasing them about their newlywed status, and a patch-eyed colonial named Caldwell (John Carradine) asks them about their political affiliation—American or Tory—in an intrusive and sinister manner.
The following evening, the Martins arrive at the cabin Gil built on the homestead. It is very cold and a very far cry from the type of home Lana left behind. As she tries to put on a brave face, Gil builds a fire in the hearth and goes out to shelter the livestock. While he is gone, Lana is scared out of her wits by the intrusion of a Native American. Blue Back (Chief Big Tree) is a friend of the white settlers in the region and a Christian convert given to shouting “Hallelujah,” but Gil barely calms Lana’s hysterics before she says she intends to return to her parents. Gil brings her around slowly, and Lana eventually integrates into the community and starts working the land with Gil.
The primitive conditions of life on the farm don’t factor much into the hardships the Martins face; instead, war is the “natural” element that heaps tragedy upon the Martins and their community. Native Americans in the employ of Caldwell gather a war party to attack. They burn the Martins’ home and crops and send every homesteader in the vicinity running for their lives to the nearby fort commanded by the genial Gen. Herkimer (Roger Imhof), where Lana collapses and has a miscarriage. Economic necessity forces the Martins to work in the house and farm of Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a scrappy, well-to-do widow. They hope to save enough money from their earnings to rebuild. Unfortunately, the approach of British troops and their Native American mercenaries pushes every member of the settlement into battle in one way or another, as more homesteads are burned and more attacks are made on the fort. By the time American troops reach the remote Mohawk Valley to inform its residents of Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, the homesteaders claim the right to raise the Stars and Stripes themselves as the defenders of their piece of the United States. After witnessing the grueling trials of the homesteaders, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.
Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t romanticize the war for independence, nor does it make the eventual victory of the Americans seem a forgone conclusion for the people it portrays. Indeed, the Mohawk Valley settlers are in trouble from the get-go—isolated, loosely organized, outnumbered. So outnumbered, in fact, that every eligible fighting man is told that if he does not report for battle, he will be hanged. Even the preacher (Arthur Shields) is a reluctant sharpshooter and the women work on reloading the one-shot rifles and dumping boiling water on the attackers when the fort is under siege. The fort itself looks like it could blow down in a good wind, and its walls are easily breachable by the fairly short ladders the Native Americans carry for that purpose.
Ford handles graphic violence in a suggestive way that only slightly blunts the horror. After a face-to-face battle, one-third of the men who went out to engage the British return. Gil, looking shell-shocked, sits against the wall of a make-shift infirmary and recounts the battle to Lana, who is busily cleaning and dressing his wounds. Every detail is burned into his memory, including the fact that his friend Adam (Ward Bond) actually was enjoying himself. His last memory is of a Native American mercenary being impaled on a pike. Gil complains that Gen. Herkimer sat holding his knee after being shot early in the charge; he is not aware that the general will lose his life in an attempt to amputate his gangrenous leg, a procedure we know will happen but will not be allowed to hear or see. Another shattering scene occurs when the simple-minded Joe (Francis Ford) volunteers to try to reach reinforcements. After apparently getting away, his friends can only look on in horror as the mercenaries wheel into the open a smiling Joe, who is tied to a wagon stuffed with hay. The homesteaders try frantically to keep the mercenaries from setting fire to the wagon, only to fail and force the preacher to shoot Joe to spare him burning to death.
Ford’s superlative facility with ensembles and the details that bring a time and place to life are on full display here. We watch the community help Gil and Lana clear their land, cutting trees and pulling stumps using oxen and fulcrums made of young birch trees, and burning the felled timber to make ash to fertilize the soil. A scene in the church shows the organist playing an instrument made with two bellows that must be pushed by hand. The sacrifice of livestock and belongings when the Native Americans come a-burnin’ is done without endless complaint—homesteaders do what must be done.
I very much enjoyed the interplay between Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Bond’s Adam is more than a little flirtatious with Oliver’s widow woman. He clearly loves her and gives her a passionate kiss at one point in the film, rather a surprisingly wonderful moment that she brushes off as her due. Mrs. McKlennar is a woman who never liked being confined to domestic duties and does what she pleases now that she’s a widow. Imagine a woman, and a pioneer woman at that, actually saying she doesn’t like cooking and cleaning! Imagine a woman like Edna May Oliver being considered desirable by a strapping man like Ward Bond. In Hollywood, it’s just not done. In John Ford films, however, it is!
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert have a tremendous chemistry, playing a passionately in love couple with very convincing feeling. I must admit being able to see Fonda’s brilliant, blue eyes added to the believability of Colbert’s ardor, but her initial shock at seeing the cabin and Blue Back was horrifyingly real as well. Other supporting characters, like the snobbish Mrs. Demooth (Kay Linaker), add color and humor, but not a great deal of depth. Like many Ford films, the teeming mise-en-scene and expansive vistas of a wild country (filming took place in Utah) create the big slice of life Ford seeks to capture more than completely rounded characters.
On the other hand, the enemy Native Americans are allowed to be people, not caricatures. In the final scene, Ford gives us close-ups of a number of characters, including Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones), a free black woman who works for Mrs. McKlennar, showing us the diversity of Americans present at the birth of the nation. It’s a bold statement from a man who felt peace should be as inclusive as war. Drums Along the Mohawk is a fine film that more cinephiles should take the time to rediscover.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Teinosuke Kinugasa
By Roderick Heath
The postwar rebirth of Japanese cinema and its eruption on the world stage reached its apex in the years 1953-54. Almost every great Japanese director of the age released a film within an 18-month period, and examples of the national cinema burst upon the international scene to general acclaim. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse made multiple works, including Mizoguchi’s eclipsing classics Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshô the Bailiff, and Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums; Yasujiro Ozu released his most famous film, Tokyo Story; Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Nobuo Nakagawa likewise had movies in theatres; and Hiroko Inagaki made the first of his three-part Samurai series, which would win what was then a special Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. What would eventually prove the two most famous Japanese movies ever produced, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, came out in their homeland, headed for slow but permanent infiltration of Western culture. Of all the films amongst this cavalcade, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell which captured both the 1954 Cannes Grand Prix, which was the festival’s top award at the time, and multiple Oscars the following year. Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio’s first colour production, utilising imported Eastmancolor technology, and adapted from a play written by Daiei’s erstwhile chief, Kan Kikuchi.
Kinugasa, by comparison with the other Japanese greats of the time, is now largely obscure, partly because little of his work was released overseas, and is also poorly represented on DVD. But Kinugasa’s life and career were multifarious, somewhat analogous to someone like King Vidor as a restless and innovative director whose oeuvre spans great shifts in cinematic modes and tastes and who settled into an uneasy relationship with studio cinema. Kinugasa began as an actor who had specialised in onnagata (female roles) in kabuki theatre before moving into film. In spite of his stage background, when he broke out as an independent filmmaker, he rode at the vanguard of emboldened, semi-experimental directors who severed Japanese cinema’s hitherto close relationship with the stage, in a flowering of revolutionary technique roughly equivalent to movements occurring then in Germany and Russia. Key to his early importance was his virtually self-financed, much-hailed, only partly extant drama A Page of Madness (1926), cowritten by the future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Kinugasa then went overseas, managed to get one of his films distributed and praised in Germany, and studied for a time under Sergei Eisenstein. When he finally returned to Japan, he settled down as a studio hand. Kinugasa wasn’t particularly proud of Gate of Hell, disliking the studio interference he had to contend with, and was bewildered when it became such a sensation overseas.
Gate of Hell’s impact abroad was based chiefly in its use of colour, resplendent in the eye-gorging cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama and set and costume design by Kisaku Ito and Sanzo Wada, to wilfully transform the cinematic space into a sprawl of segmented tones that often resemble the hues of classical Japanese ukiyo-e art. Depending on the emphasis of the scene, the effect was to imbue the drama with both naturalism and a saturated, psychologised air of abstraction. Whereas most serious Western filmmakers in the mid ’50s were still often embarrassed by the decorative quality of the era’s colour as a less-serious form of expression that that found in the black-and-white sparseness of television, Kinugasa’s work embraced the idea of high artificiality as an artistic device. Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.
Like Luchino Visconti’s near-concurrent Senso, Gate of Hell reverses the common structure of historical dramas by starting off with large-scale events and epochal ructions before spiraling inward toward a personal crisis that mirrors and subverts the presumptions of the larger battle. Set in the late 1100s, during the Heian period that was the dusk of Classical Japan, Gate of Hell’s main protagonist is Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a mid-ranking provincial-born samurai attached to the imperial Taira clan. He finds his moment to show his worth during the Heiji Rebellion, an attempted coup d’etat against the ruling emperor that occurs when his chief supporter, Tairo Kiyamori (Koreya Senda), leaves the capital city of Kyoto to visit a monastery, giving rivals an opportunity to attack his stronghold and take over the government.
The imperial loyalists at the film’s outset frantically try to arrange to smuggle the emperor’s sister out of the Sanjo Palace, and Moritoh is called upon to stage a diversion where he and a band of retainers will defend a carriage carrying a decoy in the princess’ place. One of her handmaidens, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), volunteers to be the decoy, and Moritoh and his men have to fight their way through a pursuing force. Moritoh finally arrives alone with Kesa at his family villa in the country, only to encounter his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who announces that he’s siding with the rebels. Moritoh is outraged and refuses to join his brother, and as Moritada restrains his own men from killing Moritoh, Kesa runs away. Moritoh manages to reach the temple and report to the emperor and his men. He also kills one of the emperor’s retinue who tries to sneak away and warn the conspirators that the emperor is about to strike back. A battle follows that sees the emperor’s loyalists victorious and Moritoh distinguish himself again, but his brother is killed.
Moritoh visits a shrine for the dead set up just next to the Sanjo palace’s jigokumon, or, literally, hell gate. Moritoh encounters Kesa and her aunt Sawa (Kikue Môri) there, also intending to pray for the fallen, and Moritoh’s interest in the comely courtier hardens into ardour. When the time comes for the emperor to reward his followers for their aid, Moritoh asks to be given Kesa’s hand in marriage, and only then learns that Kesa is married to one of Kiyamori’s ministers, Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata). Moritoh refuses to retract his request, asking the emperor to annul the marriage and thus entering into a public and conscious rivalry with Wataru.
Unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the film which largely opened the curtain on awareness of Japanese cinema in the outside world and which is set in the same period, Gate of Hell has a rigorously straightforward narrative, if a tad difficult to grasp towards the start as the film engages history presumably more familiar to Japanese than Western viewers, and a deceptive simplicity that nearly disguises the skill with which the tale has been pared down to its essentials. It could easily have been a mere sprawl of candy-coloured prestige pageantry, but it is instead a tightly wound and skilfully paced study in obsession, albeit one that proceeds with the clear delineations and iconic rigours of classical literature. The film barely runs an hour and a half, but fits in a whirlwind of events that flows with the same descriptive precision as the historical scroll painting that is unfurled at the film’s very outset. In his use of such motifs and his colour effects, Kinugasa anticipates and probably influenced aspects of Kobayashi’s dark plunge into the national mythology with Kaidan (1964): Gate of Hell is conscious of itself as not merely a film set in the past, but of the artistic prisms through which we conceive the past, lending depth to his stylisation. Kinugasa also downplays the sprawl of historical events and personages after the opening, and concentrates instead on his antiheroic protagonist, who for the film’s first half at least seems the definition of a loyal cavalier.
The rush of action in the first 10 minutes is worthy of Eisenstein or Michael Curtiz in its precise design and flow. Kinugasa’s camera is either at eye level or dizzyingly high above the action, in shots filled with actors and extras arranged in streams of colour, the panicking populace and chasing armies churning like multicoloured flotsam under boughs of hallucinogenic green leaves, more like an explosion in an orchard than a battle. This leads to the hard, vigorous edits of the decoy carriage and its guards fleeing, Kesa within the carriage fainting from the heat and bustling motion as the pursuers catch up with the retinue, who turn to engage in a few seconds worth of brutal combat. Moritoh cuts his way through a swathe of enemies with devastating panache, and repeatedly demonstrates his utter loyalty to his chosen master, even going so far as to riposte to his brother’s entreaties of pragmatism with the assertion that once a man’s given his loyalty, that’s the end of the matter. Moritoh’s race to reach the emperor’s friends at an island temple is another dazzling little sequence, as he chases a team of enemy assassins, shooting arrows at their backs, one plunging from his mount and lolling on the beach dying, his furled fingers leaking sand in symbolic place of his blood and life; but a few minutes later, Kinugasa offers a jarring moment of gore as in Moritou’s duel with the traitor, he lands a katana blow to the enemy’s face, bright gleaming blood seeping between his fingers before Moritou lands the coup de grace.
