23rd 05 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Eroica (1957)

Director: Andrjez Munk

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.

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Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.

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The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.

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Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.

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The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.

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A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.

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Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.

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A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.

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The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.

Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.


23rd 02 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Night of the Generals (1967)

Director: Anatole Litvak

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By Roderick Heath

Peter O’Toole’s death last December was a hard blow. One of a formidable battery of theatre-trained talents who found movie stardom as a minor cultural explosion regenerated British performing and cinematic arts in the early ‘60s, O’Toole had electrifying skill and intelligence as an actor. Of course, tributes to O’Toole’s career zeroed in on inarguable highlights. His name-making lead performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a textbook of what film star acting can be. His second turn as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) combines dramatic largesse and cinematic intimacy with hypnotic finesse. His high-comedy roles in The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and My Favorite Year (1983) readily stir fond memories, and the frail but keen intelligence in his late performances in Troy (2004) and Venus (2006) was stirring all the more for the sense those turns were delivered against the resistance of much-abused flesh. O’Toole made quite a few bad movies in the course of his career, some in which he hammed it up or walked through with his contempt all too obvious. He also made many undervalued films, particularly in his post-Lawrence run when his star was at its height. He was epic in Lord Jim (1965), and funny and charming in How to Steal a Million (1966).

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O’Toole is ferocious in The Night of the Generals, a fascinating and very neglected film, one of the most singular by-products of the era’s tumultuous screen culture. Produced on a lavish scale by Sam Spiegel, who had fostered O’Toole’s stardom in producing Lawrence, it’s a big-budget war movie with scarcely any combat. Rather, it’s essentially military noir, combining an early variation on the serial killer hunt motif with a typically ’60s fascination for antiheroic and antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about WWII from the German side, standing up with a relative handful of such works, like Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008). The film was based loosely on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, a German writer who, although overshadowed by the likes of Gunther Grass and Heinrich Böll, was one of the first postwar writers to articulate disillusionment with and resentment of the Nazi era, portraying little guys and men of conscience struggling with the all-pervading evil of the regime, gaining particular attention for his much-loved Gunner Asche stories. Kirst, however, had legal problems with the book, which was partly drawn from work by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, and both are credited as the source of the film.

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The film kicks off in Warsaw, 1942. As Operation Barbarossa is nearing Moscow and Polish partisans are tormenting occupying forces, a tenement dweller, Wionczek (Charles Millot), hears an ugly scream on a higher floor, and fearfully hides in a toilet as someone descends the stairs. He catches a glimpse of the man’s military trousers, sporting a red stripe: the uniform of a German general. When he ventures out, he finds the body of a prostitute, Maria Kupiecka, savagely murdered in her apartment. Because she was an occasional informant for the Germans, Maj. Grau (Omar Sharif) of Wehrmacht Military Intelligence is sent to investigate whether it was a crime of punishment or passion. It’s immediately obvious to Grau he’s dealing with a sex killer. After extricating the witness’ testimony and believing it, Grau whittles down suspects to three generals whose whereabouts can’t be established. Gen. Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), head of the city’s military garrison, has a penchant for prostitutes. Gen. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), his chief of staff, seems the most suspicious due to his habitual secrecy and lack of personal attachments. Gen. Tanz (O’Toole), in charge of the “Nibelungen” Division of the SS, is newly arrived in the city from the Russian front, personally detailed by Hitler to quell resistance.

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Spiegel threw his weight around a lot during the making of the film, alienating director Anatole Litvak and O’Toole considerably, as he tried to lay claim to ownership of the project. Yet the film represents a coherent culmination for Litvak’s career. The director had fled first from Soviet Ukraine and then from fascist Europe, where he made some notable works, including Mayerling (1936). He then landed in the United States, where he made the long-delayed opening salvo in Hollywood opposition to Nazism, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Litvak wasn’t really a film noir director, but his instincts were sharpest with stories involving ordinary people faced with oppressive violence by tyrants and their own foundering sanity and decency, often with political overtones or an acidic contemplation of marriage. All This, and Heaven Too (1940) offered a lunatic wife who compels a hapless husband to murder. Out of the Fog (1941) shows two elderly men driven to contemplate homicide by a vicious gangster. Litvak remade Le Jour Sur Leve (1939), Marcel Carne’s study in fatalism as a man awaits arrest and death after committing a crime of passion, as The Long Night (1947), and transposed Lucille Fletcher’s radio play to film with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), depicting a woman who, through blind chance, finds her husband is planning to have her killed. The Snake Pit (1948) made headlines for highlighting treatment of the mentally ill, as an unstable young woman is cast into an asylum. In the ’50s, Litvak decamped back to Europe but remained a quasi-Hollywood filmmaker. The Deep Blue Sea (1955) studied suicidal impulse and transgressive romance, and Anastasia (1956) offered an amnesiac young woman whose past is rewritten to fill a political void. Five Miles to Midnight (1962) turns a dying marriage into a bleak Sartrean thriller.

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The Night of the Generals was Litvak’s penultimate film, and it treats his major themes on an epic expanse. The film’s chief liabilities are common to a lot of big-budget films of the era, with a production polished to brittleness and corny asides, like scenes in a tourist-board-approved Parisian night spot, complete with warbling Juliette Greco. But the film’s overlooked status is more due to its cool, cerebral approach to garish subject matter, via the script by Joseph Kessel, a collaborator of Litvak’s who dates back to Mayerling, Paul Dehn, and an uncredited Gore Vidal, who perhaps provided the film’s litany of quotable lines. Litvak eschews suspense sequences and action in favour of generating a trembling sense of neurotic repression and tension, less a whodunit than a study in competing pathologies. An individual’s will to kill is contrasted with an epoch that takes mass murder as an everyday reality and even a gallant activity. Grau’s peculiar sense of mission leads him first to confront his three suspects when they’re together at a reception thrown by Gabler’s haughty wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) for Tanz. Eleanore tries matchmaking by introducing Tanz to her daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), a member of the German equivalent of the WAAFs. But this goes awry, as Ulrike is furious because of her mother’s plotting to have her sent back to Germany to work in a religious hospital, more out distaste for her newfound independence than concern for her safety. She questions Tanz about using dead bodies as sandbags at the siege of Leningrad: “The story has been exaggerated,” Tanz replies, but adds with chilling assurance, “Nobody rots with me.”

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The Night of the Generals charts the various social tensions and blocs within Nazi Germany, giving it a sociohistorical richness as it anatomizes the peculiar madness of the time and place. Gabler is described as a “Junker of the old school” and his aristocratic equivocations contrast both the internalized, ideological attitude of Hitlerian golden boy Tanz, and the intelligent, conscientious characters who keep their heads pulled in nervously whilst trying to work out how to resist. Ulrike is one of these, and another is introduced when Kahlenberge’s adjutant Otto (Nigel Stock) presents his cousin Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a newly decorated war hero and an artistic, educated man all too happy to take a staff job under Kahlenberge’s wing. Assigned to program music for Eleanore’s soirée, Hartmann encounters Ulrike and quickly becomes her lover, confessing, to her delight, that he was only decorated because he ran away whilst the rest of his unit were killed in battle. The two lovers neatly fill in for the perspective of the late ’60s audience in their disdain for their elders and betters, and sense of unity in being endangered by the war, as Ulrike’s already lost two boyfriends in Russia. Grau, equally detached from the Nazi cause, makes it his mission within the delineations of his job, to punish hubris: “We live in an age in which dead bodies lie around in the street,” Kahlenberge barks at him, but Grau invokes the legend of the Eumenides and declares his intent: “Some general thought he could play God in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Well, I am going to prove to him that he is not God.”

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Tanz, on the other hand, articulates the mix of idealism and low chauvinism that defined the drug-like appeal for those who were on the “right” side of the Nazi ethos, airily declaring things for Ulrike’s benefit, like, “We’re building a new world order—women should not be exempt from playing their part,” and trying to win hearts and minds with food and sweets for the homeless children of Warsaw. At the same time, his plan to crush Polish resistance is characterised by Kahlenberge as monstrous, as it has a contingency to demolish the entire city if necessary. “What constitutes resistance?” Kahlenberge questions, “A rock thrown at his golden head?” Grau, trying to interview the overlord, becomes privy to the operation, as buildings are swept clear and partisans gunned down in the street, before Tanz casually has tanks pummel buildings to rubble in an orgiastic survey of destruction. There’s anticipation in Tanz (whose name implicitly evokes the tötentanz or death-dance from plague-era religious allegory), as a character and locus of thematic interest, of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Schindler’s List (1993), in the fascination with the almost mystical figure of a mad military leader who commits crimes that seem absurd against the backdrop of generally permitted murder, and whose power takes on hubristic scale. Grau sees Tanz is a megalomaniac, but is also persuaded that Tanz is not his killer: why would someone who can get their rocks off on such a scale need to kill a prostitute? Grau’s gambit at the soirée misfires, as Kahlenberge defensively has him transferred to Paris.

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Two years later, the players are reunited as the Allied landings at Normandy bring Tanz, Gabler, and Kahlenberge to Paris, stirring Grau to reopen his investigation. Tanz is assigned by the Fuhrer to mastermind retaliation, but Gabler and Kahlenberge insist that he take time off, supposedly to give them time to prepare military resources for him. Tanz reluctantly obeys, and Kahlenberge frustrates Hartmann’s impending reunion with Ulrike by insisting that he chauffeur Tanz about the city. As Hartmann is forced into close company with Tanz, he becomes privy to the deep veins of neurosis underlying Tanz’s self-willed image as the iron-willed, water-drinking, obsessive-compulsive übermensch, gets stinking drunk and smoking profusely whilst Hartmann gives him a tour of Paris. Much of the film’s middle third is dedicated to an intensely rhythmic portrait of mental upheaval and dread, building fascinating, troubling little scenes like orchestral movements. One such scene comes when Hartmann is distracted from his guide duties by the sight of Tanz guzzling spirits in the back seat, an intimate play of shots that compartmentalise the two men in separate universes. but unites them in the rearview mirror until the general notices and tells the corporal to keep his eye on the road. Most striking is a scene that’s repeated in ritualistic fashion, when Hartmann takes Tanz to an art gallery filled with paintings requisitioned for Nazi bigwigs.

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Tanz, intrigued by the gallery’s “decadent” modernist works, finds himself stricken with horrified self-recognition as he stares at Van Gogh’s “Vincent in Flames” self-portrait. Matching zooms and cuts between O’Toole’s sweat-swathed face and the portrait’s infernal flames and blue eyes with Maurice Jarre’s nerve-jangling score render an impression of the soldier’s wits turning inside out, in a superlative conflation of cinematic devices. The film also notes with malign humour the nature of the Nazi antipathy to “decadent” art, for its stylised, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath. Tanz asks Hartmann to define “decadent” art, and Hartmann replies that according to his best definition, the potent art is anything but decadent, but then appends his reply with dry political awareness, “But I don’t really know what decadence is—not officially anyway.”

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Hartmann and Tanz’s relationship is unusually charged because Tanz generally has utmost contempt for his underlings, who fear his rages for good reason: he has one orderly confined to barracks for a month for getting polish on his boot laces and abuses another for having dirt under his fingernails. He finds in Hartmann a subordinate as intelligent as himself and more cultured, but still a subordinate, thus all the more pleasurable to destroy. Tanz seems to descend into a fugue state in his first encounter with the Van Gogh, and might have no memory of it the next day after a drinking binge. He nonetheless insists on a return and confronts the painting again, and this time seems to gain control over his stylised doppelgänger. Tanz even seems humanised after this, as he makes conversation with Hartmann and congratulates him on his “good taste” after forcing Hartmann to show his wallet photo of Ulrike. This conceals, however, Tanz forming a plan of attack so he can indulge his intimate homicidal side.