Moritou is offered literally anything he wants for his service, except, as the ruler jokes, “my head on a plate!”, but immediately finds this is a dishonest offer, if hardly without a good reason. Moritou’s obsession apparently transcends any materialist interests, but erotic fixation blends with awareness of Moritou’s subordinate role as a lesser samurai and a provincial outsider in the aristocratic, urbane ranks his new fame lifts him to, in a society that rewards the values he espouses but only in selective degrees. Moritoh’s singular determination to possess the lustrous Kesa warps him steadily into a lethal bete noir for the courtly, noble, but finally deferential Wataru, and the loyal, genuinely conscientious Kesa. The emperor even indulges Moritoh’s obsession so far as to invite Kesa to the palace to play the koto for him, and arranges for Moritoh to corner her and try to wring out an admission of mutual admiration for him, which he’s sure she feels.
Michiko Kyô soon became the closest thing Japanese cinema had to an international star after Toshiro Mifune, appearing in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) opposite Marlon Brando. She presented a specifically old-fashioned, specifically Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, with a sensual edge, emphasised here in her lips daubed a delirious red, which glisten throughout and lend a distinct quality of sexual intensity to Kesa. She is otherwise defined strictly by her rectitude and decency, which readily explains why Moritoh is so ardent in his quest to possess her. The film’s narrative revolves around the explicit likeness between the attempt by the emperor’s enemies to impinge upon his domain and Moritoh’s attempt to impinge upon Wataru, both eroticised acts of violent grasping and overthrow, and a distinctly Buddhist motif of desires that sooner or later dominate reason and torture men into irrational acts. In her suffering purity, Kyô’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women , but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.
The story’s underpinnings as a tale of sexual jealousy and fidelity amidst of a warrior culture evoke plentiful examples in the western canon, like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Kinugasa’s background as an onnagata, a profession which leading man Hasegawa had also once essayed, supports a hint of an actor’s delight in Kesa’s role as tragic pivot for outsized passions and moral quandaries. As I’ve said, there’s also a hint of the noir film to Gate of Hell, as it zeroes in on a situation that’s a heady mix of desire and power, one that can only resolve in crime. In a mode with links to the same traditions Mizoguchi’s films also invoked regularly, and close to the Hollywood style of women’s pictures, Gate of Hell conflates the usually disparate figures of the femme fatale, whose sexually pulchritudinous existence taunts a man to the limits of sanity, and the self-sacrificing female apostle. The specific cleverness of the tale is in the way Moritoh starts out as a hero and finishes up as a murderer, viewers following him towards his calamity with perfect logic and forced to ponder its loyalties constantly. Like Moritoh, the audience has no idea Kesa is married until it’s revealed to him before the emperor, and Moritoh’s humiliation before the watching audience is palpable precisely when his triumph should be complete. But where a cheaper narrative might have made Kesa’s spouse unlikeable or cold, Wataru soon proves to be a patrician who is decent, good-natured, and deeply in love with his wife. He presents only a solicitous concern when he hears about the story that’s amusing the court involving his wife, and proves ready—perhaps, finally, too ready—to roll with Moritoh’s antagonism.
When Moritou enters a horse race held on an annual religious festival that Wataru is recognized for consistently winning, the challenge of the now-notorious suitors becomes a must-see event. When Moritou wins, Wataru graciously applauds the victory, but Wataru’s friends and others of the aristocratic party are boisterous at the banquet afterwards and suggest that Wataru let Moritou win, a bone thrown to a dog to keep him quiet. Moritou, hearing this, angrily challenges Wataru to a duel, but a courtier forestalls this, forbidding a fight at a holy event. The film’s title has a certain portentous quality, one fulfilled right in the last shot, but it’s interesting to note that like Rashomon, the titular gate is a real location in Kyoto, which becomes a fulcrum for a social, historical, and spiritual understanding of the action. Early in the film, the severed head of Shenzei, a Confucian monk and minister for the emperor, is hung from the gate, and the common folk flocking about it state that he deserved his fate for his past acts of repression. Kinugasa zooms in to the faded murals on the gate depicting the tortures of hell, amazingly similar in spite of the vast separations of culture and distance to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions. Monks often sit apparently oblivious to the worldly goings on that swirl near this landmark. The notion of hell on earth takes on macro- and microcosmic, sociopolitical, and emotional overtones in the course of the narrative, with the gate arching over all.
Moritou literally and figuratively passes through the gate of hell several times, including when he approaches the shrine to the rebellion’s dead with his brother’s name on it, murmuring, “The poor bastard!” whilst steadily marching toward the fate he becomes agent of, entrapping Kesa through a ruse and promising, in his fearsome state, to kill her and her relatives if she will not help him to eliminate Wataru and become his wife. Moritou’s transformation of himself into a kind of demon in his pursuit of his desired one is matched by Kesa’s act of martyrdom, built up to in a spellbinding sequence reminiscent of the best Val Lewton films, in which Moritou sneaks up on the Wataru house through moonlit fields whilst Kesa, inside, cajoles her husband into swapping rooms. When Moritou strikes at his quarry in bed, he finds that he’s skewered Kesa, which, with bleak irony, breaks the spell of obsession on Moritou. Shocked and aggrieved, he awakens Wataru and demands that Wataru kill him as punishment and atonement for his crime.
But the stunned and horrified Wataru rather thinks about the implicit message of Kesa’s decision to offer herself in such a fashion, for he feels it reveals she did not trust him to protect her from the danger, and in fact, took it upon herself to protect him. Thus, both men are framed together in the house’s courtyard, Wataru standing over the kneeling Moritou who begs for death, in a shot that somehow castrates both of them, even before Moritou cuts off his samurai’s topknot and pledges to live the rest of his life in shame, probably as a monk. For both of them, not simply the woman they loved, but also the ideals and structures that guided them are dead. Kinugasa provides an interesting ending, partly for its explicit rejection of violence as an answer to violence, the acidic commentary on a culture where the capacity to wield lethal force is heralded but will inevitable cut into the very heart of its presumed sanctuaries, and the idea suggested by the final shot, of Moritou emerging out of the mist and heading through the hell gate, that his new life may give him something of the same selflessness and redemption Kesa was able to find.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
By Marilyn Ferdinand
They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.
The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.
Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.
In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.
The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimics Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.
Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane  or the verbatim score for Vertigo  in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.
The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.
The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.
I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.
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Director: Raúl Ruiz
By Roderick Heath
Raúl Ruiz’s recent death came as a shock to the system for cinema aficionados who admired that restless, protean stylist and dramatist, a filmmaker who never quite broke out of the box of niche affection in the English-speaking world. One comforting thing, however, was that he left us with one of the best films of the year. Mysteries of Lisbon was produced for television, but released this year worldwide in a cinema edit, and like Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1983) and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) it makes medium distinctions entirely disappear. Mysteries of Lisbon is as visually rich and pervasively controlled as the best of movie-making, even as a work based essentially in people speaking and relating events which unfold in the nerveless gaze of Ruiz’s camera.
Mysteries is based on a work by 19th century Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, a writer heavily influenced by Victor Hugo, and it’s a grand, sprawling tale full of classic Victorian narrative twists and lush, period romantic drama. And yet Ruiz articulates Branco’s tale with a poetically incisive vision, creating a psychological and imaginative epic depicting in a subtle, but steady fashion the depths of influence that go into creating an adult psyche, penetrating the haunted mind of its main protagonist, and the collapse from moral rot and hypocrisy of old world Portugal and the physical and interior processes creating a new one. In its immersive sensations, Mysteries calls to mind the best of Luchino Visconti, Max Ophüls, and the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975) in the sustained intensity of mood, whilst the teeming layers of narrative gears working to elucidate the complex forces that create individuals blended with a layer of effervescent fantasy evokes, if more subtly, the wild storytelling riffs of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).
Describing Branco’s novel as “homonymous,” a title declares, “This story is not my child, or my godchild. It is not a work of fiction. It is a diary of suffering.” Mysteries of Lisbon initially centres around João (João Arrais), first glimpsed as a sad-eyed, black-haired young orphan in a school run by the strangely intense, but benevolent Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The story commences in the 1820s, during the “Revolução Liberal” that ended much of Portugal’s colonial activity and British domination after the Napoleonic Wars. That theme of revolt and collapse flows through Mysteries of Lisbon like an underground river.
João is first seen through the eyes of an English lady who sketches his remarkable, melancholic face. João’s melancholy has definite causes: he is made sport of by other students for being parentless, with one accusing him of being a criminal’s child. When João becomes violently ill, he awakens in a delirium to find a number of people, including a mysterious and lovely woman, standing over his bed. When João recovers, Dinis takes him to see the woman, who appears at the window of a great house, before the belligerent lord of the manor chases them away. The truth, which João suspected, soon emerges: the woman was João’s mother, Countess Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who has been kept a virtual prisoner by her husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo) for all the years João spent growing up. Ângela is regarded as a victimised saint by most who know her, including Dinis, who soon begins revealing facets of his background and personality that seem completely at odds with his role as religious educator and taskmaster.
Mysteries of Lisbon begins to unfold with a roundelay of revelations and narrative layering familiar to anyone who has read Hugo or Dickens, and yet the manner in which Ruiz treats them sees them begin to blur into each other, stretching into the past across several generations in distinct yet curiously repetitious incidents, full of shape-shifting characters and dramas. A recurrent motif is having incidents enacted via the puppet theatre that young João retrieves from within the orphanage, as if he’s conjuring a vision of things to be, or just romancing an identity for himself. What Marilyn described in her review of Klimt as Ruiz’s way of telling a story through almost subliminal detail is apparent throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, though that can entrap the wary viewer. Branco’s novel was sourced in his own troubled childhood as an orphan and peripatetic, indecisive adult life before he finally found recourse in writing. João, the youthful hero, is initially virtually anonymous—just look at the cast members of the film to see how common the name is in Portugal—but eventually learns his real name and family background. But his identity is like a suit of borrowed clothes with a naggingly unpayable price tag.
In a more literal fashion, other characters in the tale change identities with their apparel. Dinis, revealed eventually to be a former Napoleonic soldier and revolutionary hiding out in the guise of a Catholic priest, has himself a similarly deep hole in his past to João’s, and has been a cunning master of self-reinvention. His intense empathy for João and Ângela seems, at first, to hint that he himself is João’s father; the real reason is because of his own familiarity with being alone in the world, and personal reasons for detesting cruelty to women and the lot of orphans.
The first mystery of the title is João’s parentage, which is slowly explained once Dinis is able to help Ângela flee from her husband’s house when he’s away trying to fight the revolutionaries. João is the lovechild of Ângela and a young suitor, Pedro da Silva (João Baptista), a man of noble birth but, sadly, no fortune, causing her father, the breezily contemptuous Marquês de Montezelos (Rui Morrison), to reject his marriage offer. Their aboveboard courting then turned clandestine and physical, until Da Silva was shot by the Marquês’ gypsy minion Come-Facas (“knife-eater”; played by Ricardo Pereira): Da Silva managed to find refuge with Dinis and tell his story before dying. When Ângela was spirited away to a remote country house to give birth, along with Come-Facas, who was instructed to kill the infant, Dinis followed her there in the guise of a gypsy. He bought Come-Facas off, allowing him to spirit João away and see to his upbringing. Ângela was then married off by her father, with supple smiling threats and pressure, to the uptight Count.
Upon hearing that his wife has finally fled him, the Count spreads rumours that she is Dinis’ lover, and Dinis promptly tracks him down to get him to recant, but finds the Count is dying, tended by his long-time lover and serving maid Eugénia (Joana de Verona). The Count, consumed by guilt and bemused by his own mad behaviour, which he finally puts down to realising that the Marques suckered him, begs Ângela for forgiveness from his deathbed. Meanwhile, Dinis encounters a face from the past in the form of Alberto de Magalhães, a strapping gentleman about town who publically mocks the Count’s version of his wife’s affairs: de Magalhães is actually Come-Facas, who used Dinis’ money to go to Brazil and started bankrolling piratical ventures, allowing him to return to Portugal rich, if not exactly a gentleman.
Ruiz’s approach to filmmaking here is almost like ambient music, so unobtrusive, and yet so fluidly mobile and attentive to shifting tones: I doubt if I’ll see a better-made movie this year. Ruiz’s camera slides about like the servants who are constantly glimpsed hovering, listening, undermining the affectations of privacy and discretion the mostly upper-class protagonists maintain, and virtuoso tracking and deep-focus shots that constantly keep his characters alive within painterly, yet realistic environs. There’s a quietly bravura scene early in the film describing the abuse and peculiarities in the Count’s house, the camera passing back and forth through walls and rooms as the action unfolds, and casually revealing the Countess’s loyal servant hiding in an alcove and listening. Later, there’s a scene that’s all the more strange and funny for the peculiar way Ruiz shoots it: Dinis, riding along a boulevard in his carriage, is stopped as, on the street, a society fop challenges de Magalhães to a duel for offending some female guests at a soiree. Dinis, seated in his conveyance, does not quite understand, as the audience does, what is going on, and yet Ruiz holds the camera fixed to “his” perspective as the fop tries to shoot de Magalhães after he refuses to duel: de Magalhães picks up and hurls him bodily against the side of the carriage, and is glimpsed in partly obscured fashion that renders the action all the more bewildering, and funny.
An often hilarious vein of dry humour and tragicomic farce peppers Mysteries of Lisbon, as when de Magalhães causes two society dames to literally faint with shock when he challenges their careless gossip about Ângela, a scene that has a Buñuel-esque flavour, and later when he abuses scurrying staff in his mansion whilst talking with Dinis, part of a play-act to maintain the appearance of consuming preoccupation. Later, Ângela, having become a nun, playfully teases Dinis about another nun whom he seems to be on fascinatingly intimate terms with, aware that their reasons for taking up lives of sedulous devotion are contradicted by remnant links to the emotional and sensual world; Dinis is using it as a hideout, even if he’s certainly still a spiritually yearning man. The erotic plays underneath all of the seemingly uptight, yet constantly semi-hysterical actions of the characters in spite of the period polish: everybody seems to be having sex, or, more precisely, to have once had sex, with everybody else in this world, and indeed it’s the only real fun that anybody belonging to the upper classes could have once marriage, a vessel for the exchange and continuity of property, is a done deal. Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) gently chastises Dinis for failing to indulge in the Lord’s blessing of good food and drink, but as Encarnação’s later narrative reveals, such indulgence is a stand-in for other appetites, one which is burnt out of Dinis. Vast emotional pain is the result, and yet nobody is all that repentant for grasping at their moments of pleasure and happiness.
There’s no moral absolutism in Mysteries of Lisbon, and it’s Ruiz’s understanding of how that can make drama more gripping, rather than less as so many lesser artists think, that really makes the film compelling. His feather-light narrative shifts nonetheless completely change the emotional meaning of what’s occurring. Such moments come in the Count’s repentant attitude, Ângela’s surprised reconsidering of Eugénia’s part in her family melodrama, and the final glimpse of the Marquês, who, in his old age, is left poverty-stricken and blind, completely alone in the world, and yet still possessing an undimmed pride and a complete contrition for all of his acts. It is this absence of bogeyman figures to react against that seems part of first Ângela’s and then, much later, João’s tragic aura, victims of and testifiers for human weakness. As such, Mysteries of Lisbon is a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director, simultaneously subtly scathing and unsentimental, and yet also big-hearted and, in spite of a lack of large gestures, sublimely emotional.
Despite the drollery and sexcapades, the keynote is one of irreducible emotional longing tuned to the key of young João’s desire for a home and identity. But the moment he gains his “family”—mother Ângela, proxy patriarch Dinis, and a real name (Pedro da Silva after his father) — he promptly loses it again. He recognises that something in his mother shifted inalterably after the Count’s deathbed plea: her still-youthful quality was extinguished by the spectacle of her husband’s contrition and the moral weight of it. She subsequently retreated into a nunnery by the conclusion of the film’s first half, unable to support herself after having rejected the Count’s inheritance. Dinis, in the first movement of the second half, learns something about himself that also explains his intense interest in João’s and Ângela’s welfare and his general attentiveness to the unfairly exiled and abused. He himself was the son of an illicit aristocratic passion, as he finds that the priest, Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) who was giving the Count of Santa Bárbara his last rites is, in fact, his own father. Himself a former roué, Álvaro de Albuquerque (Carloto Cotta) seduced and fell deeply in love with the Countess de Vizo (Maria João Pinho), the wife of an acquaintance. They had run off to Italy together, but she died in childbirth: Álvaro handed young Dinis over to a friend, who then had to pass him on, and so on until Dinis finished up being raised by a French nobleman. That’s how he came to be fighting for the Napoleonic cause in Spain under the name of Sebastiao de Melo—the name under which he once entreated the Count of Santa Bárbara not to marry Ângela.
There has been no shortage of superheroes on movie screens this year, and whilst this fare might seem light years from Thor or Captain America, it struck me while watching Mysteries of Lisbon that Dinis is another superhero, and by far the best of them. Unfailingly conscientious, weary and wary-looking, yet darkly charismatic, a master of disguise, and a kind of swashbuckling holy man, Dinis acts for much of the first half of Mysteries of Lisbon like an unstinting force for good. He fearlessly rights wrong once he builds up a head of steam, even as he sits on a deep well of brooding emotion, saddled with a past, aspects of which he’s proud yet can’t acknowledge, and others that torture him with guilt. He keeps a room in the orphanage where he sits and contemplates the past, his alternate identities and dark secrets just waiting for João to penetrate on one of his inquisitive ventures. All those passions, sexual and political, are for him and so many other characters in the film the provenance of the past, as happiness constantly becomes something that can only be remembered, with their living products like João and Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme) left troubled, even damaged. The doubling in Dinis’ life and young João’s is hardly coincidental, as the narrative moves into a final movement in which João, grown into a young poet and going by his proper name (played as an adult by José Afonso Pimentel), encounters Elisa, a woman with a resemblance to his mother and a fine line of near-crazed manipulation.
Elisa is the daughter of Dinis’ own tragic love, Blanche de Montfort (Léa Seydoux), who married Dinis’ comrade in arms Benoit (Julien Alluguette), but eventually took a lover, Lacroze (Melvil Poupaud). Lacroze was a man whom Benoit and Dinis saved from a firing squad during the war and introduced to her, and whom they later pretended was dead so that she would finally marry one of them. Benoit finally killed Blanche and tried to cover it up in a fire. In his bleakest and most telling instance of presenting a lingering, deep-focus frame, Ruiz shows Benoit, dressed in his old cavalier’s uniform, calmly reading whilst everyone else tries to douse the fire and Dinis carries out Blanche’s body; Benoit eventually goes wandering off idly to disappear in the smoke and distraction.
The offspring of that tragedy, Elisa, in her turn, proves something of a disturbed and vengeful mirror to Ângela’s capacity for suffering, acting like a hellhound on the trail of de Magalhães, who, under one of his other names, had an affair with her in Paris. With finesse she tries to disturb de Magalhães’ happy marriage to the Count’s former mistress, Eugénia. Eugénia hides under a table and demands that her husband keep out all threats to their security. Whilst Dinis recounts to Elise the story of her mother’s death, de Magalhães bursts in and almost strangles Elisa to death in front of the priest after she threatens to shoot him; Dinis’ invocation of their long-past bonhomie in other guises talks him out murder. Elisa later enlists João when he falls for her in France to return to Portgual and avenge her besmirched honour by challenging de Magalhães to a duel, having no idea of the part de Magalhães once played in saving João’s life. The scene seems set for some sort of ironic tragedy, as either man could kill someone to whom they owe their life in a fashion, but the narrative sidesteps the obvious. De Magalhães, after making it clear that he can easily kill João in a duel, gets him to call it off and explains the less romantic truth about what happened between him and Elise: she and he signed a contract that was really just a gambit to an erotic game, where he would pay her for sex. Forming a passion for him that he could not reciprocate, she developed a nasty habit of repeatedly convincing romantic young men, like João and even her own brother, to try to kill him.
Mysteries of Lisbon works on more levels than just the literal one of plot and character—it’s also a meditation on storytelling, in a subtle but irreducible fashion, and on circles of life that resemble yet do not exactly reproduce each other. Ruiz isn’t trying, like so many postmodern stunt merchants, to sunder the nature of narrative so much as to suggest that life itself as a complex interweaving of repeated events and constructed perspectives. Time folds back on itself at the end of Mysteries of Lisbon as João, who might be dying, and is certainly feeling the impact of having his shaky chivalry and sense of what his life means broken in pieces by Elise’s game-playing. As inheritor of all these stories and truths which leave him old before his time, he leaves the country and finishes up deathly ill in a hotel in a foreign land, dictating a memoir. The final tragedy—and it is a tragedy when all is said and done—is that João finally reaches a point where, just like the rest of the characters, he achieves maturity at the point of losing his illusions, retaining only a memory of perfection, the one moment in which all of life and hope seemed to lie before him: when he awoke from a similar sickbed to find his mother, still a stranger and yet somehow familiar to him, hovering over him. It would be an insult to leave off without mentioning the general excellence of the cast, especially Luz, Pereira, and Bastos.
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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
By Roderick Heath
Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel has, unlike her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, thus far largely resisted attempts by filmmakers to transpose its multifaceted charms and subterranean perversities into worthy cinema. Whereas Wuthering Heights has received such memorable, sharply contrasting and complementary adaptations from the likes of William Wyler, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, and Kiju Yoshida, versions of Jane Eyre have tended to be disappointing and dryly handled. Even the seemingly perfectly cast 1944 version directed by Robert Stephenson, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. Perhaps this is because there’s something defiant about the novel, which possesses elements of, and yet does not give itself over to, the same hallucinogenic romance-noir atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, whilst balancing elements of reportage-like exposure and moral symbolism within its own insistently dialectic structure: it’s the work of someone in constant interior argument with herself.
Jane, Brontë’s heroine, is one of the best ever put on paper, a fiercely self-contained young woman who operates according to her own moral compass regardless of whether the world is in accord. The novel’s finale both fulfills and subverts its own gothic-romantic reflexes in a peculiar series of anticlimaxes with curious sadomasochistic overtones. The promise of another film version hardly set the world on fire, and yet this new adaptation struck me as by far the best stab at Classics Illustrated cinema in several years. It’s surprisingly well-cast, with two of the best up-and-coming actors in the business, and equally well-directed by the California-born Fukunaga, who had previously helmed the admired Sin Nombre (2009). Fukunaga seemingly made a great leap in subject matter in moving from contemporary third-world experience to well-thumbed library shelf filler, and yet perhaps not so great after all.
Part of the reason why Fukunaga’s film works better than other adaptations is because he understands the dialectic nature of the story. He pitches his adaptation, consequently, both on a level of sharply composed realism, with an emphasis on physical environs and extremes, which helps give back to the material a grounding in immediacy, whilst allowing hints of stylisation, to evoke the psychological and expressionistic elements of the novel, to come forth without being hoary. The period rural England glimpsed in the opening scenes practically conjures a sensation of wind chill and ice burn as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) flees from Thornfield Hall into the embrace of a rural landscape that offers no sustenance to the outcast. The underlying paranoia of so many of the “classic” novels of the early 19th century is of the fate of the social castaway in a civilised land completely inimical to multiple forms of outsider; it’s easy to miss the often-shouted note of social protest in adapting such works. This Jane Eyre restores some of the immediacy and anger sucked out of most such adaptations through the figure of Jane, who tries to keep a grip on her Christian charity and also her outspoken honesty in circumstances where people try to subordinate one and destroy the other.