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Litvak, like many old studio dogs, was trying to learn new tricks, and he annexed flourishes of New Wave cinema with more success than many, giving the film a stylish instability as he conjoins theatrical actor blocking and glossily over-lit interiors with islets of modernist punch: dialogue becoming voiceover, jump cuts, and whip-pan transitions pepper the film. One shot takes in the former Polish royal residence as a tourist attraction in the present day, and then cuts to the same angle when depicting the palace’s days as Gabler’s headquarters. The film’s colour palate is intelligently muted, the blood reds of the generals’ uniform insignia isolated in fields of hard greys and browns, with other colours washed out. One of the film’s strongest images is Wionczek’s eye peering out through the fateful gap in the lavatory door, grain in the wood and terror in the eye captured as a precise emblem of the era’s paranoid, seamy, assailed mindset, reminiscent of the similarly surreal shots of the spying eyes in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), but with the innocent spying out on the evil rather than the other way around. The stark and eerie opening credits play out the first murder as a fetishistic dreamscape, picking out details like fishnet stockings on glossy legs and squirming fingers in black leather gloves, flickering in and out of distorting shots, before the fatal knife swing hacks through a light bulb in slow motion, an eerie, technically accomplished touch that was stolen for the TV show “Callan” a few years later. The film has an uncommon flash-forward structure, as the film leaps between the 1940s and 1965, eschewing introduction via the present tense to emphasise not the past nature of events, but the still-vibrant connection between eras and the people reporting them, where consequences are still being played out.

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Tanz sets up Hartmann to be his patsy as he kills another prostitute (Véronique Vendell) and gives Hartmann the choice of either fleeing for his life or having his brains blown out. When Hartmann asks Tanz why he’s become a killer, Tanz replies, “Oh, the war, I suppose,” whilst espousing his confident belief that Hartmann would inevitably be executed for the murder instead of him because, naturally, he’s a general, and his word is worth more. Grau, however, realises exactly what’s happened when his contact in the Parisian police, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), calls him to the crime scene and then learns Hartmann was assigned to Tanz.

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Whilst O’Toole is dominant in the film, he’s surrounded by a cast of mostly British and French actors of enormous vitality. It’s distinctly possible, for instance, that Grau is Sharif’s best performance. The Egyptian actor has wryly commented on the degree to which producers were willing to cast him in nonethnic roles according to his star status. Reunited here with O’Toole after Lawrence as they were both still contracted to Spiegel for frustratingly little pay, Sharif couldn’t have asked for a more different role to his image as swarthy lover, with Grau as a poised, electrically intelligent savant who has no interest either in hiding his smarts or his delight in making his superiors uncomfortable. Sharif relishes the dialogue thrown his way, from imploring a pathologist at a murder scene, “There’s no need to be vivid,” to charmingly telling Morand he knows his Resistance code name. Grau, like Hartmann, is absurdly out of place in this milieu: cold-shouldered by the German elite for his impolitic zeal, he finds friendship with Morand. The two men dine as gentlemanly enemies, with Grau cutting deals to release some of Morand’s men in exchange for gathering intelligence on the generals, whilst swapping oddball pearls of wisdom like, “Sex and great cuisine do not mix.”

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Indeed, the depth of quality in the cast is another of the film’s major assets, with mostly British actors modishly familiar at the time. Handed the lion’s share of good lines, Pleasence is superlative as Kahlenberge, who approaches a world that disgusts him with dripping cynicism and abuse of the bottle. Particularly good is his early interview with Hartmann, as he surveys his press clippings and notes with the finest edge of mockery, “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero of the Golden Age!” And, later, when assigning Hartmann to drive Tanz, telling him to satisfy the general’s taste with a very Vidal-esque twist: “Let us hope that whatever it is, it is not you, corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you’re serving the Fatherland.” There’s an obvious, but well-handled irony in the suspicious Kahlenberge turning out to be the film’s moral centre: he is involved in the July plot to kill Hitler, whilst Gabler knows what’s going on but wants to remain “usefully alive” sitting on the fence. The Night of the Generals also provides an amusing keepsake of the days when Tom Courtenay was considered a heartthrob, as Hartmann’s incredible appeal to women is spoken of even as his spindly physique is mocked. Courtenay is certainly fine as Hartmann, however, as he brings the right mix of doe-eyed sensitivity and discomforted acumen and angst to the role.

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The sadly neglected Pettet, who hit big in ’67 after her other highest-profile role that same year in Casino Royale, is more uncertain as the icily aristocratic Ulrike. She’s most effective when firing off arch rejoinders to Browne’s patented maternal monster and O’Toole’s marble demigod, aware of the contradiction that wartime has liberated her whilst condemning millions of others to horror, but as she’s slowly humanised by love for Hartmann, she becomes less interesting. Christopher Plummer has a strong cameo as Rommel, whose joining the plot is celebrated by Kahlenberge and the others. The film links Grau’s intent to catch the god-playing general with Rommel’s intent to deny Hitler the glory of a fiery apocalyptic end: both are heroic in motivation, but touched by hubris conjoined with the core problem of the Nazi cause, and thus both men are unable to prevent horror. Rommel’s wounding by a strafing Allied plane hurts their confidence. Four decades before Valkyrie, The Night of the Generals encompasses a brief, but sharp and accurate telling of Von Stauffenberg’s (Gérard Buhr) excruciatingly near miss at killing the Fuhrer. Once the bomb goes off and the plotters assume victory, Kahlenberge dispatches men to arrest Tanz at his division headquarters, but Grau gets there ahead of them to arrest him for murder. Tanz’s response is merely to shoot Grau and claim he was one of the traitors, and he accepts the Nazi salute from his massed soldiers as Hitler’s survival is announced. If the film had ended here, its portrait of an age of moral nullity would be bleak, but, of course, there’s another act to play out in peacetime, as the flashes to 1965 have promised.

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Morand, now an Interpol agent, is trying to piece together the crime to honour his dead friend, and he explores that peacetime landscape with its perspective-imbuing vignettes. Otto has become a fat and satisfied restaurateur, hailing the Marshall Plan. Kahlenberge, who fled ahead of the vicious reprisals for the assassination plot, is now a busy diplomat, recalling with fascination Grau’s obsession in the midst of a collapsing world. Gabler is still sitting on the fence, and he and his wife are alienated from Ulrike, with Eleanore sniping, “Our generation believed in being happy!” Tanz’s pompous adjutant Sandauer (John Gregson) has become a Volkswagen executive, exasperatedly bossing around Spanish and Italian labourers because he “can’t get Germans for real work anymore.” Ulrike has dropped out and become a farmer, married to a man named Luckner, who is, naturally, Hartmann, living under an alias. Tanz has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for war crimes, and now plans to attend a reunion of his division in a politically charged moment of fascist solidarity. Tanz looks like he’s calcified in prison, but he’s already committed another murder, one that has drawn Morand back to the case, and he and Inspector Hauser (Michael Goodliffe), the investigating officer, collaborate to confront Tanz with a greyed, frayed, but coldly intent Hartmann. Few film resolutions are more satisfying than this one, as Morand goads Tanz to shoot himself, his body left sprawled on the banquet table under Nazi paraphernalia under the stunned and silent eyes of his men—one last victim of the war and one delayed, but not denied, serving of justice.


22nd 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Centurion (2010)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

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By Roderick Heath

English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.

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Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.

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Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.

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On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.

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The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.

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Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.

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On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.

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Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.

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Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.

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Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.

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More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.

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Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.

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The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).

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The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.

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Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.


23rd 02 - 2013 | 13 comments »

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Director: William A. Wellman 

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Mike Smith gave an interesting talk at a local library about the history of the Academy Awards that featured clips from several Best Picture winners representing different eras of filmmaking. He chose the much-honored The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to represent the World War II era, and commented that while American audiences today seem to need several years to pass before a film can address an important historical event such as 9/11 or Columbine, no such time lag existed for previous generations. Particularly during World War II, movie audiences got dispatches from the various fronts through newsreel footage that spared no one the horrors of war. With the immediacy of the war touching large numbers of Americans, feature filmmakers felt both a freedom and an obligation to present their war stories with the same unflinching reality. The Best Years of Our Lives, released right after the end of the war and dealing with the challenges of repatriated veterans, did nothing to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his affecting portrayal of a soldier coming to terms with the loss of his hands and how his disability will affect the rest of his life.

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In a similar vein, The Story of G.I. Joe premiered in June 1945, a mere two months after the death of its central character, Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who was mowed down by machine gun fire on an island near Okinawa four months before the end of the war in the Pacific. Like illustrator Bill Mauldin, who concentrated on the lives of the ordinary “dogfaces” fighting the war on the ground in his cartoon “Willie and Joe,” Pyle attached himself to the infantry and wrote in plain-spoken style about the lives and deaths of the various G.I. Joes he met. The Story of G.I. Joe, a mournful one if ever there was, can be looked on as a public display of grief for a man who dignified the pain and loss of so many Americans.

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The film focuses on C Company, 18th Battalion, a small outfit stationed in North Africa. The CO, Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), has to deal with two stowaways. One is Pyle (Burgess Meredith), who approaches him and asks to ride with the company to the front. The other is a stray puppy one of the younger soldiers has tucked into his jacket at the back of the truck. Walker orders little Arab off the truck, but ultimately relents as both Pyle and Arab become unofficial members of the company. This sweet moment is almost immediately shattered when enemy planes swoop down on the company. The men follow their training and scramble for cover while the gunner remains on the truck to shoot at the planes. After the attack, they reassemble, only to discover that Arab will need a new master. It’s a slightly predictable, but nonetheless wrenching moment. “The first death’s the hardest,” says Walker, in understated acknowledgment that there will be more. When the company hunkers down in the evening, we get a sense of the cold desert nights, as Pyle wraps up tightly in the sleeping bag he carries, and Pvt. Murphy (John R. Reilly), too tall for the Air Force, extends his long legs outside his tent, letting a draft in on his complaining tent mate.

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As with a real company, men are killed and new ones rotate in. As the soldiers’ identities get obscured by quick succession, beards, mud, and rain, it’s hard to tell one from another. The film provides a core group of soldiers with character-defining behaviors to help us stay connected—‟Wingless” Murphy, horny Pvt. Dondaro (Wally Cassell), family man Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele), dependable Pvt. Spencer (Jimmy Lloyd)—as they manage to survive actions from North Africa to Italy. But it is Ernie Pyle who forms the strong center of the movie. Pyle functions as something of a Greek chorus, which normally would relegate him to the sidelines, particularly as he drops in and out of C Company as his war coverage takes him all over the map. However, Wellman manages to keep him at the forefront, giving audiences familiar with his written dispatches a sense that they are still seeing the war through his eyes. Wellman performs this sleight of hand in a number of ways. For example, Ernie waits with little Arab for the remnants of the C Company veterans with whom he started his “tour” to return from a rain-soaked battle; like Ernie, we don’t see the battle, only its aftermath. We feel the weariness of the men as they come back, one by one, and perform their after-battle rituals, and wince with open emotion along with Ernie and Arab when one of them doesn’t return. In addition, Ernie earns the nickname “the little guy,” putting him on even footing with the troops, and is acknowledged every time he returns to C Company as one of them.

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The Story of G.I. Joe doesn’t offer a strong chronology or an orderly passage of time. True to the experience of the GIs, the war just keeps going, and the soldiers keep going with it. The grim conditions are occasionally lightened, even during battle. In a tense sequence where Walker and Warnicki are hunting three German snipers holed up in a ruin of a church, the Americans dart in and out, laying down covering fire and counting with happy grins of camaraderie when one of the Germans falls. During the same action, Dondaro ducks into an inn where he comes face to face with a young Italian woman (Yolanda Lacca). He speaks her language, and the entire scene takes place in Italian with no subtitles. After the battle, Warnicki attempts to find a record player for a recording his wife sent him of their son saying hello. He gestures to the Italians, rotating his finger in a circle to show what he’s looking for, but instead of a turntable, one of them returns with a coffee grinder. What wonderful touches of realism and human connection!