You can also see the influence on such writing looping back to its roots through the Harry Potter stories in the opening scenes in which Jane is assaulted by her spoilt cousin and, when she sticks up for herself, is exiled to the remote and gloomy Red Room, where she freaks out so intensely, believing the stories hurled at her by vengeful adults about ghosts and spectres, that she knocks herself out cold in beating at the door. The vision of Jane as someone driven by such an intense sense of justice and survival instinct that she’s almost self-destructive comes into immediate focus. This sits alongside the observation that her grim childhood (Amelia Clarkson as young Jane), which also includes being sent to a death camp in the guise of a school where girls, including her best friend Helen Burns (Freya Parks), expire from pneumonia in the parsimonious climes, actually arms her for future travails with an uncommon rigour, a fact she senses and forgives.
Fukunaga attempts artfully, though not entirely successfully, to downplay the novel’s loss of momentum in its long third act, when Jane finds aid and shelter with rural pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters Diana and Mary (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), by commencing with this plot point and using the licence of cinema to both disperse these scenes and retain their narrative meaning—Jane’s capacity for gratitude and perseverance, the way St. John subtly shows up the lacks of a more seemingly spiritual type of man as petty and narrow. It also allows Fukunaga to explicate Jane’s childhood and early experiences in fragmented flashbacks, allowing him to jump between periods without laboured narrative grammar, particularly inspired in one moment that reduces years of abuse to a single crack of a cane against her back. Jane is thus exiled when she falls afoul of her spiteful aunt, Mrs. Reed (an unusually cast Sally Hawkins), whose feelings of familial responsibility towards kin are easily discounted in the face of a girl who insistently mirrors back a lack of charity and decency. Jane survives her education and adolescence and takes the post of governess at Thornfield to school the French-speaking, rather daffy young Adèle (Romy Settbon Moor), and encounters ‘umble ‘ousekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (a nicely subdued Judi Dench) and her personal dark marauder riding out of the mist, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Wasikowska, with an uncommon capacity to seem shrinkingly plain and luminescently beautiful from shot to shot, emphasises Jane’s innate decency with an edge of sullen, clipped, subtle resentment she tries not to let dominate her personality and hinted in the way she gives Jane a Midlands accent, rather than the “received pronunciation” for proper, educated English. Rochester is a difficult part to play, easy to push too far towards monstrous Byronic cliché or expose as a himbo fantasy. But Fassbender tackles the character with a blend of harshly honest force and pained discomfort within his own skin, with a faint edge of trapped bohemian energy and the intense hate of lies clashing with his beholdenness to a man who perpetuates one enormous lie to secure his future happiness. He’s both prisoner and driver of the steely rivets holding together patriarchal, conformity-driven Christian England that Fukunaga goes on to realise with effectively eerie scenes; Jane becomes witness to the manifestations of Rochester’s dark secret, the Minotaur at the heart of his personal labyrinth, as she tends injured Mason (Harry Lloyd). Hearing menacing knocks and windy whistling in a splendidly paranoid scene, Jane rides out the night with fortitude, remindful that, amongst other things, Brontë bridged a gap between Gothic and psychological fiction.
A similarly strong scene with a fine control of point of view comes earlier when Jane is invited to join Rochester’s toff friends, including his designated paramour Blanche Ingram (an underutilised Imogen Poots), and sits ignored and shell-like in company that cares not a jot for her, dismissing governesses as “detestable incubi … hysterics … degenerates.” Jane leaves, pursued only by the man attracted to her precisely because she sits so far outside the whimsical world. Fukunaga is nicely aware of the importance of physical contact in a world where it’s verboten in all but the most profoundly private moments. The scene of Jane’s unexpected appearance causing Rochester and his horse to take a violent fall. The sight of the squealing animal and the bellowing man tethered in toppled, flurrying alarm encapsulates everything dark and ferocious about the male sexuality Jane knows nothing of and yet gravitates to with inevitable, physical compulsion: Fukunaga then extracts a deeply sensuous feel from a moment as simple as Jane leaning her face against Rochester’s leg much later when he’s mounted on his horse, and at the end when she takes his hand when he’s been blinded, both moments alive with the profundity of human touching human. Such sensuousness inhabits other scenes where it’s less expected, as when young Jane and Helen share a bed, providing both with emotional and physical warmth. There’s an admirable sense of awkward, fearsome determination when Jane bitterly remonstrates Mrs. Reed before being cast out of her life, and when Rochester leads Jane to their ill-fated wedding with a sense of a threat as yet undefined. Their subsequent confrontation by Rochester’s lunatic wife Bertha Mason (Valentina Cervi) elides her pathetic beauty and captures with subtle framings the humiliation and horror transfixing the undeserving Jane.
If anything finally limits this Jane Eyre’s success, it is that for all its casting and stylistic strength, it’s still an essentially conservative and modestly aimed adaptation, straining at the limits of the tasteful period film but also conceding to them. The screenplay by Moira Buffini, who wrote Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears’ amusing riff on Far from the Madding Crowd, is, in spite of the reorganising of the narrative, still anchored to studious novelistic progression and point of view, to the extent that it even avoids portraying the climactic conflagration that destroys Thornfield. There’s a devilish perfection in Bertha’s auto-da-fé destruction of the entire infrastructure of the English country order she’s been sitting within like an alien, spidery presence, which deserves filming. This omission robs the tale of its fiery apocalyptic grandeur, obvious even in the second person on the page, and so that the film feels curiously lacking in a climax: it’s not full-blooded in a way that the most bold and aggressively cinematic adaptations visibly fight to achieve in different fashions.
We tend to associate classic novels with the classic cinema styles that inflated them like fragments of myth, for example, David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). Yet Fukunaga’s mise-en-scène offers a sinuous, deceptive kind of expressionism, with its twinning poles of the frantic, handheld, opening shot and a sense of vertiginous plunging into the unknown, and the equally woozy, but tonally opposite, scene in which his camera and edits spin and jump lithely as Rochester and Jane glance off each other in a teasing game of attraction and repulsion and attraction again in a garden that erupts to life as if spring is coming only in response to their unleashed passion. Jane Eyre the novel is hardly a work of interior monologue and deep psychological investigation, and yet it is closely tethered to Jane’s inner life and her accounting of her thought processes, explaining both her severe temptation to accept Rochester’s proposal that they live in sin and the power of her determination to resist when it’s deeply against the grain of her personal sense of integrity. This sort of stuff is hard to get across on screen and part of what tripped up earlier adaptations, which endlessly stalled waiting for the moment when Rochester and Jane kiss. But Fukunaga’s relative success relies on his careful camerawork and on Wasikowska’s and Fassbender’s capacity to depict warring internal impulses in gesture and speak in ways that convey several layers of meaning.
Fukunaga seems determined to tell this story as if it’s never been told before, with a clear-eyed sense of where to stress the narrative beats, which is uncommon in a lot of modern adaptations. Jane Eyre is a good yarn, and he’s not afraid to let it flow with a natural confidence that avoids the academic or drearily faithful adaptation of a TV miniseries. There’s something a little unpredictable about this Jane Eyre, even if the ending is never in doubt.
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Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
Henry King, like King Vidor, with whom I once used to often get him confused, was a director who evolved with movies from the silent era to sound and then the threshold of Hollywood’s first great decline. As with many luminaries of that heyday of studio filmmaking, his last few films, including neutered adaptations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were a flat end to a good career. Nevertheless, King made some of the best, most substantial Hollywood films of the 1940s, including The Song of Bernadette (1942), A Bell for Adano (1945), and his masterpiece Twelve O’Clock High (1949), movies in which he mustered a spacious, sober, humanistic intensity worthy of William Wyler and George Stevens. He benefited especially from collaborating with 20th Century Fox titan Darryl F. Zanuck, taking the hefty, detailed productions Zanuck could set in motion and turning them into excellent cinema. Captain from Castile stands apart in that run of good films for being an attempt to revive, in a rigorous, grown-up fashion befitting the more muscular, realistic postwar mood, the period melodrama and the swashbuckler, genres that had lost traction during WWII. The film is also worth attention for being just about the only English-language film of note to deal with one of history’s most pivotal incidents: the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez. Sporting an unusually strong lead performance by Tyrone Power, it’s a minor gem of high Hollywood’s Technicolor filmmaking.
Power plays Pedro De Vargas, a privileged, but decent young caballero in 16th century Spain who, when out riding one day, meets his oily neighbour De Silva (John Sutton), a bigwig in the local Inquisition (or, as it’s inaccurately called here, the “Santa Hermandad,” the Spanish rural police of the time). A slave of De Silva’s, whom he was trying to force to convert to Christianity, has escaped, and Pedro decides to help, utilising his superior hunting skills to track the slave. He finds, however, that the slave is Coatl (Jay Silverheels), a kidnapped Aztec prince he knows and likes, and instead of handing him, over gives him money to help him make his escape. Power also helps a young woman, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, making her film debut as a last-minute replacement for Linda Darnell), who is harassed by some of De Silva’s goons. Pedro takes her back to the tavern where she works, and meets Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), a recently returned colonial who’s grown rich in Cuba and is now seeking to extricate his mother from the clutches of the Inquisition. Pedro himself falls foul of the Inquisition, as De Silva, infuriated at Pedro’s interference with business, has the entire De Vargas family arrested, including his respected former soldier father (Antonio Moreno) and his 12-year-old sister (Dolly Arriaga). De Silva has the girl tortured, and she dies, earning De Silva one of film history’s most memorably lethal stares from Power.
Luckily, in his plan to get his mother out, Garcia has bought a job as a turnkey in the local prison; Garcia’s mother has died before she was scheduled to be burnt at the stake, so he helps the De Vargas clan escape instead. Just before the appointed hour for the breakout, De Silva comes to demand a confession from Pedro in his cell, but Pedro’s been smuggled a sword by Cobb. After a speedy duel, he delivers a mighty comeuppance: he fools De Silva into renouncing God before running him through. A thunderous horseback chase follows as the family and their helpmates, including Catana, who’s smitten with Pedro, flee across country. Forced to separate into two groups, with the others heading to Italy, Pedro, Garcia, and Catana make it to a seaside port. They decide to sail to Cuba, and join up with the expedition Cortez is planning. Once signed on with Cortez (Cesar Romero), Pedro encounters the expedition’s appointed priest, Father Romero (Thomas Gomez), and confesses what he did to De Silva. Romero gives him the penance of having to pray for De Silva’s soul, and tears up the arrest warrant sent out by the Inquisition. But as Cortez’s expedition penetrates the Mexican interior and wars with the natives, Pedro gets a shock when De Silva turns up. Having recovered from his sword wound, he’s been sent as an emissary to make peace between the Spanish authorities and Cortez and set up a branch of the Inquisition in the New World.
Captain from Castile was based on a noble doorstop of a bestseller by Samuel Shellabarger. It shares aspects with other films based on such popular tomes, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936) and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947: in fact, Linda Darnell jumped ship to star in that), in straining to include the huge, incident-packed sweep of that brand of florid pulp. This attempt results in some narrative diffuseness, sheering off the novel’s last act in favour of an interesting in medias res conclusion depicting Cortez and his by now multinational, conglomerate army of followers marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan. Captain from Castile was, of course, made some 20 years before the revisionist strand of cinematic history gained traction, and the historical events here are painted in the legendary, rhetorically triumphant terms classic Hollywood was fond of. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t mince many words about Cortez’s motives as a greedy adventurer and presents an interesting portrait of the man, played with wit as well as bravado by Romero. Cortez is offered as something of an historical used car salesman in cavalier’s clothing, using a beaming demeanour and professional veneer to conceal his awareness of how far out on a limb he is. He bluffs both his Spanish masters and the Aztecs as he convinces his men with the argument not to accept the bribes of gold the natives offer when the whole caboodle can be gained. His most memorable scene comes when threatened with the wrath of the Aztec gods by a prince, he has a canon pound an idol, and asks whose wrath the prince thinks could be worse.
Real incidents of Cortez’s adventure are woven with some finesse into the narrative, and the film’s opening scrawl proudly announces that it was shot in many of the real locations through which Cortez moved. Cortez’s lover and translator, La Malinche or Malina (Estela Inda), the slave who is often depicted as both mother of Mexican culture (and one of Cortez’s sons), and also the model of the phrase “Malinchista,” akin to Quisling or Benedict Arnold to denote a disloyal Mexican, is glimpsed as an exotically dressed, Pocahontas-like icon of cultural bridging. In one of the film’s more cunning, colourful incidents, Pedro is assigned to watch over some treasure, handed over to the Spanish, stowed in the peak of a pyramid. That structure proves, in a pure Indiana Jones moment, to be riddled with secret passages through which some of Cortez’s rebellious men manage to make off with the treasure whilst Pedro’s distracted by a drunk and violent Garcia. Told by Cortez to find the treasure or be hung, Pedro tracks the thieves on board one of the expedition’s ships. After recapturing the loot, undoing the rebels, and being gravely injured in the process, Pedro is promoted to captain, hence the title, and this is also the cause of Cortez deciding to burn his fleet rather than risk a repeat.
As Cortez’s army drives deeper inland, Pedro has to hole up in the village of Cholulu with the advance guard whilst Cortez doubles back to fight a battle. The town becomes a kind of frontier not just of empire, but also of the spirit and history, as Pedro encounters Coatl again, restored to his homeland and rank, who pointedly asks Pedro why he’s invading Mexico and what value the religious polarisation the white man is bringing has. Whilst the battle Pedro and Coatl have with De Silva is arch melodrama, it also prefigures a theme about the first severing point of the Old World from its certainties. Paracutin, the famous volcano which grew out of a farmer’s field, was still in eruption at the time of the film’s production, and King made sure to make use of this extraordinary example of nature as art director, including its plumes of smoke in as many shots as possible. Towards the end, as Cortez musters military might, Father Romero brings together a congregation of Spaniards and Aztecs in front of the rough-hewn crucifix he’s set up, delivering a sermon that serves as an institution of a New World religion, whilst in the background volcanic smoke imbues the frame with an apocalyptic lustre. It’s a moment that manages to be spiritually engaging whilst avoiding piety, as well as framed and visualised with the keenness of a Renaissance painting. The variegation repeats in the very last shot of Tenochtitlan bathed in streams of golden sunlight like the promised land itself at the end of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but also with the heavy cloud looming, as if the whole world’s on a tipping point between the great and the tragic.
Whilst it encompasses themes of substance, then, Captain from Castile is still 90 percent rollicking tall tale in the straightforward, old-school mould. King, however, avoids action except for the central set-piece escape from prison; he’s really more interested in atmosphere, and in the intense ambient emotion that hovers about Pedro and his rage at De Silva, a rage that’s easily empathetic thanks to Sutton’s terrifically arrogant performance. It’s interesting that the usual revenge plot, which has easily identifiable echoes in modern movies like Gladiator (2000), is essentially ditched less than halfway through. What develops when De Silva turns up in the New World is decidedly off-beat, as Pedro struggles to contain his hate and obey Romero’s prescription. In an early scene, when Pedro visits Luisa De Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), his lady fair, it’s in a garden that’s a swooning feast of blossoms, an image that is an encapsulation of a romantic, chivalric past the film begins immediately and steadily to deconstruct, laying bare class and religious injustice as central to the way the Old World works. Luisa’s father, a marquis, (George Zucco) is a supposed friend of Pedro’s father, but won’t aid them when the Inquisition comes knocking and promptly marries Luisa to De Silva once Pedro’s out of the picture. Once in the New World, romance blossoms between Pedro and Catana, who’s anxious that her low-class status can never erase Luisa in his heart, and gets the expedition’s surgeon and astrologer Botello (Alan Mowbray at his most dissolute) to sell her a love charm. After she and Pedro dance in the inevitable flamenco scene, with both actors scorchingly sexy, Pedro suddenly erupts in fiery passion for her and Luisa freaks out, afraid she’s bought his love unfairly. Peters is surprisingly deft in her debut performance, long before Howard Hughes ruined her.
There are interesting undercurrents, too, in Cobb’s role as Garcia, who warns Pedro early in the film that he turns murderous when he’s drunk and so stays clear of the booze. When the treasure thieves get him liquored up, Garcia’s ranting makes it clear that the cause of his madness is his rage at the Inquisition, and when De Silva turns up, it’s revealed that Garcia actually strangled his mother in the prison to save her from a hideous death. “We talk of gold, but maybe we mean something else,” Garcia states vaguely, pointing to the film’s underlying theme. In the end, someone strangles De Silva in his tent after he’s had a heated exchange with Pedro, who is immediately arrested and sentenced to be hung. The killer is actually Coatl, eking out some revenge of his own, and he confesses to the murder in time to save Pedro. But as Cortez enters to tell Pedro of his good fortune, Catana, who has been waiting with Pedro and thinking Cortez has come to perform the execution, stabs Pedro in the chest to save him from the ignominious death. I thought that would have been a brilliant end, but it’s quickly revealed that Pedro’s not mortally wounded, and when he recovers, the expedition continues on to its destined end. That last-minute hesitation from ironic tragedy underlines the film’s failure in the end to work up enough narrative confidence and originality to make it build the mythical drive of the greatest screen adventure-melodramas.
The screenplay, written by Lamar Trotti, who also produced under Zanuck’s aegis, is spotted with some gilded clichés, including variations on “It’s too quiet!” and “I wish the drums would stop!”, and the finale is a bit rushed in detail—what happens to Coatl is oddly left by the wayside. But Captain from Castile is thoroughly worthwhile for anyone who likes their adventure high, villains villainous, history dubious, and heroes hot. It’s also a must for Technicolor fetishists, thanks to the work of DPs Arthur E. Arling and Charles G. Clarke, who render locations in the cinematic equivalent of illuminated manuscript.
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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova
By Roderick Heath
The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.
The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.
The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.
Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.
Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.
Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.
Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”
Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.
Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.
Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.
Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.
In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.
The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.
With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.
DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).
DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.
Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.
Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.
Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.
Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.
Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.
Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide
By Roderick Heath
Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.
Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.
Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.
Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the internecine, bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.
Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.
Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.
The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”
Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.
Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.
The last section of the film plays out like Treasure of the Sierra Madre stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.
The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence. Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.
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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev
By Roderick Heath
In the decade after he reshaped cinema with his then-experimental technique in works like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), Sergei Eisenstein became a peripatetic semi-exile when Stalin’s rise made life uncomfortable for him at home, and the international film scene beckoned. And yet he became a world-famous artist without a friendly harbour to anchor in. A visit to Hollywood had seen him patronised by David Selznick when he handed in his screenplay adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “It was for me a most memorable experience,” Selznick wrote to RKO executive B. P. Schulberg, “The most moving script I have ever read…Is it too late to try to [dissuade] the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” An attempt to make what Eisenstein described as “a shabby travelogue into a really major film,” Que Viva Mexico!, with the backing of leftist writer Upton Sinclair as his producer, resulted in an unfinished pile of beautiful fragments. Eisenstein slunk back to the USSR, fortunately missing the worst years of the Great Purge.
With geopolitics in an awful state—Soviet Russia was expecting conflict with Germany’s Nazi regime—Eisenstein’s return seemed well-timed as he commenced work on a film that would evoke historical parable for resistance against invasion. His credited codirector Vasilyev and coscreenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko were imposed collaborators, charged with the job of keeping the taint of “formalism” out of the project. When the movie had been completed and rushed into theatres, Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, and Eisenstein found himself and his film embarrassedly stowed away, only to be rehabilitated when war between the two superstates finally did break out. In spite of all these weighty matters, Alexander Nevsky in many ways sits with some comfort amongst other historical adventure films in the late ’30s, particularly the Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Cecil B. DeMille films like The Crusades (1935). Unlike those brash, breezy, technically more polished films, Eisenstein pares back as much drama as possible to concentrate on the synergistic flow of his shots and carefully built rhythmic intensity. The storyline operates on the most primal of levels.
Set against the macrocosmic drama facing the assailed city-states of the Rus, with oppression by the Mongol Golden Horde on one side and the advancing fanatical forces of the Teutonic knights on other, Eisenstein pits characters who might have stepped directly out of a folktale: warriors Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov), best of friends competing to win the hand of beautiful Novgorod maiden Olga (Vera Ivashova), who declares she will marry the man who proves himself bravest in battle; Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilov), whose father is executed by the Germans when the city of Pskov is captured through treachery by the Knights, takes up a sword herself and joins the massing Russian resistance; Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov), an aged armourer who becomes embodiment of native pluck in venturing into battle; and Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov), warrior chief of Vladimir who gained the sobriquet “Nevsky” for beating off a Swedish army on the banks of the Neva, the embodiment of sober, conscientious kingship.
Alexander is first glimpsed when a train of Mongols dragging captive Russians off for forced labour pass by a fishing party, and the peasants and Mongol soldiers begin to clash. Alexander shouts from the water, “Quiet! The fish will take fright!” Striding ashore, he exchanges loaded words with the smiling, autocratic Golden Horde khan (Lyan-Kun). Apart from his cutting, commanding voice and bright, challenging, innately intelligent eyes, Alexander is indistinguishable in his manner and dress from the men he leads, and his casual willingness to get his feet dirty in leading the fishing party contrasts the Mongol, who has a soldier prostrate himself to make a step for him to get into his litter. This scene serves a double purpose: it helps the film overcome the inevitable problem in a Soviet work of the era of how to make a hero of a king, and, more pertinently, establishes Alexander’s character: making no more fuss than necessary and with a goal in mind, he’s receptive to any incidental intuition. Later, he gets the inspiration for his battle strategy from a bawdy joke. In my favourite moment of Cherkasov’s in the film, Alexander paces in distraction and quiet agony around his palace where two of his liegemen mend their fishing net, anticipating the call to fight the Germans and wondering how to beat this formidable enemy. Alexander contemplates the strands of the net, and then tears them apart in frustration: “This is delicate work…not like fighting Swedes…”
When the delegates do arrive to beg his aid, he declares with new life: “I know nothing of defence! We attack!” Alexander becoming captain to the Rus is preceded by a fierce communal argument in which the citizens of Novgorod, closest to the onward sweep of the Germans, listen to the testimony of those who have escaped from Pskov. Rich merchants and paid agents argue to make a deal with the knights, but the evidence of mangled survivors and treachery infuriates the patriots who shout down the rich men and demand competent leadership: Domash (Nikolai Arsky), a warrior of standing who is their initial choice, turns down the job, insisting that only Alexander can win for them. Alexander replies that the warrior elite of Rus can’t win, and calls for a national uprising; the very earth itself disgorges streams of peasants used to hiding from marauders converging on Novgorod for an exultant expression of fighting spirit.
Through his montage theory, probably no other director has had such a consequential impact on the development of cinema in general as Eisenstein, but Alexander Nevsky is the film of his that’s had a more particular influence. It’s the perfect model of the few-against-many, good-against-evil epic. Laurence Olivier pillaged it for his Henry V (1945), and it’s hard to imagine movies as popular and diverse as fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Conan the Barbarian (1982), scifi works like the Star Wars saga, and a raft of historical action dramas (David Lean’s films, Spartacus , Braveheart , King Arthur ), without Eisenstein’s model. They quote his optical and editorial tricks, and replicate the dramatic dynamics of his Battle on the Ice sequence. A significant difference between Nevsky and most of the films it influenced, however, is not merely its immediate consequence as a tool for rousing the audience and telling a good yarn, but that it’s a work that channels anthropological and folk-art influences in an attempt to conjure a sense of the past as living tradition, not mere escapism. Nevsky takes the rules of Norse sagas and iconic art seriously to reproduce in part their aesthetics in the context of realistic ’30s cinema.
Sergei Prokofiev’s score, with its chorale commentaries on the action, entwines with recurring visual motifs that evoke that state of Rus in the mid 1200s—a land of bleaching bones after decades of massacres by the Mongols and stranded longboats redolent of the Viking founders of Vladimir and Novgorod—in painting a cultural context, and a harmonious concept of the drama about to unfold as part of Russia’s past and present. Prokofiev’s work on the film was and is one of the signal collaborations between a great cinema artist and a highly regarded classical composer, and it’s still certainly one of the greatest film scores ever recorded, especially if sheer dramatic necessity is a yardstick—the score is so deeply woven into the film it wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, making Nevsky a true pan-cultural creation. Eisenstein and Prokofiev used all available means of achieving that linked effect, composer writing music to the script and director cutting scenes to match material already written. Nevsky is negligibly lessened by a few overly arch moments of propaganda, but moreso by its technical problems. The film was made with an experimental sound system that had a muffling effect on much of the dialogue and especially on the score, and the rush to get the film in theatres forestalled any tweaking.