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A sense of futility descends frequently. As American troops are pinned down by Germans perched in the culturally significant monastery of Monte Cassino, Warnicki, a Catholic, says he’d rather live for his family than die for a piece of rock. When Allied bombers at long last appear to destroy the monastery, the GIs cheer, only to discover that the rubble of the monastery is as useful a position for the Germans as the intact building was. Eventually, Warnicki loses his battle with the demons in his own head and is shipped off to a psych hospital, a reminder, perhaps, of Pyle’s near crack-up. The question comes up frequently about why Pyle stays when he could go home, a question he can’t seem to answer for himself. The film betrays nothing of his troubled home life, but broken marriages aren’t skimmed over, as Walker’s split is signaled economically when he receives no letters from his wife during mail call.

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The central performances of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum form a strong core for the action going on around them. Meredith, age 38 at the time, seems rather older than the 43rd birthday he celebrates in the film, but as Steven Spielberg said when he talked about casting Saving Private Ryan (1998), the faces were older back then; 43 in the 1940s could look like 63 today. Meredith carries the gravity of those years, the quiet patience and unembarrassed emotion of a person secure in himself, and remains present but unobtrusive throughout the film. Mitchum has always seemed grizzled beyond his years to me, but in this film, he not only looks his age (28), but also acts it as a man barely old enough to lead a command of men not much younger than he is. He is world-weary when he talks about having to write condolence letters to relatives of his fallen troops, but the scene ends rather innocently with Ernie waxing philosophic, only to turn and find Walker has fallen asleep. The two actors work beautifully together and build a relationship that feels solid and genuine.

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Although relieved by actual war footage, the sound stage shooting threatens to undermine the reality of the unfolding story. Fortunately, Wellman had such a good grasp on the rhythms of ground warfare and paid such close attention to detail that the film never loses its grip. For example, ensuring bodies retrieved from a battlefield show signs of rigor mortis not only adds veracity to a scene, but also defies those heroic final speeches dying soldiers always seem to have time to spit out before their eyes flutter and their heads drop abruptly to the side. The soldiers carry their rifles butt-up in the rain to prevent water from going down the barrel. There is no final victory to end the film on a high note either, only Ernie Pyle’s gut-twisting final line: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks pal, thanks.’” Given Pyle’s vain hope that the horrors he has reported will convince nations not to make war again, that “thank you” belongs to the men and women who served alongside the fallen soldier, not to those of us who have risked nothing. We, it seems, have not learned any lessons at all.


29th 12 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.

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The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.

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Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.

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A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.

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This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”

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The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.

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The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

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Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.

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Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.

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The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.

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Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).

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Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.

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Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.

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Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.

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Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.

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Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.

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Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining, is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms— mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.

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Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.


24th 11 - 2012 | 5 comments »

Story of a Prostitute (Shunpu den, 1965)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

By Roderick Heath

Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.

A product of the time when he was still part of  Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.

Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.

Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.

The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.

Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.

The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.

The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.

This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.

Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.

Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.

Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.

Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.

But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.

Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and his superiors start out to pursue the partisans, with Narita’s superior musing worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.


11th 11 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Apocalypse Now (1979; Redux, 2000)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. I’ll go on the record in saying that the recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.

The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.”  Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation.

Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream. The film’s weird and expressive texture gains its inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.

Apocalypse Now both proved the consummation of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, tried to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic. His triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked, and spiralling in promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.

For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open which combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.

Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal.

Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat. But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.

The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod. For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos.

The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show. The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.

Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration. The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”

Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft  that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies, armies of the night, lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.

The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ghostly eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.

Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.

Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.

In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and received wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.


15th 07 - 2012 | 1 comment »

No Greater Glory (1934)

Director: Frank Borzage

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the early decades of cinema, the line between family films and adult films was not as rigidly drawn as it is today. While filmmakers were as fond of sentimentalizing children then as we seem to be of marginalizing them now, the variety of roles children played was much more varied and nuanced. No Greater Glory, a true family film, delivers a potent message from one of the most antiwar filmmakers of all time, Frank Borzage.

Borzage was a genius at finding the humanity in any situation and rendering it as an eye-opening experience by burrowing into the effects of social forces on individuals. No Greater Glory has what seems to be a simple plot—two neighborhood clubs of boys, too innocent to call gangs, fighting over a vacant lot—but uses it to show us the warrior roles they have already internalized from their society and how playing soldier is preparing them for actual combat.

The Paul Street Boys and the rival Red Shirts both seek control of the only open lot, a lumberyard, in their part of bustling Budapest. The younger and smaller Paul Street Boys fear the Red Shirts, but after hearing their teacher give a gassy speech about what a great honor it is to fight and die for one’s country, the youngsters decide to organize to fight for their playground. The boys meet to elect a president: Boka (Jimmy Butler) wins easily over Gereb (Jackie Searl) and takes command of the clubhouse and its army of boys.

Ernö Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), because he is smaller than any of the other Paul Street Boys, is the only boy with the rank of private (“Every army has its privates, and you’re ours,” says Boka) and desperately wants to get a commission and wear an officer’s cap. When a small band of Red Shirts steals the club’s flag from atop their clubhouse, Boka agrees to take Nemecsek on a mission to retrieve it, which Nemecsek hopes will earn him a commission. Nemecsek braves every terror, including a fall into the river they must row down to reach the Red Shirts’ assembly and hiding in a freezing pond in the botanic garden where the Red Shirts hold their meetings, a frog croaking in his face. Failing to recapture their flag, they discover instead that Gereb has thrown in with the Red Shirts and bribed the lumberyard guard to eject the Paul Street Boys and let the Red Shirts take over.

Nemecsek catches a cold from the damp and defies his parents’ orders to stay home so that he can return to the garden and complete his mission to recapture the flag. He is discovered and repeatedly dunked in the river by the Red Shirts until their leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) calls his soldiers off. Feri Ats and Boka meet to discuss the rules of a war to decide the fate of the lot, while Nemecsek lies gravely ill with pneumonia. A feverish Nemecsek receives his captain’s commission and cap from Boka just before the grand battle, his only thought to get up and join his comrades in arms in defending their playground.

Borzage was one of the very few directors in Hollywood to deal with the plight of Jews in Europe in the lead-up to American involvement in World War II. No Greater Glory is based on the autobiographical book by Hungarian playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár, a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution in the mid 1930s, and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, a Jew who fled persecution in Russia. While the religious affiliations of the characters in No Greater Glory are not revealed, it’s not hard to read between the lines: young Nemecsek’s father (Ralph Morgan) is an impoverished tailor who, in lieu of payment, offers to make a suit or topcoat for a dismissive physician who comes to examine his ailing son and writes him off as a goner. Nemecsek himself is the only private in the Paul Street Boys, that is, the only human private—the other is a dog—an allusion to the subhuman status of Jews among anti-Semites. His desperate need to belong is a typical desire for children, but the lowly rank he has been assigned emphasizes his outsider status in microcosm and poses a real danger to him on a macrocosmic level.

Nonetheless, the film doesn’t get carried away with its larger message. The boys retain their youthful attitudes and concerns as they enact their mock war with a thin veneer of solemnity, with boys missing drills because they have to go home for dinner and other real-world restraints on children. The boys’ war is ingeniously rendered, with the creation of sand bombs and traps to capture the invading Red Shirts offering full range to the children’s imagination and fun. Their martinet attitudes suggest those of the pre-World War I gentleman soldier (the book was published in 1908), defanging the war game just a bit and elevating it as a noble venture.

Of course, after the obscene slaughter of the Great War, it would be hard to ever again see militarism in the same rarified light. Borzage’s addition of elements that tout the evils of war is sometimes very clumsy; for example, he introduces an antiwar tone with a heavy-handed opening scene in which a wounded soldier cries out his anguish and opposition to fighting from a field hospital in World War I to contrast the immediate cut to the gung-ho schoolteacher indoctrinating his impressionable students on its virtues. Despite Borzage’s efforts, the trajectory of the film comes down harder on the side of noble sacrifice, as Nemecsek finds acceptance by lying to protect the traitor Gerek from his angry father, as well as putting his life in danger to help his comrades. Unavoidably, perhaps, the fallen soldier receives the kinds of honors he probably would not have achieved in life, perpetuating the idea that the least of us can attain glory by dying in a socially acceptable way.

Nonetheless, Borzage finds both ironic and emotionally powerful ways for us to understand the human costs of war. The title of the film comes from a quote that offers a full measure of irony to the film:

No greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason, and to fill with reverence for divinity the godless and the ungodly. —Richard Hakluyt, letter to Sir Walter Raleigh

Children are among those needing to be civilized, and the film shows that the barbarity of war is the instrument by which our supposedly civilized societies channel their reckless savagery. Yet the instinct of a parent’s love is brought forward as a truer expression of reverence. Both Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson give very sensitive, heartfelt performances as Nemecsek’s parents, genuinely worried about their son, scolding him for his own good to stay in and nurse his cold. Morgan’s conflict between attending to a customer and staying with his sick boy is excruciatingly real, and Wilson’s tears strong enough to provoke unfettered grieving not only among the cast of boys, but also this audience member. Soldiers were all children once, and their loss in war is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to grieve as a waste of the tender care with which they were raised to do something wonderful in the world. It was a bitter pill for me to learn that Jimmy Butler, easily the best of the boy actors, would have his promising life cut short on a World War II battlefield in France two days shy of his 24th birthday.

The film has its flaws. Affecting camera work, such as an atmospheric nighttime scene of a marble game under a bridge and the truly interesting angles of the lumberyard action, mix with cheap back projection and a sped-up camera during the mock war, leading to an inconsistent look that tends to take one out of the picture. The mass scene of mourners at the end of the film seemed unnecessary and cheapened the genuine emotion of the previous scene for me. But the weakest link by far was George Breakston. He was, no doubt, told to act annoying to justify his second-class status with the Paul Street Boys, but Breakston just was not able to integrate his pleading dialogue and incessant attempts to whistle through his fingers as the natural actions of a fully developed character. I didn’t grieve for him because of intrinsic qualities Breakston brought out in Nemecsek, but rather because everyone around him was so good at eliciting emotions from me. Because Nemecsek is the main character, this flaw is not minor.

Nonetheless, No Greater Glory offers the kind of dignity to the plight of the young that makes it a stand-out family film. As our era offers little for children to consume but comic book and animated films that often seem more aimed toward the adults who must accompany their children to the movies, I unreservedly recommend No Greater Glory as a film truly fit for the whole family.


4th 06 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

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.


30th 05 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding

By Roderick Heath

Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ would-be blockbuster. If one takes the modern concept of the blockbuster as a form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels is 1930’s equivalent of Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and The Avengers (2012) wrapped up in one. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.

As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.

The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).

In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity (1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.

Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.

Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.

Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.

Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.

There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.

Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes chased that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, and the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction, whilst Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, it is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.

As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.

Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.

Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.

What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.

The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.


11th 04 - 2012 | 14 comments »

War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

There’s something oddly enigmatic about Spielberg’s War Horse as a project—enigmatic because it seems so obvious. It’s a grandiose, epic weepie from Steven Spielberg, what needs explaining about that? Therein lies some of the confusion: hasn’t Spielberg spent much of the last decade or so running away from that big glutinous showman with a lethal grasp on storytelling and broadly appealing sentiment he used to be? Spielberg’s most striking recent films, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds and Munich (both 2005), have often displayed schizoid impulses, torn between cosy affirmation and near-nihilistic patches, usually purposefully fighting to a draw in conclusions that play like slow exhalations. The badly underrated, if spotty, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was both a paean to, and example of, the problems of trying to recapture lost youth, whilst War Horse is Spielberg’s most fervent attempt to recreate an Old Hollywood aesthetic since the uneven and now near-forgotten Always (1989). The first 15 minutes of War Horse aren’t that promising either, unfolding a vision of rural Devon life in the early 20th century that seems like a broad fusion of the stylised mystique of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950) with the twee picturesqueness of Babe (1995), complete with a nuisance goose terrorising visitors. You can practically hear the creaking of old machinery, as some antique canards and too-cute clichés are put into play, and stiff dialogue lays out the dramatic stakes.