Eisenstein had one of cinema’s most perfect eyes for composing elements within a frame (think of a shot from a Michael Bay film, and then think of the exact opposite), and his efforts here both extend the high modernism of early Soviet cinema, evident in occasional semi-abstract arrangements, and enrich his visuals with the squared-off perspective of Byzantine-influenced Russian art. In the first half, his compositions are studiously geometric, his actors carefully posing in declarative attitudes: Alexander surveying the expanse of the green Russian dales with an old peasant at his side, or Buslai and Olexich assuming poses in contending for Olga, who constantly stands with back to the two hovering, towering men. This might sound flat and pompous, and yet it’s anything but. What’s remarkable is how Eisenstein uses these qualities to suggest powerful, composing forces, building tension through alternations of hypnotic quiet and tersely delivered dialogue, and violent communal arguments and celebrations on the path from panic and questioning on behalf of the frightened Rus folk to the moment of fearless readiness for the eruptive chaos of battle.
Just as deliberately flat, and yet still lovably vibrant, are the characterisations. On an almost pantomime level, good and evil are chiefly a matter of expression and dress. The Teutonic villains are so stylised in their evil they barely seem like part of the same species, which is very much the point. In their warrior regalia they seem less like an army of God, though they wrap themselves in religious paraphernalia and espouse Roman Catholicism as a totalitarian ideology, than stygian beasts: Ignat describes one as a witch after besting him. Even when they take off their helmets, they’re a mob of lean, grim, self-satisfied-looking bastards, the Grand Master (Vladimir Yershov) coldly declaring that anyone who resists them will be slaughtered, whilst handing out stolen principalities casually to his followers. The traitors who have delivered Pskov into their hands through connivance and rumour-mongering are shifty-eyed and dour, in contrast to the beaming, sunny Russians.
The contrast between Buslai and Olexich is one of two variations on the basic Russian character, made most amusingly clear when they court Olga: apple-cheeked, boisterous Buslai declares, “If you want a fun-loving man, marry me!” To which more somber Olexich retorts, “If want to be beaten with a birch stick every night, choose him indeed.” Olga and Vasilisa, too, form a diptych in thrilling at the great action unfolding before them, but each takes a different path: demure Olga makes her pledge to the two warriors, whilst Vasilisa dons a helmet and chain mail and go to war. It’s Vasilisa versus the Germans, and this time, it’s personal: her father, an elder of Pskov, has been executed before her eyes for denouncing the German invaders—hung from a belltower.
The sequence in Pskov, portraying the evil knights relishing having bound prisoners executed en masse with pikes and screaming children cast into bonfires with the blessing of pet churchmen, is extreme warning and spur to action (one of history’s saddest ironies is that Eisenstein’s apocalyptic manipulation here would soon come to appear too tame). And, of course, in movie language, we know these creeps are ripe to get their asses royally booted. After his advance guard is wiped up thanks to further treachery by the two traitors who are moving back and forth between the lines, Alexander, against the nervous objections of Buslai, decides to make his stand on Lake Chudskoye, on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. There’s actually a lot of historical confusion about just how big (and where) a battle took place on April 5, 1242, with probably far fewer warriors (some place the number at less than a thousand) taking part than is portrayed in the film, but of course, everyone wishes it happened the way this film tells it. The Battle of the Ice sees Eisenstein’s camera, as well as the heroes, let loose with symphonic ferocity, and it’s one of those few film sequences that can tear an almost physical reaction from me.
The vignettes of the battle are more memorable than most entire films: the early shots of the ranked Russians, Vasilisa and Ignat amongst them, waiting anxiously under stormy clouds on the great white nothing of the lake, peering into the distance as they try to make out the slowly emerging mass of German cavalry; Buslai and Olexich, after days of resenting each other, embracing before taking their posts; the Teutonic knights riding in with their encasing helmets looking like aliens, robots, steampunk tanks; Prokofiev’s music rising to its most menacing and tremendous swells, low chugging horns and high shrieking string, until the two armies crash into each other in whirls of steel and limbs; Olexich and Alexander’s charge to close the trap; Olexich hurling himself in front of Alexander to save his life and getting a chest full of spear points; the horrified expressions of the traitors in watching the knights lose; Vasilisa working up the courage to come out of her hiding place on a wagon, braver and braver in striking out at the Germans.
Particularly riveting is how Eisenstein switches from occasional long shots, in which the formations of the armies and tussling, fragmented gangs, form almost abstract patterns, to handheld shots within the melee, concussive in their immersive, you-are-there vigour. One moment, when Eisenstein cuts from Alexander’s victories over an opponent to the laughing faces of onlookers and the exultation of musicians cheering on the team, makes the battle reminiscent of a sports film. My favourite moment is when Buslai, losing his sword, is tossed a wooden spar by Vasilisa, with which he joyfully bashes in the stout helmets of the knights, releasing a whoop of exultation as he bounces the spar from hand to hand like a hot potato, high on his own conquering strength; later, when Buslai dresses in a fallen German’s uniform, he clobbers his way out from inside their ranks. Alexander’s final duel with the Grand Master sees him finally topple the villain before the Germans take flight and are swallowed in the Biblical moment when the lake’s ice gives way and plunges them into the frigid brine.
Fittingly, Eisenstein intended this sequence in part as a tribute to the other great progenitor of cinema language, D. W. Griffith—specifically, the ice-floe scenes in Way Down East (1920). Even greater than the battle, in a more subtle way, is the aftermath, the lake ice a charnel house of broken bodies, wounded and dying men calling for their loved ones, both Olexich and Buslai lying crippled as night falls. The women of Novgorod, including Olga, come out on the ice bearing torches to search for their loved ones, a female voice on the soundtrack voicing the sentiments of the scene in desolate fashion. Rarely has a film of this sort paid such attention to the cost of even heroic triumph. The final scene is, however, one of victory and resolution, as the traitors and captive Germans haul sled-loads of the wounded, and Buslai declares, in defiance of his mother, that neither he nor Olexich were as brave as Vasilisa, allowing Olexich and Olga to marry because he’s found his girl in Vasilisa, a delightfully neat clincher to the quandary. The result is one of those few films that makes the boundary between high art and blissful entertainment melt away. l
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Bertrand Tavernier
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Princess of Montpensier was booed by some critics at its Cannes press screening, and it’s not hard to understand why. The lavish, period, literary adaptation they had just seen must have seemed like a return to the “bad old days” of the “quality films” the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were rebelling against. Indeed, in the United States, such films are often seen as Oscar bait—inert displays of wealth and old-fashioned values that have no relevance to modern life.
While it can’t be disputed that this film looks expensive, takes place in France’s far past (the 16th century), is based on a literary work from that period by Madame de Lafayette, and concentrates most of its 139 minutes on a sort of love story, there is nothing inert or irrelevant about it. The Princess of Montpensier may seem like just another costume ball concerned with a beautiful woman all want to possess. But that modern audiences accept as commonplace such a plot—a woman as a prize in a macho contest—is evidence that we haven’t progressed as far as we think. And the background of religious persecution and warfare also resonates in many parts of our world today.
The film opens on a battlefield. Survivors of a routed fighting force of French Protestants (Huguenots) attempt to hobble out of sight, but are cut down by a trio of soldiers on horseback who are fighting for the Catholic cause. As they ride off the battlefield, three Huguenots on horseback pursue them and confront them as they retreat into a farmhouse. “In the name of Christ,” yells the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) before they all fire pistols into the house and break in. Swords are crossed, and during the fray, Chabannes runs a pregnant woman trying to defend her dying child through with his sword. A close-up of her stricken face communicates the horror of the moment. After this terrifying fight, Chabannes deserts, disillusioned with the senseless slaughter in the name of a Christ both Protestants and Catholics worship. Banished by both the Catholic King Charles IX and his Protestant compatriots for deserting, Chabannes turns to his former pupil, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet), for sanctuary.
The prince and Chabannes have a surprise waiting for them when they return to the prince’s home. The Duke of Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) has persuaded the Marquis de Mézières (Phillippe Magnan) to end the betrothal of his daughter Marie (Mélanie Thierry) to Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy) and to give her to his son. This is a very serious breach of promise, one that Marie and Mayenne’s brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel) take very badly—the two are in love and are tormented by the idea that they will be parted. Marie’s mother (Florence Thomassin) advises her to submit, telling her that she and Henri have been indiscreet and that being so close to Henri while married to Mayenne would bring ruin to her and her family. Reluctantly, Marie agrees and warns the headstrong Henri not to fight their fate.
Sadly, the prince and Marie are all but strangers, and he lacks the charm and confidence to woo her. While she dutifully mouths words of affection toward him, she cannot match them with her feelings. It is also Marie’s misfortune to be breathtakingly beautiful, causing the prince’s jealousy—particularly toward Henri—to bubble out of control, further alienating Marie. He is summoned to battle time and again, leaving her alone with only Chabannes, his trusted tutor and friend, as a companion, with instructions to educate her before she is presented at the court of Versailles. She is intelligent and eager to learn, easy around the older Chabannes, and therefore quite shocked when he tells her he, too, has fallen in love with her.
Her problems are compounded when the Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and Henri happen near the prince’s estate, encounter Marie, and she offers them the hospitality of her home. The duke covets her as well, quite openly, and poor Marie must contend with four men at the dinner table eyeing her like a prize goose. Things come to a head when Marie finally travels to Versailles and Henri tempts her to renew their love affair.
Bertrand Tavernier is a very versatile director who can make any subject he chooses to tackle come to life. You might catch yourself wanting to swat flies while watching the goings-on in the colonial backwater of his Coup de Torchon or rub your elbows in pain after a cop takes down a drug dealer in L.627. So, too, does The Princess of Montpensier put you into the times these characters lived through and make you identify with their struggles and restrictions. The warfare in this film is brutal and realistic; we watch a fighter on the ground stab a horse to death with a lance to unseat its rider and witness the lack of mercy shown to civilians, women, and children during battles and in the pogroms carried out in Protestant areas. The Duke of Anjou is shown studying Polish while encamped with his army, explaining to the prince and Chabannes that the Polish king is the weakest in Europe and his family thinks he should simply take the crown—he behaves similarly with Marie, yelling at Henri for wanting something that should rightfully have been his, and assuming his authority as heir to the throne will cause the prince to just step aside when the moment is right. This is the arrogance of hereditary rule that would see his kind lose their heads in France two centuries later.
One feels for the prince, hoping that his beautiful wife will love him, only to have her say she will if he “orders” her to, but his irrational explosions are horrible and his intentions to basically lock her away after he learns that Henri is back in the picture are barbarous. Marie, who has had little agency in the film, tells him she will ride back to their estate on horseback rather than be conveyed in a carriage to her confinement; when she arrives, she nearly falls off her horse in exhaustion, showing this act of free will to be merely masochistic. Marie’s life in this film is commodified at every step. Her wedding night, another excrutiatingly authentic scene, is a horror of having a crowd watch as her naked body is washed and perfumed—her father inspecting the proceedings as he would a horse being brushed down in his stable—and a group of family and servants waiting at the foot of her curtained bed for her cry of pain when her hymen is broken. The servants are sent immediately to the bedside to gather evidence that blood was shed, and the new fathers-in-law tip glasses at this sealing of the deal. Perhaps worst of all, the aggressive attentions this young, unsophisticated woman is subjected to by her admirers are covetous rather than sincere and are rather frightening to watch. Only Chabannes, because of his age and wisdom, remains chivalrous toward her, even sacrificing his place with the prince to save Henri. He will sacrifice more in defense of the innocent before the picture ends, acting as a moral compass in a rather immoral film.
I think it is to Tavernier’s credit that he continues to plumb the depths of French history and bring a less pretty sort of period drama to life. His message about the senselessness of religious warfare and the horror of “collateral damage” isn’t hinted at but plainly spoken and shown—a lack of subtlety that seems suitable, not something to criticize. His choice to tell a drawn-out love story has rankled many critics for its apparent puffery, but women at this time were little more than property, a specific situation that Western cultures have outdistanced but that still informs the inferior status women hold throughout the world. Finally, Tavernier has argued with French critics for ignoring the financial pressures of the European Union on the French film industry by denigrating the efforts of commercial filmmakers:
In a series of interviews and letters, Tavernier issued an impassioned attack on the state of film criticism in France. He accused critics, lost between the savage tastes of the public and their own self importance, of employing a cynical triple standard, giving a free pass to virtually all the Hollywood blockbusters, championing marginalised filmmakers from around the world, while ignoring or dismissing French commercial cinema. (Source: Carloss James Chamberlin, “Bertrand Tavernier,” Senses of Cinema)
The Princess of Montpensier, in the mold of the successful The Duchess, is a film that can compete in the world marketplace. Thierry is an appealing actress who holds the center of the film quite well. She is ably supported by the quartet of men who play her suitors. I especially liked LePrince-Ringuet, a handsome actor who manages to contain his charisma and appear a man more comfortable crossing swords in battle than exchanging words with his own wife. The film goes beyond its commercial appeal with its extraordinary attention to detail, as well as a dedicated and talented crew in front of and behind the camera.
The Princess of Montpensier screens Sunday, October 10, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 12, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis
By Roderick Heath
Euripides’ play, first performed in 415 BC, is one of those jewels that only requires the slightest polishing by a good modern translator to come up as perfect. Not so much a tragedy, or even a drama, it is perhaps more an acted lament, and a tallying up of the horrors humankind can heap upon itself and testament to the small, pitying comforts and paltry flashes of meaning that due honour can bring. Euripides was never popular with his Athenian audiences and judges, who only gave him top laurels at the Drama festival a scant few times over a very long writing career largely because he never quite offered the consoling quality of tragedy as being ruled by inexorable fate. In Euripides’ harshly ironic works, humans were quite often so vile that they needed gods to step in and sort the insanity out, hence his famous dramatic invention, the deus ex machina. The Trojan Women doesn’t even have that (though Poseidon and Athena watch with heavy hearts), for his take on the aftermath of the great Homeric founding myth of Greek nationalism evoked brutality, chauvinism, hysteria, and recrimination.
Written when Euripides’ home city of Athens was engaged in the desperate battle for hegemony with Sparta, with the anxieties of that looming defeat writ large in the work, The Trojan Women is nonetheless one of the most thorough and universal approximations of desolation ever written. It’s distinguished by a relentlessly simple structure: the captured women of the fallen city, famous names all—Queen Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Cassandra—come out one by one to meet their various fates, to be shoved into someone’s bed or kept as trophy of excellence, and, in Andromache’s excruciating case, to have her young son thrown to his death from the city walls so that he’ll never grown up to be as strong as his father Hector. Cassandra, virgin priestess raped by Ajax, goes half out of her mind and still cursed with foresight in perceiving what will be the grotesque end of her brief fate as Agamemnon’s concubine. Hecuba, stripped of everything that was once her source of majestic pride, is claimed by Odysseus, Homer’s robust intellectual hero always rendered by Euripides as the epitome of conniving politicians. And Helen, loathed by both sides, maintains such fierce self-possession and spirited cunning that she seems the most warlike, victorious entity in Troy.
Michael Cacoyannis (Anglicised from Mihalis Kakogiannis), a director who often adapted stage works and a prominent figure of a small but eye-catching Greek New Wave in early ’60s cinema, had become known worldwide with a Cannes prize-winning version of another Euripides play, Electra (1962), and then his excellent, earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (1964). His subsequent film career stumbled with the much-loathed gay nuclear comedy The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), and a lot of subsequent missed opportunities, such as often befell European directors of the era who wavered uneasily between their roots and Hollywood. His adaptation of The Trojan Women, however, more than deserves disinterring: it deserves celebration as a sublimely gritty film, with primal intensity in its performances and naturalistic location photography. A few years ago, when Wolfgang Peterson’s prosaic Troy was released, some critics recalled Cacoyannis’ film, and in particular, Irene Papas’ staggering Helen, with new nostalgia. Papas, who had played the ill-fated lover of Alan Bates’ English scholar in Zorba, plays a variation on that character here, a woman whose infernal beauty and galvanising pride—simply for the fact of her being—so outrages the lesser mortals about her that it drives them to screaming, stone-hurling outrage.
Cacoyannis’ adaptation, taken from Edith Hamilton’s respected translation of the play, strips away the metaphysical framing devices and most of the chorus interludes, and introduces the action instead with a functional voiceover to set the scene. This leaves the dramatic dialogues, in which Hecuba, waiting with the hundreds of other Trojan women on the sun-withered hills outside the city, accounts her own woes. She also tries to console Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold), as Greek herald Talthybius (Brian Blessed) comes to fetch her for Agamemnon. Cassandra reels through the vast interior of a holy cave in her unhinged ferocity, singing songs to Hymen, the god of nuptials, a bitterly ironic epistle considering she’s lost her virginity in rape and is about to be dragged off as a sex slave. Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps her young son Astyanax (Alberto Sanz) close to her whilst her dead husband Hector’s armour is hauled to the Greek encampment as a prize; Talthybius, who detests the grim duties he’s been given but doesn’t shrink from them, tells Andromache that the Greek chieftains have decided Astyanax is to be killed to prevent his growing into a man who might avenge his father.
Although based on classical tragedy, The Trojan Women is very much a product of the cinematic atmosphere of the early ’70s, with its virulent antiwar and protofeminist themes, and very physical New Wave cinematic techniques: sweeping, swooping zoom shots, interludes of aggressively realistic handheld camerawork, and a purposeful lack of artifice in lighting and costuming. Shot in Spain, the baking sun that’s dehydrating and maddening the waiting women is practically palpable. Such verisimilitude was a consistent approach for films tackling venerable material at the time, like Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1968), a moderate example, and Pasolini’s “Mythical” and “Medieval” series, or Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), superior ones. Rather than use clouds of ominous portent to suggest tragedy, Cacoyannis’s staging in the heat of the brightest day is both a response to the simple truth of climate, but also canny in making nature as incisive, revealing, and pitiless as the unfolding situation.
Although the look of The Trojan Woman is realistic, the acting styles are more distinctly stylised, though kept mostly just this side of the theatrical. Considering the colossal, outsized emotions and events the actresses must represent, such stylisation is not inappropriate. And the ritualised form of the play is essential to its effect and meaning: it’s not a work of historical reportage, nor does Cacoyannis pretend it’s one. Hepburn uses her dry, snapping voice to wound and snarl and mourn with orchestral effect. The condensed anguish buckles the actresses’ bodies and threatens to wrench their spirits out of their flesh, building to the bloodcurdling moment when Andromache, realising exactly what the Greeks propose to do to her son, emits a slight groaning sound as if she’s been stabbed in the lung, slowly rising to a hideous cry of woe, one of those moments that would make good any claim that Redgrave’s the finest English-speaking actress of the past 40-odd years.
Adapting the device of the chorus to make it work for a modern audience is a difficult feat in the theatre—never mind cinema—and Cacoyannis cut away all of it except for one spellbinding moment when the Trojan women mass together and recount how the city was taken. Cacoyannis, who did his own editing, cuts rapidly through ultra-close-ups of their ranked faces, eyes filling frames as the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy drones on, the tale falling from their lips as a litany of betrayals and abuses. The heightened realism works, though it does point to a lack in The Trojan Women as adaptation: Euripides’ choruses were usually the vessels of his finest poetry and offered islets of peace and reflection. Losing most of them robs the story of balance and beauty, but it’s largely necessary to maintaining the kind of dramatic integrity needed in motion pictures, and the film flows with proper remorselessness.
The women are sometimes as much at war with each other, it seems, as they were with the Greeks, and there’s a darkly misanthropic aspect to how each of them tries to outdo the others in listing their woes, as if there’s a kind of triumph in trying to mask and mediate the devastation. Where in any situation but this one grief, loss, and defeat would be ennobling at least in how one’s immediate society treats one, when an entire society has been annihilated, there’s no respite at all, only other haggard, sorrow-corroded faces to look at. Yet fellowship continually asserts itself, as Hecuba chides Cassandra with enough astringent force to bring her daughter out of her hysteria, and instructs Andromache in the arts of accepting cruel decisions. Andromache angrily derides Hecuba’s almost exultant self-celebration as a figure of woe whose sons and husband are now dead, pointing out that such was at least the honourable death of warriors, whilst she’s left to raise a young son with no place in the world—and even that proves to be a better burden than the final one she’s given. Hecuba, with her still explosive, regal energy, turns her own survival and defiance into an ongoing resistance.
The war isn’t even finished yet: the Greeks are still afraid of Hector, parading his armour about on a stand to display their capture of his memory, and still needing the blood of his son to be spilt in the most savage fashion possible. When Menelaus (Patrick Magee) turns up, he asserts complete power over what to do with Helen, the war’s nominal cause, and everyone expects her to be executed for her treachery. Helen lurks, caged like a wild beast, behind the wooden slats of a gated hut. But her guards take no chances, not wanting to be blamed in case Helen, as everyone senses, can weasel her way out of her situation: when soldiers deny the parched, panting prisoners any water, instead pouring out libations for themselves, the guard attempts to surreptitiously slip a dish of it to Helen, immediately stirring the anger of the other prisoners. Helen defiantly doesn’t even drink the water, but strips off her clothes to wash herself, stoking the other women’s wrath to foaming rage; they begin pelting her prison with stones and work up the will to charge the prison, drag her out, and tear her to pieces. The Greek soldiers have to rally to push them back.
Papas’ Helen, when she finally emerges, looks every bit as martially fierce as any warrior, never demurring or trying to look humble even as she attempts to soften Menelaus’ anger, spinning a tale that Hecuba furiously mocks about how she had tried to return to the Greek camp to end the war, and also sharpening her own vicious tongue to a point in reminding her one-time husband that the war, in spite of the Greeks’ aggrieved rhetoric, hasn’t worked out too badly for them. Whilst playing the martyr, Helen still makes it clear that she’s nobody’s victim. Her appeals are successful enough to make Menelaus decide to hold off her execution until they return home, and, as Hecuba recognises, that’s all the foothold she needed to come through this slaughter free and clear. Talthybius presents Hecuba and the other women with Astyanax’s body after he’s been killed, and as both emblem of Troy and final, bleakest sacrifice to the spirit of war, they give him a funeral. As night falls, the Greeks torch what’s left of the city, and Hecuba, in a momentary fit of despair, attempts to hurl herself into the fires, but gives up and shuffles away into slavery with the remaining women.
It’s a sad saga the film recounts, but the final effect of the drama is satisfying only in its total evocation of defeat: all fear, anger, fight, and passion have been exhausted by the conclusion, and there’s nothing left indeed but to accept it and move on—that, of course, is the essence of catharsis. I can’t help but find it a pity Cacoyannis didn’t continue on and film, say, Euripides’ own feel-good sequel Andromache. Cacoyannis evokes Holocaust images as bushels of the women prisoners are rounded up and crowded onto carts to be hauled away, and the final burning of Troy lends the very finish an apocalyptic air, as if all the world’s ending, which, in a way, it is. The film’s immediate political resonances are suggestive, too: Greece was in the hands of a military junta at the time of production, and Cacoyannis’s regular collaborator, Mikis Theodorakis, having once been imprisoned by that regime for his activism, wrote the film’s score whilst in exile. The atmosphere of oppression, destruction, and hate is urgent, and whilst some of the camerawork gets hammy on occasions, that’s the price the film pays for never feels stagy or hidebound—far from it. Whilst the greater part of The Trojan Women‘s drama and effect flows from its words, it’s also vibrant and beautiful cinema, and a vital, bristling, morally engaged artwork.
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Director: Anthony Mann
By Roderick Heath
Anthony Mann’s penultimate film was a failure that, along with another Samuel Bronston production, Nicholas Ray’s last feature, 55 Days in Peking (1965), ended Hollywood’s efforts to outpace television with super-expensive historical epics. The irony, that two of Hollywood’s most talented directors of the 1950s foundered in working for Bronston on inflated fare, was bitter, especially considering that both flops were entertaining films. Mann himself seemed exhausted by the experience, making the negligible but beautiful-looking The Heroes of Telemark (1965) before dying while working on A Dandy in Aspic (1968). With Tinseltown still reeling from the cost of the unwieldy Cleopatra, the paltry take by Mann’s film condemned it to a long limbo when it ought to have been regarded as one the finest, certainly darkest and most intelligent of the old-style blockbusters. To rub salt in the wound, some 36 years later Ridley Scott’s far less complex, musclebound Gladiator, a film that recycled the basic plot of Mann’s film, became a giant hit and won a Best Picture Oscar.