War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo’s novel for younger readers, and the subsequent much-loved stage adaptation, is the sort of material a lot of filmmakers might feel obligated to tone down and render in muted tones to offset its essential improbability and abundant corn. It’s a tall tale in the old sense. Telling tall tales is something of a lost art: in Shakespeare’s time, pulling one off was considered a worthy challenge for any serious dramatist, and Shakespeare took it on a few times with the likes of Cymbeline, a play full of the same breathtaking conceits, roving characters, unlikely convergences, and gushing emotion as War Horse. War Horse is constructed less of realities of the past than the past’s idea of itself, leftover scraps of Victorian kitsch, Dickensian humanistic drama, loose pages out of old and mouldy rural romances and Boy’s Own magazines, and the silent cinema of D. W. Griffith, all hurled into the great, gruesome shredder of ideals that was the Great War. Spielberg, for his part, jumps in to the fray boots and all, and it’s this complete lack of embarrassment or anxious moderation on his part that makes War Horse both an inevitably divisive experience between those who will roll with the tale or resist it entirely. For me, the experience was a refreshing one: it’s the unabashed quality of War Horse, with its landscape of sneering squires, fair French farm girls, lovable grandfathers, hard-scrabble mothers, jolly momentary fellowships between soldiers of different sides, and a reunion between a blinded hero and a hobbled horse, blended with a peculiar faith in the intrinsic seriousness of the emotional underpinnings of it all and a gruelling sense of physical danger and horror implicit in war, that elevates War Horse from potential polite insipidness to something rich and compelling.

Spielberg’s film commences with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic Boer War veteran who’s taken to eking out a living on a rock farm he’s leasing from patronising landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). He purchases Joey, a young steed he helped raise, at an auction purely for the sake of winning a contest against Lyons and fuelled by a distinct note of class rage at the rich hoarding all the finer things in the world. The exorbitant 30-guinea price tag for this victory, however, endangers the Narracott’s capacity to make rent, much to the anger of Narracott’s wife Rose (Emily Watson): Narracott holds off Lyons with a promise he’ll make up the shortfall by ploughing a rocky unused field and plant turnips using Joey, in spite of the fact he’s still young, jumpy, and hardly a plough horse. But Ted’s son Albert, himself a new matured stripling, having trained Joey and formed an intimate bond with him, undertakes to put Joey under the yoke and get the field ploughed.

The very opening of War Horse strains to offer up as classically English a landscape as can be imagined, with roving landscape shots of muted sunsets over pastoral perfection and a John Williams score that clearly takes cues from that specific sonic poet of the British landscape, Ralph Vaughan Williams. There’s a moment about 15 minutes into War Horse where suddenly Spielberg’s sense of technique snaps into focus and with it, the film’s emotional urgency: Ted, infuriated by Lyons’ goading assurance and his own foolishness, goes to shoot Joey, and Rose and Albert give chase to dissuade him. Spielberg sets up a frame behind Ted where he aims the gun at the animal, and swings the camera with the rifle; Rose tries to grab Ted’s arm and draws it left, Ted shakes her off and swings right again, now with Albert standing firmly between the weapon and the animal. It’s the sort of simple yet almost physically affecting shot that Spielberg is a past master of, dramatizing Ted’s frantic dissolution, Rose’s place as counterbalance, and Albert’s resolution and blithely self-sacrificing concern.

Later, Spielberg attaches his camera to the plough as Albert finally gets Joey to draw the implement, a moment filled with an oddly titanic and apt import. Joey’s acceptance of labour is necessary to save the Narracotts’ lives, and the film’s stressing of the interrelationship between man and beast takes on practically ontological proportions. The film’s first “movement” on the Narracott’s farm betrays a long and sturdy prehistory in cinema, evoking to my mind most specifically the testing of the anthrax inoculation in William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) as people flock from far and wide to watch Albert defy logic and nature and the Narracotts try to ignore Lyons’ stream of patronisation, and the early scenes of Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), a powerful model for the film as a whole, in which the eponymous hero similarly laboured to nearly his failing breath to triumph against financial ruin by ploughing his fields, only to be cruelly undercut, as the Narracotts are. I’ve pointed out in my review of Amistad (1997) the specific imprint of Spielberg’s love of some of Old Hollywood’s esteemed masters, but in the case of War Horse, that esteem at last becomes akin to a dramatic companion piece for the free-ranging compendium of pulp tropes found in the Indiana Jones films.

War Horse’s narrative and stylistic lexicon incorporates shades of King Vidor and The Big Parade (1926), George Cukor, Mervyn Le Roy’s Random Harvest (1942), David Selznick, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, John Huston, Hawks, John Ford, and Dieterle—all those guys who used to create a kind of cinema that seemed at once dynamically mythic and highly stylised within the nominally realistic templates of mainstream cinema. Morpugo’s tale suggests an updated, more urgent transplanting of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, where the titular animal finished up in the Crimean War, into a war even more inimical to the natural and the individual. For Spielberg, it’s a film that stands at an interesting and ironic remove from both his adult films about such matters, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and also from his iconic early films based in pure emotional longing, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It stands instead with Empire of the Sun (1987) in a place where the boundaries are blurred, narrativewise, almost a portmanteau movie, with Joey’s progress through the landscape of fin de siècle/belle époque Europe and World War I bringing him into contact with characters from different nations who suggest unexpected similarities, as well as contrasts, between nominal enemies and the plain people caught between the nascent clash of civilisations.

After the rain destroys the turnip crop the Narracotts and their horse laboured so hard to plant, the announcement of war gives Ted a lucky escape clause, as he sells Joey to a young cavalry officer, Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose sensitive and artistic nature partly mollifies Albert’s fractured heart at being forced to give up his friend. Nicholls, riding Joey, can best his superior officer Maj. Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his mount, the great black charger Topthorn, during regimental drills that double as playful tests of mettle. But Nicholls is killed when Stewart leads a charge into a German encampment, which seems for a moment to be a coup of daring but proves instead a dreadful massacre. Joey and Topthorn are captured, and two pathetically young German soldiers, Michael (David Kross) and Gunther (Matt Milne), take the horses in an attempt to desert. They’re found and shot, leaving the horses to be discovered by frail, but determined French farm girl Emilie (Celine Buckens). She lives with her pacific, jam-making grandfather (Niels Arestrup), but the ever-hovering presence of larcenous, potentially dangerous soldiers around the farm soon sees Emilie robbed of her beloved animals. Finally, the horses come under the charge of a decent German horse lover, who is nonetheless saddled with the odious responsibility of feeding horses into the merciless and cumulatively fatal task of hauling ordnance around.

War Horse feels like a conscientious attempt by Spielberg both to return to his roots and hang being so sophisticated, apparent not only in its unapologetic yarn-spinning, but also in the physical production that largely eschews the now-common adornments of CGI, for which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in particular, was rejected by many fans. War Horse, with increasing confidence, flaunts its firm and retrograde stolidity. Spielberg’s sense of storytelling rhythm is crucial throughout to pulling off this sort of yarn, and whilst aspects of War Horse’s drama work in some hoary and obvious ways, it also contains a series of dramatic ellipses that tie together a sprawling tale. For instance, after the drama of the ploughing scenes, Albert and Joey are let off the leash as Albert rides his animal across the verdant hills, racing the motorcar of Lyons’ son David (Robert Emms) in a momentary spurt of glory that ends ignominiously when Joey won’t take a jump over a stone fence, spilling Albert and undercutting the sense of release. It’s a seemingly throwaway bit of slapstick humour that actually sets up a recurring story element—Joey’s need to overcome his aversion to jumping—and also stymieing the film’s sense of flyaway visual movement, not to be released again properly until Joey’s mad dash across no man’s land.

Basing a film around an animal protagonist is always a tall order, far easier on the page, a la Jack London’s Call of the Wild, than in movies, without overly literal or fantastic conceits, or making the animal in question a nonentity or an outright symbol. Joey clearly has a symbolic aspect to him, as throughout the film he adapts to become a maxim for everyone who encounters him. He’s a creature of selfless and noble labour for the farmers. He’s a thing of superlative beauty for Nicholls. He’s a vehicle of physical empowerment for Emilie. He’s a beset and tortured exemplar of a natural order at the mercy of a new age of technological monstrosities, and finally, in his epic flight across no man’s land that is the film’s singular set-piece, he embodies everything panicky, terrified, blind, outmatched, determined, and heart-rending in the spectacle of natural innocence entrapped by Conradian horror. He clearly resembles at such a moment the equally iconic horse in Picasso’s “Guernica.” Spielberg resists many of the usual tricks for anthropomorphising animals in movies, but Joey displays a constant human quality in far greater and consistent measure than many of the humans he encounters, a ready empathy for those he meets. He and Topthorn become, fittingly, the equine equivalent of one of those doomed buddy pairings in adventure dramas where one will finally collapse and beg the other to go on without him.

War Horse sustains, with surprising seriousness, the essential concept of Joey as an exemplar of something doomed to be tortured within an inch of extermination again and again by the cruelties of humans to each other, expressed first in economic terms in the struggle between Lyons and Ted, and then throughout the war, where the huge artillery pieces he and Topthorn haul invoke the similar horned juggernauts of extermination in Duel (1973), Saving Private Ryan, and War of the Worlds, whilst his encounter with a tank also invokes these (and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) as he’s nearly caught in a cul-de-sac and to save his life has to take an opportunity to jump onto the tank’s back and escape. Perhaps the film’s most powerful sequence comes when the two horses are joined to the hordes of animals arduously dragging the colossal war machines up a hill, the peak of which, when reached, in one of Spielberg’s most familiar, yet eternally effective visual motifs, reveals an epic vista being pulverised into nothingness. Joey is constantly in danger in the meantime of being shot simply to get him out of the way either before he can be a nuisance or after he’s served his purpose. It’s not the first time Spielberg’s essayed this sort of “shadow of the gun” motif—it powers, after all, both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan, and to a certain extent Munich too, if with a reversed focus. Whilst it’s not the most intricate variation, it’s the most unremitting in refusing to balance with any real heroism, befitting a war where the objectives are near intangible and the cost too hideous to bear. Suddenly, the felicity of building a war epic out of a horse’s experience takes on a new singularity in having so clearly detailed the end of the era in which horses are the prized, almost worshipped companions and props for heroes and the backbone of a rural, agricultural society, now only fodder from dragging around cannons, organisms in slavery to machines.

Around Joey swirl vignettes of great and terrible import: the massacre of the cavalry unit is carefully shot and edited so that the cost of the foolish charge isn’t revealed until Spielberg manages a crane shot of a field studded with corpses. The two innocent German brothers who joined up because their father marched them to the enlistment station even though they were far too young, are equally meek and accepting of the blind, cold judgment of an authoritarian, patriarchal society—they let themselves be taken, lined up, and shot, viewed from a distance through a windmill’s sails that pass like a fleeting, thankful veil over the grim moment between life and peaceful death. The film’s one standard warfare sequence comes when Albert and his pal Andrew (Matt Milne), both serving under David Lyons, are part of a bloodcurdling charge across no man’s land in a sequence that clearly channels the similar head-long hells of The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Andrew is left behind with orders to shoot any men who come back, but he can’t do that, so he instead runs after his friends, who make it into the deserted, carnage-clogged German trenches, only for both lads to be engulfed in a gas attack: Andrew dies and Albert comes out temporarily blinded. The irony of a film that expresses a deep humanism by concentrating on an animal culminates in a scene that plays as both a variation on All Quiet’s famous shell hole scene and also as a meta-commentary on that narrative conceit: Joey’s flight finishes up with him entwined in barbed wire like some metallic ivy, his agonised state creating a momentary bridge for the opposing camps of soldiers to express their care and distress over physical suffering and innocence, an expression that can only be given to an animal.