Mann had produced a hit for Bronston three years earlier with the heroic El Cid, and like that production, The Fall of the Roman Empire was shot in what was then the go-to cheapo locale for big movies, Franco’s Spain. If El Cid captured the overheated passion of a titanic folk myth, The Fall of the Roman Empire plays as a tragic, poetic counterweight built around Mann’s favourite theme, the breakdown of social order. Rather than merely nailing down the coffin lid of the big classical saga, Mann almost succeeded in making a campy genre grow up. Whilst the usual cumbersome paraphernalia of the epic are in place—a big, blaring music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, a multitudinous cast getting a few bucks for extra work amongst staggeringly scaled sets and rowdy battle scenes, and a storyline quoting the homoerotic-friendship-turned-poisonous subtext of Ben-Hur (1959), as well as a well-staged chariot battle clearly indebted to that MGM hit—The Fall of the Roman Empire is closer to the kinds of smart epics Luchino Visconti and David Lean were making at the time. It also looked forward to more probing, modernistic films about history, war, and politics, such as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Fellini’s Satyricon, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, all of which it anticipates in some way.
The title, for instance, conjures images of hordes of lusty Vandals laying waste to Rome’s marbled colonnades. The opening of the film reveals a different spirit, in a brief, but spellbinding vignette of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and his intellectual Greek slave Timonides (James Mason) keeping a watch on the rampart of the emperor’s base of operations in his wars against the blonde barbarians still resisting the Empire in the forests of Germania. Having heard the ill-starred augury of their blind soothsayer Cleander (Mel Ferrer), the two philosophers discuss what makes them take pleasure in a cruel life; Aurelius confesses his childhood anxiety just before the dawn breaks that the sun might never rise. This scene’s muted, philosophical mood is a keynote, and the feeling of life subsisting somewhere on a frontier of life and night as well as of empire continues to preoccupy the style. Livius (Stephen Boyd), one of Aurelius’s most respected generals, arrives in anticipation of a grand gathering of all of the Empire’s governors and allies, and is also eager to see Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren). She’s a melancholy, haunted progeny who remembers her mother’s many plots and infidelities against the wise father she idolises, and dreads being forced by reasons of state to marry Sohamus (Omar Sharif), the King of Armenia, to secure an ally on Rome’s eastern frontier.
Aurelius announces to the gathering that he is close to realising a true Pax Romana, one of amity and citizenship. But the emperor is troubled by debilitating pain, and many believe he’s dying, a process which a group of conspirators, including Cleander and cunning statesman Niger (Douglas Wilmer), decide to speed up, when it becomes clear that Aurelius means to disinherit his unstable son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) in favour of Livius. Commodus, they expect, will be a more malleable, belligerent, and thus profit-bringing emperor. Commodus, anti-intellectual and combative with his sister, prefers the company of gladiators, especially old pro Verulus (Anthony Quayle), and brings them with him to the front line to protect him in a risky effort to trap the barbarian leader Ballomar (John Ireland). Stalwart soldier Polybius (Andrew Keir), however, despises the gladiators and executes several he feels let down in battle, an act that results in Commodus and Livius battling out their resentments. Livius, after being offered the throne, is conflicted by the thought of betraying his life-long comrade and drinking buddy, but is still willing to do so. Aurelius dies after Cleander feeds him poisoned fruit without a finalised will, however, and Livius, at the emperor’s pyre, rather than make a risky claim, insists the army hail Commodus as Caesar.
Commodus joyfully promises lifelong gratitude to Livius, but when installed on the throne, he begins promoting his own imperial grandeur and that of Rome at the expense of starving colonies and political ties. Commodus is characterised not as an outright psycho a la Joaquin Phoenix’s version in Gladiator or like many portrayals of Caligula and Nero, but as a deeply disturbed young man raised in an air of recalled deceit and elegant emotional brutality desperately implementing a political programme entirely at odds with his father’s. The truth of his parentage—that he isn’t Marcus’s natural son at all, but the result of an affair between his mother and Verulus—explains a lot, but he’s not aware of it, and when he does learn this, it becomes a means to finally act out his patricidal fantasies as he descends deeply into grandiosity. In the final scenes of the film, Commodus appears within a great sculpture of a hand giving the imperial salute, having turned all the machinery and architecture of state into extensions of his own psyche.
Although he occasionally lapses into arch affects as a still fresh-minted film actor, Plummer attempts to imbue Commodus with something far more detailed than the average ranting screen dictator, alternating sweet yet menacing smiles and pleas with bitter punishments, disappointed snarls and giddy, fatalistic laughter. Early on, he and Livius bond, like Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad, by sleeping with barbarian slave women; when one of them resists him, he cries “I’m Caesar’s son, I could have you burnt alive!”, a threat that later proves all too cogent, although his anger here quickly fades. When Livius tells him of Aurelius’s wishes, Plummer’s Commodus gives a wincing laugh of deeply anguished amusement: “He must really hate me!” he exclaims, unable to see the throne as anything more than personal right and this as anything other than emotional rejection. He more often than not resembles a deeply callow, narcissistic teenager enacting childish psychodramas with godlike power, treating the empire like a toy. Lucilla, his opposite, possesses her father’s cool temperament and philosophical streak, flushed with her own version of the same traumas, but destined as a female to be a pawn in schemes of power. Finally, used once too often and cheated of her chances to be with Livius, Lucilla becomes her brother’s committed enemy, joining with Sohamus and rebellious regional governors in revolt against Commodus’s authority.
Whilst this foreground drama is unusually nuanced, it’s still relatively familiar. The Fall of the Roman Empire’s expansive efforts to suggest the whole social and military failure of the Roman world are, however, quite complex, not always successful but admirable and near-unique, as subplots describe some of the genuine causes of the empire’s rot that Commodus’s reign commenced, such as the inability to make friends with new northern rivals, the corruption of the army, social inequality, and collapse of civic responsibility. When Livius finally manages to subdue the last of Ballomar’s tribe in their sacred cavern, Timonides tries to convince the captives that they will be treated fairly within the empire, but Ballomar and other barbarian men grab the philosopher and test his faith in his civilised world by thrusting a burning torch against his hand and challenging him to resist reaching out and touching their statue of Wotan. It’s a classic Mann scene in its mixture of brilliantly suggested physical pain being suffered for commitment to a principle. Although Timonides finally collapses in shame after deliriously touching the statue, his show of grit is so impressive that Ballomar and the other barbarians agree to his terms. Livius and Timonides present them to the senate and, in defiance of Commodus’ wishes, argue for them to be granted citizenship and land to prove the empire can prosper through peaceful annexation rather than punitive action.
This scene with the senate is fascinating in its attempt to dramatise not merely an historic question, but also a principle of all political life, as Commodus’ reactionary partisans argue for maintaining Rome’s ruthless hegemony, whilst Timonides and an elder senator (Finlay Currie) argues that the rule of life is to adapt or die: the relevance to regular debates over immigration, terrorism, and other similar questions is perhaps stronger now than it was when the film was made. “Equality. Freedom. Peace. Who is it that uses these words other than Greeks and Jews and slaves? Our enemies will say we are weak,” sneers Julianus (Eric Porter). Timonides settles with Ballomar and his tribal fellows on abandoned farmland, and they soon manage to construct an idyllic pastoral life (in scenes that unfortunately look a bit too much story-of-mankind book illustrations) that sees Aurelius’s multicultural ideals coming to life. That dream dies a swift and gruesome death soon enough. Livius, answering Commodus’ pleas to aid him in putting down the revolts, succeeds in defeating Sohamus in battle with the help of some Roman rebels who come back to fold when it turns out Sohamus has made alliance with the Persians. Sohamus is killed and Livius safely extricates Lucilla, but when Niger and other emissaries of the emperor insist he instigate grotesque retaliations, he imprisons them and sends them back to Commodus. The emperor casually orders the massacre of the barbarian citizens, and Timonides dies with a spear in his gut still trying to plead for sense and fellowship.
Fighting, as ever in a Mann film, doesn’t look like the usual balletic stuff, but instead damned hard, awkward work, especially when Boyd and Sharif duel, trying to heft their heavy hunks of steel with effect (it’s worth noting that, in a distant context, Masaki Kobayashi was out to achieve a similar effect in making his Seppuku the same year). The film’s several battle scenes are staged with concussive force and terrific stunt work (via Yakima Canutt). Equally familiar in Mann’s oeuvre is a strong sense of physical atmosphere tied with great intricacy to the onscreen drama. The dawn that so arrests Aurelius gives way to the first battle with the barbarians staged in the hazy beauty of early morning, the Romans cast as a legion of light penetrating the dark forest; later, when Commodus bribes Livius’s army to hold them at bay, the scene is dusk, as rot irrevocably sets in. The finale, in blazing midday, sees the sky blackened by a pall of portentous smoke. The action, commencing on the very fringes of the empire, concludes with a battle and an atrocity in the heart of the city.
Mann’s compositions lap up the mind-bogglingly detailed Roman sets, and contain their own mosaic messages, as in one scene in which Commodus escorts Livius to see Lucilla, and the general finds his amour sprawled on a couch; Mann shoots their clinch from high overhead, rendered part of the design of the room with its decorated floor and circular form, making it clear they’re trapped by their obligations and the dictates of the dictator. The most striking scene in the film, most often noted by fans like Martin Scorsese, is that of Aurelius’s funeral, where the major characters stand in silent attention—Timonides sternly clutching a firebrand, Lucilla wearing a look of frigid dread as Livius proclaims Commodus—whilst the wind drives snow at them and makes wheezing noises that resemble the laughter of the gods that Commodus is constantly listening for. In the final scenes, Commodus has Ballomar, his daughter and Timonides’ lover Helva (Lena von Martens), and other former barbarians and liberal Romans chained up to be burnt alive. Commodus tests his divinity once too often by challenging Livius to a duel to the death. He dies in Livius’s arms, bellowing for the prisoners to be burnt. Livius only just manages to extricate Lucilla from the blaze whilst the rest are engulfed, Ballomar shouting his plea for Wotan to destroy Rome, something Wotan’s followers, hordes of Visigoth already massing on the borders, will eventually do with relish.
Historically speaking, The Fall of the Roman Empire isn’t exactly accurate, though it’s built around genuine incidents and persons. Commodus’ sister Lucilla really did conspire in his attempted assassination. Commodus did institute a general liberalisation in Roman citizenship, not out of idealism, but out of a cynical tax grab that did more harm than good. But unlike almost every other film of this type, and in spite of some daffiness (I can’t take John Ireland seriously as a blonde barbarian), it actually feels like it’s set in the past and not in some picture-book fantasy. The Fall of the Roman Empire details with intricacy the mores of a vanished society, if still not with the kind of in-your-face grit offered by recent creations like television’s Rome series. After the battle with Sohamus and the Persians, Mann’s camera takes in the great severed head of a stone giant, evoking the shadow of Ozymandias-like tyranny and autocratic idolatry, presaging a similar motif in Apocalpyse Now.
What the film lacked to make it a big hit was melodramatic clarity: the foreground love affairs and conflicts are considered with a cool, ironic distance rather than immediate urgency. Boyd, potent and swaggering as a villain, was wooden playing heroes, and his romance with Lucilla never feels very important. Loren, who normally played earthier roles, is appropriately muted in playing the thoughtful, troubled Lucilla, but she, too, fails to generate heat in the romance. There’s a cunning symmetry, however, in the scenes where her father, meditating on his ebbing life, alternates between spoken and internal comments, and later when Lucilla pushes her way through an orgiastic throng of Romans, surrounded by men in leering masks, exulting in similar alternations in the disintegration of the civic sanity of the city she loves. The film’s biggest misstep is in the conventionality of Livius saving her from the pyre made of Rome’s humanity and dignity: Mann should have gone all the way in evoking moral and social apocalypse. It couldn’t have hurt the film at the box office. l
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