There’s something strangely apt about Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo being released in near-tandem and both largely getting passed over and patronised during the recent Academy Awards. Both films are near-great, deliberately backward-looking works that reveal how the two directors often mirror each other’s lacks and talents. Where Scorsese’s cinematic lexicon of a film finally remains something of a glorious pile of parts for a mechanism that doesn’t entirely snap into full working order on a plot and emotional level, by inflating an essentially modest tale to gargantuan scale, Spielberg grasps the emotive heart of his epic story and rides it for all it’s worth, at the expense of subtlety and thinking of new twists on his deliberately hoary tale. He doesn’t entirely escape the diffuseness that often marks portmanteau films, and the film’s curious blend of the artificial and romantic and the bitterly realistic doesn’t entirely conceal it. Empire of the Sun (1987) pulled that mixture off, finally, with more indelible results, partly because of a more controlled viewpoint: that was the horrors of war, as seen and transformed by a boy’s perspective. War Horse, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from some of the cruellest aspects of its drama, like the shooting of the young Germans and the massacres of the war, but it does get frustratingly coy when the subplot of the Grandfather’s determination to buy Joey as a memorial to the now deceased Emilie after war’s end: what happened to Emilie is something the film should state but doesn’t. Given that it’s hard to get away from the sensation  that Emilie was doomed to be raped and murdered at some point, it’s not surprising that would be elided, but it does point to a basic lack of a Lillian Gish-sized central tragic figure and scene to tether the film together, as the innocent nature boy Albert is offscreen too much.

Still, the climactic moment of sustained suspense as an overburdened army doctor (Liam Cunningham) prepares to have Joey shot after he’s saved from the wire, sets up with gleeful lack of shame the most cornball of gimmicks, where Joey will respond to Albert’s Indian bird call and no one else, is marked by a depth of staging that imbues the scene with an aura of the near-otherworldly. Muddy, bewildered soldiers look on with fascination at the animal that provokes near-depleted emotions in them as Albert, gas-seared eyes wrapped in bandages and evoking Tom Courtenay in King & Country (1964), pleads for his animal’s life, hovering between the firelight of camp and the bleak blues and greys of a stormy war-torn night, that’s not entirely unworthy of Frank Borzage or William Dieterle at their best. In its way, it seems like a picture postcard ripped out of a race memory. It’s interesting to note that coscreenwriter Richard Curtis had a hand in penning Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), a blend of absurdist comedy tropes with one of the most acutely internalised depictions of the Great War ever, as a war not just between sides but between individuals and societies, propaganda and private cynicism, harsh reality and romanticisation. At first glance, that scabrous TV show and War Horse’s earnestness have little in common, but it comes out in how both capture the way the epoch’s blend of bludgeoning sentimentalities and underlying reality as an atrocious, aggrieving bloodbath finally fight each other to a draw: one is necessary to comprehend and survive the other. Albert and Joey’s final homecoming is played out not in a golden halo, but in a blood-red twilight, evoking John Wayne’s graveside scenes of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), lending the upbeat conclusion an overtone of dark reckonings only temporarily staved off.


21st 03 - 2012 | 5 comments »

Hell to Eternity (1960)

Director: Phil Karlson

By Roderick Heath

Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he managed to produce a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.

Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.

This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.

The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.

Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns. Karlson doesn’t merely present racial harmony as the only sane option, but fills the film with violently neurotic energy, as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been particularly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.

Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons too. Long before The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.

Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.

Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion, lending the film an edge of B-movie sexploitation and superfluity. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.

Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.

Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.

Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.


22nd 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: On the Bridge (L’âme en sang, 2010)

Director: Olivier Morel

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know about you, but I know exactly where I was on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell to Coalition troops—I was in an airport waiting to catch a plane. Big Brother-like and almost impossible to avoid, every television in the place was broadcasting images of some Iraqis trying to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city. They used ropes, they pulled with U.S. Army jeeps, it took a very long time. Finally, the statue fell. That was supposed to be the beginning of the end, right? In 2010, the war was officially declared over, but we still have 50,000 troops in the country who could be ordered to start fighting again. So, maybe we really are still at war in Iraq.

As a result of this seemingly endless conflict, a cottage industry in films about the war in Iraq has sprung up. In my interview with Errol Morris about his Iraq-related movie, Standard Operating Procedure, he said in defense of his approach, “If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.”

While I would argue about whether all these films look alike—they most certainly do not—their missions all point in the same direction: they want to make the war and its costs visible and understandable to audiences, particularly to Americans who bought the lies that started the conflict and who have had no truly personal stake in our actions abroad. Olivier Morel, a French photographer and documentarian living in the United States, focuses on soldiers who have returned to their homes, but not to their lives, because they are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He focuses all of his attention on the direct testimony of six individuals from various parts of the country who served in various capacities in Iraq, from tank driver to surgeon, and one family whose son committed suicide. Their stories are both particular and universal, a chronicle of tormented consciences, anger at bad-faith politics and bad-policy military orders, and soul-crushing terror at their helplessness to stop great evil from happening.

David Brooks is a career military surgeon who had been through seven wars. Iraq was his Waterloo, the one that cracked him into a million pieces that he is still trying to pick up. Wendy Barranco, another healer, was only 19 when she went to Iraq; now the head of Iraq Veterans Against the War, she is riddled with guilt and full of apologies for giving “200%” to try to save soldiers as young as she—only to fail. Ryan Endicott skateboards barefooted along Venice Beach, and angrily relates that he has to call suicide hotlines to find someone who will talk to him. We’re not convinced that he really doesn’t want to kill himself, unless it is the VA medical system that has let him down he really wants to kill; there is death in his voice and in his graphic songs of pain and destruction.

Lisa Zepeda is a Chicago cop, so what street horrors hasn’t she seen at home. Still, her service in Abu Ghraib is different, much different, and like Ryan, she finds that her fellow police officers won’t listen to her, preferring to spout jingoistic justifications for destroying the Iraqis where they sit. Vince Emanuele lifts weights and rails against the policies that made insurgents every day in Iraq; he wonders if these strategies weren’t part of a diabolical scheme to create a war that will last forever, and given what has transpired, it’s not hard to wonder with him. Jason Moon is a patriot—was a patriot—and brings out the three-page list of medications the doctors have tried on him, complaining that before the war, all he ever took was a multivitamin. He recalls when the news of Abu Ghraib broke that he sat appalled at the depravity of the torment Sabrina Harman documented for the world; his fellows in Iraq laughed at the sight and made him wonder what kind of an alternate universe he had stepped into.

Jeff Lucey, represented by his parents and sister, stands in for the two veterans of Iraq who kill themselves each week. The Luceys seem to be so even-keeled when talking about Jeff and his slow-building insanity. Mother Joyce looked up camel spiders on the Internet when he mentioned them, not realizing that he was hallucinating them in his room, and father Kevin accepted Jeff’s protestations that he was fine until Jeff snuck out of the house wearing his uniform and weaponry to buy beer. In a rage, Kevin broke every bottle against a tree; he still doesn’t know why.

The living casualties of war are as old as war itself, and these vets bear some self-inflicted scars/tributes. Lisa has a pair of dog tags tattoed on her shoulder, one written in English and one in Arabic. Ryan has a pair of bloody hands tattoed on his back along with the phrase “Forgive me for I have sinned.” There do seem to be people in the world, particularly those calling a lot of the shots, who have no such conscience as these two vets, nor that of Jason Moon, who told his commanders that he would be unable to run over children who might be blocking a U.S. convoy of tanks, thus defying a direct order. These honchos might not be so cavalier about wasting lives in the most gruesome manner imaginable if they had to face getting some brain matter on the Saville Row suits war profits help them buy—but, of course, that will never happen. So, well-intentioned, if misguided soldiers will keep getting thrown to the lions, will continue to have their mental health needs experimented with and ignored by an overwhelmed or uncaring system, and will fail to have their stories widely disseminated to prevent more young people from following in their ruinous footsteps. One thing’s for sure—for many Iraq veterans who have returned home, that war will only end with their deaths.

Another film about Iraq? We really can’t have enough. Go see this exceptionally moving one, an oral history of madness told by the people who lived through it.

On the Bridge will screen Saturday, October 8, 1:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 16, 6:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.


2nd 07 - 2011 | 14 comments »

Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.

I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.

Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.

The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.

Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], and Moonraker [1979]), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.

The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.

Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.

Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.

Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.

I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.

The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.

For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.

You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

Grade
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31st 05 - 2011 | 8 comments »

They Were Expendable (1945)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Memorial Day tends to bring out the tennis elbow in everyone. Flags are waved especially hard as though to fan away the stench of death the day represents. Once you’ve seen, as I have, a graveyard as endless as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, Memorial Day loses its heroic luster.

Nonetheless, war does make a certain kind of hero out of ordinary men and women—the kind who recognize their common humanity with people they don’t know and do what they can to act with compassion in the face of insanity. They Were Expendable is a war movie that takes viewers into the experience of war, but not to satisfy a need for vicarious thrills or glory. If anything, They Were Expendable shows us just how little we understand of the experience of those living and working in combat zones, how ideals and ambition often get lost in just trying to see the next day, and how confusing and uncertain the outcomes of battles and entire wars themselves really are. John Ford, an eminently humanist filmmaker, handles an enormous cast and confusing story that takes place over a large geographic area just about as well as any director who ever lived. That he resented doing this picture because it pulled him off active military service during World War II never upstages the emotional truth in the film.

Naval Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a small fleet of patrol torpedo (PT) boats—swift craft that launch torpedoes off their decks—at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Brick believes strongly in the value of the boats because they can intercept large destroyers and aircraft carriers with greater speed and lower risk that larger naval vessels. He parades his boats in front of Navy brass, who commend him on their maneuverability but think they are too slight for warfare. After this disappointment, his second in command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), decides that PT boats are not the ticket to furthering his naval career, and sits at the bar of the officers club writing to request a transfer while the rest of the Clark Field personnel enjoy dinner and dancing. An announcement comes in that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel are to report to their posts immediately. Rusty crumples up his letter and heads to the harbor to await instructions.

Reflecting the prevailing attitude about the boats, one is assigned to patrol the harbor on a fixed schedule and one is made available to carry messages among the various island command posts. However, when enemy aircraft that are spotted in three deadly perfect V formations, the PT boats move into action. The gunners bring down three planes, lose one boat, and return to a base that has been completely pulverized. Little about the rest of the film proceeds in an orderly fashion. The boats and their crews move from base to base, engage enemy ships and airplanes, get bombed, lost, and beached, break down, get fixed up, and lose crew members to death and reassignment to army battalions badly outmanned by the Japanese.

War films rely heavily on action sequences, and They Were Expendable has its share, though far fewer than might have been expected. Footage of real PT boats firing their torpedoes and the missiles moving underwater is edited in with accurate continuity with the action Ford films with a sure hand. Unfortunately, heavy reliance on process shots, staged explosions that look staged, and stunt planes that don’t quite crash before a burst of flames issues from behind some palm trees mar the realism. However, the model ships the PT boats take out are seen far in the distance, which helps reestablish the illusion of reality.

It is in the less demonstrative scenes that reveal character where They Were Expendable excels brilliantly. For example, when the grumbling PT crews find out the alert they thought was a drill is the real thing, they scramble out the door, including “Squarehead” Larson (Harry Tenbrook), the cook, who hurriedly takes his pot of soup off the stove and throws a towel over the biscuit dough he was mixing. When the PT boats are assigned to take Gen. Douglas MacArthur to a protected airfield to be transported to Australia, one of the crewmen asks for his autograph, much to Rusty’s disgust. Ford also cast several teenagers as the kids who decided to make the Navy a career. I can’t remember ever seeing a war film in which combatants this young are part of the action, and where they are allowed to be scared.

Then there is nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), the only woman with a speaking part in the film. She is shown working on assembly-line surgery to care for 200 casualties from Bataan. Her face is subdued with concentration and repressed horror at what she is seeing; indeed, her entire performance is filled with the cares of the world, even her flirtatious scenes with Wayne, who meets her when he enters her infirmary suffering from blood poisoning. When she and Rusty say good-bye when he calls her to tell her he is shipping out, the conversation they know might be their last is plain-spoken: they had a “swell time,” and “it was nice,” and then two generals commandeer their phone line abruptly, and that’s that. There is no reunion at the end of the film; Sandy, stationed on Bataan when it fell to the Japanese, could be in hiding, dead, captured—nobody knows or will know. And when Rusty and his small band of surviving crew members go into a bar after burying two of their men and hear about the fall of Bataan from a San Francisco-based radio announcer, the looks on their faces say, “What am I doing here? How did I get from my sane, normal life to this hot, dirty place halfway around a world in flames?” And they are enlisted men, not draftees!

The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details. I watched this film twice in two days, thinking I’d get a better handle on the movements of the PT crews around the Philippine islands. I didn’t. When one missing crew show up after a long period, I had no idea where they had been, what island any of them were on, or how the lucky black cat that adopted the crew survived the loss of the boat. A comment Brick makes during horse trading for torpedoes about who played Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1932, and “Does your crew know?” went over my head until I caught the crucial words “at the naval academy” during my second viewing. This scene hints at the secrets known between servicemen and women and how supplies and equipment moved outside of official channels through just such forms of blackmail.

Robert Montgomery brings a matter-of-factness to his role, again aided by his having served on a PT boat. He grits his teeth and follows orders, even when they mean leaving what’s left of his crew behind when he and Rusty are ordered to fly to Australia to strategize ways to find a larger role for PT boats in the war. And what of those men? We’ve been treated to highly inappropriate patriotic music throughout the film—the studio and the Navy intended the film to be a morale booster—including the playing of “Shenandoah” (?) as a civilian nicknamed Dad (Russell Simpson) who repairs boats prepares to stand his ground against the Japanese. We get more uplifting heroics from the crummy score, but Ford knows better. The men limp down a beach as the sun sets. Where are they going? What will they do? They’ve been abandoned like everyone else on the island, and while they fought their fear heroically and tried to do their job, they’ll probably die far from the home they seem to be fighting for.


15th 05 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

By Roderick Heath

World War II is rightly regarded as a renaissance period for British cinema. A rare mixture of necessity, duty, urgency, and cramped invention stimulated British filmmakers like Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, Anthony Asquith, and many others to create ambitious, dramatic, and relevant cinema with a new sense of purpose. Long virtually forgotten, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? was a film I had only heard trumpeted by the English critic Leslie Halliwell before it recently made Time Out magazine’s list of the 100 best British films of all time. It well deserves disinterment and admiration. Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born director with leftist allegiances, had made experimental and avant-garde films in France in the 1920s, and then moved to Britain to work on documentaries with the famous film unit run by John Grierson. He graduated to making features, including the excellent Nicholas Nickelby (1948), which can stand up with Lean’s concurrent Dickens adaptations, and the two best chapters in the otherwise overrated Dead of Night (1945), before his wandering and his politics saw him edge off the mainstream map again.

Went the Day Well?, based on a short story by Graham Greene, is very much a product of the wartime atmosphere, portraying the potential for grit and resistance in the average English community in the face of intimidation and violence. Yet in a way, it’s also timeless, a perfect blueprint not only for something suspiciously similar like John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1977), but also for any action thriller where everyday people take on invading villains, with echoes through Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) to Red Dawn (1984) to Die Hard (1988) and beyond. Went the Day Well? (the title comes from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds) also shares some characteristics with some other good British movies of the period, like Asquith’s We Dive at Dawn (1942) and Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), by depicting utterly ordinary people suddenly elevated into heroic roles by dint of necessity. Cavalcanti’s film is, however, a speculative fiction about the enemy coming right to the doorstep. The atmosphere he presents in the small, pacific village of Bramley End is very similar to what Powell and Pressburger captured for their A Canterbury Tale (1944), but whereas the latent communal strength of the latter film’s locale was chiefly spiritual, here it’s very literal.

The film commences with an interesting hook: using a first-person camera, Cavalcanti enters and explores the town, and comes upon church warder Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) at what’s supposed to be some time after the war. Sims addresses the camera as if it’s an interested tourist, points out a gravestone marked with German names, and commences to tell the “famous” story behind them. Flashback to some time during the war, as a detachment of soldiers arrives in Bramley End, seemingly an ordinary group of sappers looking to ready the defences of the village in case of invasion. But they are, in fact, a force of Germans chosen because they speak English and can pass amongst them, some better than others, including their commander, “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney), really Kommandant Orlter, and “Lt. Maxwell,” actually Jung (David Farrar).

The opening scenes carefully, but seemingly casually, lay out the persons and personas of the villagers as the strangers come into their midst: Hefty, cheery, local post office manager and telephone exchange operator Mr. Collins (Muriel George) and her shopgirl Daisy (Patricia Hayes); young sailor Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and his bride-to-be Peggy (Elizabeth Allan), a member of the Land Army along with Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), charged with delivering milk in the locality; and hale, bossy lady of the local manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), who gets miffed when she finds out the local vicar, Ashton (C.V. France), and his spinster daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) have beaten her to the trump of billeting the detachment’s CO. Nora has a secret crush on Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the commander of the local Home Guard, who liaises between the soldiers and the townsfolk, and, with his fellow Home Guard officer Harry Drew (Ellis Irving) from the next village of Upton, shows them the layout of the town’s defences. Of the town’s troupe of evacuee children, George Truscott (Harry Fowler) is the most accomplished scamp, having made friends with Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the accomplished local poacher. These characters and many others all have a part to play in the oncoming battle.

Signs of the hidden beastliness of the strangers are discernible, as when a glowering radio operator, catching George fiddling with his equipment, grabs him by the ears and wrenches them, and when one gets confused over landmarks in Manchester, where he says he comes from. But no one quite notices until Collins loses a telegram she’s supposed to deliver to Mrs. Fraser and finds the soldiers have been using it to score their card game on; when Mrs. Collins gets it to Mrs. Fraser, Nora recognises the soldiers’ numbers are written in the continental style. Later, when George nosily pokes through Hammond’s belongings, he finds a bar of Viennese chocolate. Nora, alarmed, goes to tell Wilsford, not knowing that he’s the agent guiding the invaders.

The unassuming realism and homey portraits of the village life, intriguingly tweaked by the social changes necessitated by war are, of course, necessary to ground such a drama—the general absence of young men and the women taking their place in keeping the gears of the society turning; the Home Guard warriors taking time out from doing their delivery rounds; the blurring of class boundaries in the collective effort. Went the Day Well? was produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the company that went on to make the canonical series of low-key comedies, and Went the Day Well? feels almost like a rough draft for those, that is, if the cast of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Whiskey Galore! were abruptly tossed into Saving Private Ryan. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail, makes their interactions and quirks familiar and charming without being too forced and stereotyped; indeed, the film takes some delight in undermining the stereotypical roles which the people, especially Nora, seem faintly, uncomfortably aware of inhabiting, or generating a shock when they suddenly behave in fashions contrary to that character. True to Cavalcanti’s socially progressive bent, he’s interested not just in the need to defend a settled order, but also in the transformative capacities and secret strength of ordinary people working together. There’s none of the subtlety to the Germans that there is in Powell and Pressburger’s not-dissimilar The 49th Parallel (1941), apart from Jung and the decision to kill children. But really they’re the great unknowable Other; they could be aliens.

Whilst there’s a lot of patriotic sentiment in the characters and their reasons for taking a stand, it’s subdued to a terse, survivalist necessity, as the English respond to intrusion and bullying with a feral force beyond imagining. The film also has a real claim to being, amongst other things, a true early feminist work in context, as the ladies of the village get stuck in to warfare, murder, and espionage with grit and competence. For contemporary filmmakers who congratulate themselves for sticking a gun in a chick’s hand and calling it empowerment, here’s someone who did it long before you. When Nora’s keen attention provokes Wilsford, it precipitates the Germans showing their hand earlier than they planned, waiting as they are for a general invasion. The locals are rounded up into the village hall, where the gloves come off. Vicar Ashton, appalled and refusing to obey Orlter, tries to ring the church bell—the signal to the Home Guard of parachutists—and gets a bullet in the back.

Having to keep their presence secret for two more days until the invasion starts, the Germans allow some of the townsfolk to go about their business under supervision, and they begin a tragicomic campaign of trying to get word to the people who pass through the village. Peggy and Ivy paint messages on the bottom of eggs they give to a young newspaper boy. Mrs. Fraser tries to sneak a note into the overcoat of her chirpy chanteuse sister who passes through on the way to a performance: she finishes up using the paper to jam her rattling car-door window. The evacuee kids are rounded up and kept in Mrs. Fraser’s manor, but George sneaks out and makes contact with Purvis, who is only convinced of the veracity of George’s story when a few bullets smack into a tree by his head. As is often a theme in these sorts of dramas, the traits of the characters which seem oddball and individual, from young George’s scampering, to Purvis’s asocial knowledge of all the secret paths through the woods, to Mrs. Fraser’s proprietorial sensibility towards the town and Nora’s repressed, heightened awareness, become weapons in the war.

The really startling quality of Went the Day Well? is in the potency and pointedness of its violence; whilst, in deference to the censorship of the time, there’s little actual gore on screen, the viciousness of what does happen is certainly not as aseptic as it often was in lesser war films, and indeed still packs a wallop, as the bodies piles up,and likeable characters are killed off with unsentimental rapidity. The Germans ambush the local Home Guard, blasting them off their bicycles and shooting the wounded in the back with revolvers. In a simply amazing moment, Mrs. Collins, treating the German charged with keeping an eye on her and the exchange to a meal, abruptly tosses a pot of pepper in his face and then wallops him in the face with a hatchet. Desperately trying to contact the exchange in the next town, she’s ignored by the gossiping girls there, and before they answer her, another German arrives and bayonets her. Purvis dies in a hail of bullets trying to cover George’s escape after taking out a German with his shotgun, and even the kid catches a bullet in the leg and squirms away in the mud. Mrs. Fraser, to stop the other evacuee kids being killed by a hand grenade, snatches it up and dives through a doorway; she’s blown to pieces, but saves the children. Ivy and Peggy, wielding arms with aplomb, propose keeping score of the Germans they shoot. The film possesses a kind of heady emotional heft under the stiff upper lip resolve, building to a head most brilliantly when Nora, knowing that Wilsford is a traitor, a fact he’s managed to keep hidden and to undermine the actions of the others, calmly takes a loaded revolver from the arsenal Tom has assembled, marches downstairs through the manor, and fills the villain with lead.

It’s not just amazing this stuff got by the British censors, who were notoriously fusty (they banned all horror films for the length of the war), but fascinating how much the film revels in the dreaded, apocalyptic spectacle of warfare erupting in England and consuming its populace. The film is both reassuring in the sense that it aimed to depict a scenario in which the difficulty in conquering Britain would be in the individualistic determination of its citizens, and also deeply disturbing in suggesting the way violence lingered so omnipresent in the age that its actual eruption might have been considered a relief. On at least one level, it’s almost less an entertainment than a training film, Cavalcanti emphasises the physical effort the English characters have to muster to overcome their humanist instinct, but also the determination they display once engaged, as displayed by Mrs. Collins as she fights a sobbing fit after killing the German, but resolute to make the vital telephone call that will bring rescue. The evolution of Nora, who seems at first a kind of Celia Johnson-esque sufferer, into a punitive assassin, both plays on and subverts that image of resilient formality, racking up the payment for a betrayal on both the personal and political levels. This hits a hysterical note that resounds elsewhere, most literally when Daisy momentarily gives in to a fit of blind frenzy after seeing Tom and his father (Norman Pierce) kill two Germans in front of her. There are more than hints of the expressive avant-gardist Cavalcanti had been in the bristling scenes of explosive violence and the portrayals of emotion and action clashing fiercely. It’s apparent on a tactile level in the suddenly rupturing of placid, almost bland shots in the character interactions and the quietly revelatory, documentary-like explications of the village geography, with sudden, intense displays of furious cutting, ultra-close-ups of pain-distorted faces and thrashing limbs, and swooping motion in and out of the frame.

There’s humour to alleviate the ferocity, particularly in the reaction of the children, who seem less fazed by invasion than the adults, and the excruciatingly chirpy song “Cherry Ripe” is as amusingly employed here as in Night of the Demon (1957), sung by Mrs. Fraser’s sister as she obliviously trundles to and from the captive town. The excellent cast works in harmony throughout; it’s amusing to note that Lawton and Allan, playing partners here, had played mother and son in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Tension ratchets up to impressive degrees in the finale as the villagers are forced into action when, after an escape attempt, Jung announces the occupiers will shoot five children in the morning for punishment. That proves a real mistake, as a core guard of the Sturrys, Ivy, Peggy, Sims, and some others manage to overpower and outwit their guards and fortify the manor house. The Germans planned to use that house themselves, necessitating an assault on the manor as real British soldiers close in, precipitating a battle to the death. Nora’s killing of the traitor in their midst as he tries to open up the house to the Germans only temporarily keeps the enemy from literally invading the living room, and the heroes, anticipating perhaps their children in If… (1968), rain death upon their enemies to the last bullet. It’s an exhilarating and hair-raising end to a masterpiece of its kind, but it also proves that an inspiring film can be alarming as well.


25th 04 - 2011 | 4 comments »

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)

Director: Tony Richardson

By Roderick Heath

There are two films sharing the title of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous encomium to English heroism in the face of impossible odds. The first is the Michael Curtiz-directed, Errol Flynn-starring 1936 film, recasting the charge as a revenge mission aimed more at a nefarious Pakistani khan allied to the Russians than at the tsar’s armies themselves. It’s hugely entertaining, and it’s also complete and utter bunk, one of the ultimate examples of Hollywood’s romanticised version of British imperial history. More than 30 years later, the mood of the moviegoing public was incredibly different, so the second film to be called The Charge of the Light Brigade, helmed by Tony Richardson, was a radical departure. After a roaring start in films with Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Richardson had finally gained Oscar laurels for his 1963 reinvention of the historical movie, Tom Jones; ironically, it was only then that his career began to falter. Like many of the other talents spawned by the British film industry in the era, his career was defined by an early continent of excellence and years of much less amazing stuff afterwards. Nonetheless, a lot of his work is today undervalued, and the most undervalued of all is his brilliant revisionist take on the infamous assault by Lord Cardigan’s cavalry on the Balaclava Heights on October 25, 1854. If Curtiz’s film offers lies that are hard not to love, Richardson’s tried to tell truths hard to stomach at any time.

Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade is very much a modish work of the late ’60s, balancing, like many of its contemporaries, unusual, almost clashing stylistic and intellectual impulses reflecting a war within the texture and assumptions of the film itself, rendering it a distinctively dialectic work. Charge moves blithely from coal-black satire of the British upper classes and militarism, to a lush romanticism, to a brand of raw, tactile realism. In doing so, it’s trying to recapture a bittersweet flavour in looking back at a summit era in British history, from a time when awareness of the finish of the imperial era and the changing social paradigm was provoking many new questions. At the same time, the hoary history offered a wealth of contemporary relevance in attacking whipped-up militaristic fervour, easily finding echoes of Vietnam and the Cold War in looking back to the last time Russia and the West squared off over the issue of some third party’s problems. The screenplay, the first draft of which was written by playwright John Osborne but finally only credited to Charles Wood, commences with Cardigan, played by Trevor Howard in a splendid performance mixing blockheaded arrogance and swaggering masculinity, surveying his smartly dressed troops, a voiceover privileging us to his personal beliefs about what makes a good soldier: “If they can’t fornicate, they can’t fight, and if they don’t fight, I’ll flog their backs raw!”

Richardson’s scabrous portrait of high imperial-era England is riddled with incompetent hereditary scions in important jobs and a general social philosophy that expects rich men to slap good-looking clothes on poor, roughly treated men to be used as cannon fodder, thereby making everything fine. The film commences a year or so before the Crimean War begins. Cardigan’s officers loll about indolently waiting for something to happen; fresh recruits are not so metaphorically beaten into shape to look good on parade. Cardigan has total contempt for the experienced, professionalised veterans who have served in India who comprise the only front-line troops in the British Army who have seen battle in the long, placid peace after the Napoleonic wars. This attitude puts him on a collision course with Capt. Louis Nolan (David Hemmings), a recently returned cavalry expert, who joins Cardigan’s regiment because his friend Capt. William Morris (Mark Burn) is already a member. Nolan, after first getting Cardigan offside by having kept his Indian retainer and showing up his less competent officers, finally incurs some serious damage when hosting a friend at the officer’s mess by ordering a bottle of moselle. Because of the bottle’s near-black colour, Cardigan presumes this to be a “black bottle” of porter beer, a drink popular amongst cavalry officers of the time but banned by Cardigan as too common. Nolan is a principled, doggedly energetic young man determined to modernise the army, but also proud, self-righteous, and unremitting. Rather than apologise to Cardigan, he bucks for a court-martial to get the matter official attention, hoping to establish some sort of precedent, but Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) stalls embarrassedly and eventually talks him into taking a post with his office. Unfortunately, the matter has gotten out to the public, and mocking cries of “black bottle!” resound from the crowds when Cardigan goes out.

This tragicomic portrait of the peacetime army is punctuated by more broadly satiric scenes of the distracted, aged, almost senile Raglan, whose office is overshadowed by a huge statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback temporarily parked outside it, and his staff, who are momentarily befuddled by war with Russia, with the French as allies, when all their maps and plans are intended for another war against France. In counterpoint to the travails and absurdities of the upper-class characters come vignettes of working-class men who join Cardigan’s regiment, focusing on Sgt.-Maj. Corbett (Norman Rossington). Corbett is a man who’s spent 20 years climbing to the highest noncommissioned rank, uses practised, persuasive patter to garner potential recruits out on the street, and bellows with impressive bellicosity once they’re in uniform; the least-educated have to be taught left from right by having straws planted on their feet. Corbett is undone when Cardigan asks him to spy on Nolan and his friends to find out what they’re saying, a task Corbett immediately, near-tearfully declares an insult. Cardigan contemptuously dismisses him, and Corbett, who hasn’t drunk alcohol since being promoted in his pure dedication to his rank, immediately gets falling-down drunk before parading the men. This earns him a brutal flogging before the entire regiment: one junior officer faints, Nolan disdains, and fellow officer Mogg (Adam Dobie) retorts, “They will not fight unless they’re flogged to it. What would you ask them? Would you ask them to fight like fiends of hell for money, or for ideas? That would be un-Christian!” Richardson offers glimpses of the enlisted men’s cramped barracks, which they share with their families, their wives labouring at washing the glittering linen and uniforms Cardigan gives them.

Naturally for a film from the height of the Swinging ‘60s, Richardson investigates period varieties of sexuality, bubbling in bawdy fashion under prim and flashy surfaces. Cardigan’s formula of fighting and fornication as entwined capabilities sees him teased for the brazen homoeroticism of his soldiers’ dress (“You see ’em tight, my cherry-bums? I keep ’em tight!”). Fanny (Jill Bennett), the wife of dim-witted Paymaster Duberly (Peter Bowles), lusts after Cardigan—one of her voiceovers informs us that her husband insists she stop looking at the general like she wants to be ridden by him. She finally bags him when the army is in the Crimea, the pair of them nonchalantly peeling off their clothes after getting rid of dinner guests, before, once in bed, Cardigan starts smacking Fanny’s backside to her horror/enthrallment, declaring in mortification, “This isn’t love!” before exploding with the giggles. Next morning, she packs her soldier-god off to battle with his aides, squeezing him into his corset and too-tight uniform.

On an entirely different level is the affair between Nolan and Clarissa Morris (Vanessa Redgrave), his friend’s wife, a tacit ménage à trois that’s part soldierly fellowship, part unspoken recourse after Morris’s sexual failure. When they’re disembarking, Morris gives Nolan a letter from Clarissa, calling it “orders from Her Majesty,” but Nolan tosses it overboard. The sequences depicting Clarissa and Morris’s wedding, and the subsequent lives of the trio, are exceptions from the visual texture and social structure of the rest of the film: with their country house and riverside environs, dappled sunlight and quaint churches, they live in a remnant of classical, earthy, lush William Blakeish England. Later, Clarissa, left alone by both her husbands, waits like a figure out of a pre-Raphaelite painting (specifically, if anachronistically, evoking John Byam Shaw’s The Boer War), pregnant and boding, waiting for their return, dancing on the grass lawn when she gets word from them.

Richardson wields a large, polished production befitting an old-fashioned epic with determinedly new wave cinematic techniques, employing jump- and cross-cutting, and discursive use of sound that shake up the way period detail is employed in a movie. Interspersed throughout The Charge of the Light Brigade are animated interludes by Richard Williams that wittily mimic Victorian engravings and newspaper cartoons, evoking the sweep of imperial enterprise and its heroic official imagery of industry and military, as well as the Crimean War’s emotive rhetoric. Britain is alternately characterised as a gallant lion acting as a policeman, heroine Britannia with armadas hidden up her skirts, and dozens of bulldogs ready to gnaw the marauding Russian bear to pieces. Turkey, the victim of Russian bullying, is both a bird being chased and a swooning maiden needing to be saved, a point echoed later in dialogue by Raglan. These are more than humorous, pop-art flourishes: they offer a broader context to the drama and excuse any need for cutaways to exposition-spouting politicians. They also lay bare the social outlook of high imperial Britain and its self-image, which the live-action parts both give the lie to and obey.

The way Richardson and Williams zero in on the nature of propaganda and make it part of the texture of the film explain not only why the characters are going to war, but eye, with telling and perhaps now even more relevant analysis, the emotive rhetoric used to steer populations into wars that have no object relevance to them. John Addison’s brilliant score swirls in mock Olympian flourishes, with grand chorales, sweeping strings, and elegiac passages. Together, Richardson and Williams create a visual and aural moment of harmonious beauty when William’s animation portrays the British fleet sailing past Gibraltar, which turns into the British lion, Britannia, and mounted Wellington pointing the way.

The film’s contemporary parable isn’t hard to grasp, though it’s not as crass as in some of the more obnoxious revisionist films of the era, like Soldier Blue (1970). Cardigan and his officers, when out riding, gleefully charge a peace rally, smashing down their placards. Hemmings’ Nolan, with his proto-counterculture home life and frustrated desire to reform the army and take on the elderly blowhards, clearly stands in for the ’60s youth movement. When the army heads off to war, the film becomes a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta without the music, and with lots of men dying because of the comedy. Cardigan loathes his brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), who’s placed in supreme command of the expeditionary force’s cavalry. In spite of Raglan’s entreaties, they continue their petty bickering in the field, forcing the men under their commands to pull down their tents constantly and erect them again at differing spaces apart to gall each other. Raglan aggravates them even further by keeping them out of battles, for which they’re basically pretty window dressing.

The London Times correspondent William Russel (T. P. McKenna), whose reports from the front are considered pioneering instances of what we now call embedded journalism, advises “You shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Times, you know,” when triumphant reports appear in the paper that the army has captured Sebastopol when it’s actually still encamped outside it, as the official narrative of the army riding to the rescue needed its instant, orgasmic consummation. The film’s bitterly realistic streak presents horses battered to death in the holds of the transport ships being dumped overboard in job lots, and the army columns, after moving out from their landing point in a gallant show, are seen later riddled with men withering and dropping into agonised bundles from heatstroke and cholera. One panoramic camp scene finds men blithely playing cricket and others having their shattered limbs hacked off. Raglan has his soldiers march up a near-sheer cliff to sweep some Russians off the heights, finishing up with hundreds of men sprawled in bloody masses, whilst Raglan responds with distaste to Nolan’s insistent, pushy addresses, stating, “That young man Nolan, I don’t really like him. He rides too well, knows a lot, but he has no heart. It’ll be a sad day when England has her armies officered by men who know too well what they’re doing. It smacks of murder.”

There’s something of the remnant spirit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) in the film’s corrosive mix of irony and wry empathy for such outmoded, strangely idealistic foolishness, but it’s no longer mediated by the communal spirit of WWII, but by the furious mood of the 1960s. The Charge of the Light Brigade is an irate film partly concealed by its playful touches. Interestingly, the film decries the callous incompetence of the old school of militarism, but finally, shows itself to be equally suspicious of a more modern, businesslike version represented by Nolan. His pushiness and barely repressed fury with the men in charge sees him goad Lucan and Cardigan into action when conveying an order from Raglan to flank a Russian artillery position. Lucan and Cardigan assume, in spite of their uncertainty, he means they’re to attack the position, thus commencing the infamous charge. Nolan realises their mistake and tries to alert them, but a shell explodes overhead, and, in the film’s most bitterly, horrifyingly pointed moment, Nolan is killed. Richardson’s cutting here (one of his editors was Kevin Brownlow, the director and film archivist), and the use of manipulated sound, is startling, leaping from a shot of the exploding shell, to Nolan being hit, to a close-up of Raglan lifting into the frame as he watches in shock from afar, and then back to Nolan, coughing blood, his dying scream resounding as he still tries to warn the cavalry before dropping dead to the ground. It’s a masterful little moment that rams home the shock of violent death and raises a curtain on a tragedy.

Richardson’s shooting of the war sequences was criticised in some quarters, but he wasn’t after the sort of illustrative, thrilling clarity Curtiz and his action directors were going for in their version, or in most other war films. Especially in the climactic scenes, Richardson alternates distant, almost painterly shots that reproduce the views of observing commanders, artists and reporters of almost serene action, and then plunges into the midst of that action, with telephoto lenses, forced perspective, and rapid editing used to present a whirl of frantic motion, blood, murder, explosions, dust, and chaos. The resulting vision is of a kind of warfare usually viewed through romanticised lenses as brutal, churning, bludgeoning, and hideous. The survivors of the charge, caked in blood and soot, stumble out of clouds of dust and smoke like they’ve been hurled in a hurricane. The film’s most vicious dialogue, which serves as an epitaph of sorts, comes when Cardigan, emerging from battle with the remnants of his troops demands to know where Nolan is so he can bust him for screaming “like a woman,” and is informed that he just rode over his dead body. The kicker there is the line is absolutely true. The film leaves off with the officers arguing worriedly about who exactly will take the blame for the miscued command in the battlefield littered with broken men and horses, waiting for the poets to step in make some sense of it all.


19th 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Castle Keep (1969)

Director: Sydney Pollack

By Roderick Heath

In the wake of the wishy-washy fare that clogged the latter part of his career, it is easy to forget just what a talented filmmaker Sydney Pollack had been. His excellent early dramas, like The Slender Thread (1965) and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), and his genre outings that offered up two of the best American films of the 1970s in The Yakuza (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), display that talent in spades. His best work was defined by a fervent thread of black humour and a painterly verve, as he shot dramas like thrillers and thrillers like art films. Unfortunately, it was the polished nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) that scored the biggest hit and pointed the way forward for Pollack to tone down his style and become best known for slick prestige pieces. In his later career, only the sleek pulp of The Firm (1993) stands out as a return to his roots. Looking more closely at the shape of his career, it’s easy to see two poles in Pollack’s films, rhapsodist and ironist, cynic and ardent romantic, duelling in his best work. At a time when oddball antiwar films were a dime a dozen, Castle Keep, his fourth film, didn’t get much admiration on release, but in finally catching up with it, I have to admit it floored me. Here, perhaps, are Pollack’s different, opposing temperaments in intricate balance, and the result looks very much like a classic now.

The basic story, of the sort Samuel Fuller employed so well and often, is relatively conventional: a ragged bunch of military misfits is banded together under a gritty leader who melds them into a fighting force to carry out a dangerous, doomed mission—except Castle Keep immediately bellows its strangeness by commencing with the words “Once upon a time” in hinting that what follows will be a fairytale.

In the first few moments, a rapid montage of explosions devastating statues and ancient signifiers of culture give way to a glimpse of a battlement gargoyle with a raptor’s head, the cry of which seems to echo out across the wooded landscape and reach the ear of Pvt. Rossi (Peter Falk). Earthy former baker Rossi, former critic and intellectual Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), green and angst-ridden Lt. Amberjack (Tony Bill), redneck Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson), budding author Pvt. Allistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), and the plebeian Elk (James Patterson) and DeVaca (Michael Conrad) have all been press-ganged into serving the formidably competent cyclops Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster). The eight men, collected together from the stragglers and survivors of the American advance into the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, try get to the crossroads town of Saint Croix and take command of the castle of Maldorais.

Trying to push a broken-down jeep along a muddy country road, these men are astounded to see a couple on horseback charging by, one a stunning female with a cape billowing behind her like a vision out of a chivalric romance, the other a neatly attired gentleman in a red hunting suit. The pair proves to be the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and his wife Therese (Astrid Heeren). “We came to the wrong war!” Rossi blurts upon seeing this pair who seem to have ridden out of another age. The situation, and the dilemmas that will face the characters, are soon polarised. Falconer, predicting the German assault that will precipitate the Battle of the Bulge, recognises that Maldorais will be an important defensive position necessary for stemming an attack on the army’s main body, and determines to fortify the castle. Beckman is captivated by the Count’s trove of art and antiques from the last nine centuries of European civilisation. The Count wants to save them all, willing to make any compromise, be it bivouacking German or Allied soldiers or letting any man who can swing it bed the Countess to provide the heir he can’t. The enlisted men want to get laid and follow the Count’s directions to the local brothel, the Reine Rouge. Amberjack wonders if following them can help him rebel against his authoritarian father. Clearboy forms an obsession for a Volkswagen that belonged to the former German occupants of the castle. When Falconer’s predictions come true, however, the cost for everyone is bound to be high.

Castle Keep mediates between the first breed of more cynical war film, like Paths of Glory and Bridge on the River Kwai (both 1957), and the antic, counterculture-inflected breed like MASH, Catch-22, and Kelly’s Heroes (all 1970). One irony of this period was that these films were still being made on the theory that war movies were popular, even if the general mood was against war, and so the peculiar, invigorating quality was in watching such films trash the genre even whilst being produced on the biggest of scales: shot in Yugoslavia with incredible photography by Henri Decaë, Castle Keep employs a high-budget, cinematically walloping spectacle, with the huge main set of the castle and town ready to be pulverised. Castle Keep is ambivalent about the traditional hierarchical and moralistic assumptions of the war epic. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg specifically cited it as one of the strongest influences on his Saving Private Ryan (1998), and that influence is particularly evident in the harum-scarum, tragicomic battle scenes. Norman Mailer once commented that he had been glad to be posted to the Pacific, and therefore wrote The Naked and the Dead because he did not imagine himself equal to the greater challenge of writing about American intransigence crashing headlong into European culture indicative of WWII’s European theatre. Castle Keep, on the other hand, adapted from William Eastlake’s novel, dedicates itself to examining precisely that nexus, and more.

What renders Pollack’s film fascinatingly, perversely distinct is the way present, past, future, fact, and fiction are rendered in a state of flux. Castle Keep calls attention to its own artificiality throughout, as the story is mediating through a lapping structure; at the end, the story loops back again, and the fact that the story is being “written” and “recalled” by Benjamin is repeatedly iterated. Such a fact explains and mitigates the film’s loopy flourishes of anachronism and surrealism, and how it dips in and out of what might be fantasy, embellishment, or genuine rupture in reality. The notion that the characters are all embodiments of primal traits is soon outlined, as the landscape unveiled in the film populated by figures that could come from any century. The Major, with his one eye, channels ancient myth as a warrior incarnate. The Count is a virtual pharaoh in his elitist desire to conserve within his domain all possessions: even his wife is a relative, whether his niece and sister is not clarified, but still firmly suggested. Rossi, upon arriving in Saint Croix, seeks out not the brothel, but the bakery, on the theory that’s where there will be a baker’s wife. He finds one (Olga Bisera) and immediately steps into her dead husband’s place, taking over the shop and trying to drop out of the war.

Rossi’s understanding of war is one of a job. In a bizarre, haunting interlude, Amberjack and Rossi converse in the woods outside the castle. Amberjack tries to play his damaged flute when a German soldier’s voice sounds from the forest: he asks to fix Amberjack’s flute, and recognises Beckman’s name, recommending the book he wrote as a civilian professor. Rossi casually shoots the unseen German in spite of their amicable conversation: “That’s what we do for a living, lieutenant,” he tells the despondent Amberjack. He also tells off a flock of soldiers turned conscientious objectors led by the self-appointed apostle Lt. Billy Byron Bix (Bruce Dern), who haunt Saint Croix’s streets like stragglers from Peter the Hermit’s Crusade, singing hymns outside the bordello and preaching to columns of wounded and bewildered men bearing a rude crucifix of twigs. The idea that time is folding back on itself hovers with both humour and menace throughout, as the Major becomes the image of a knight-errant, riding a white horse in leading men to battle, with Bix screaming accusatorily at him that he knows him, as the image of strife incarnate. A simple threat from the Major is all that’s needed, however, to turn these pacifists back into Crusaders; following the Major back to Maldorais, they’re instantly wiped out by the a shell.

The Count exploits Beckman’s reverence for art to get him to labour to save the castle and its contents, and the petit bourgeois Beckman stands between the actually philistine sensibility of the Count, who regards himself much more as a warrior (“I am the bravest man I know”) and the gruffly debased, yet in many ways far more sensitive sensibility of the enlisted men, particularly Rossi. There’s a touch of genius in making the artist-witness figure, whose philosophical and psychological enquiries filter the film and its portrait of a civilisation’s Euclidian reboot, an African American. “I wonder if my moving in here will reduce the real estate prices,” Benjamin quips sardonically when first settling down in the castle. Castle Keep seems set up for a showdown between militaristic and cultural values. But the film cleverly elides such a simplistic central conflict. Instead, the running argument between Beckman and Falconer evolves as Falconer retorts to Beckman’s proposition that saving the things worth fighting for is the whole point of their mission with the coldly diagnostic statement that “Europe is dead. That’s why we’re here.” Instead of simply decrying the Major as a vandal, the film makes the not-negligible point that he’s also one of the last remnants of the potent spirit that built such a world, and he’s the one who mans the battlements to the last along with Beckman, and lending weight to the amazing ferocity of the film’s final 20 minutes.

The castle and the Countess, initially a passive-seeming love object whom the men aspire to and envy each other for having, are conflated in Benjamin’s estimation (“That was three weeks ago when the castle was occupied. Nobody knew when the Major occupied the Countess…”). In another of the film’s weirdly textured interludes, the Major and the Count, out riding on reconnaissance, realise the grounds of the estate have been infiltrated by a German patrol; they hole up in a summer house, and the Major takes out the patrol with lethal efficiency, only to realise they were missing their officer. He realises that the officer went straight to castle, tracks him there and kills him, and the Count confirms he was formerly bivouacked in the castle: he had led his men back merely so he could see the Countess, and the Major took his place. Beckman is jealous of the Major (“Bitch!” he declares after he’s had to interrupt them in bed together, and she indolently ignored him) and when Falconer calls Beckman a collector, the Captain admit that if he were poor “I’d probably collect old string…newspapers…fallen women.” To which Falconer retorts knowingly, “Don’t judge her. She’s not a painting.” The grazing roundelay of jealousy and vanity around a woman who sees them as all more or less the same is finally ended when the Countess proves to have different values to the Count and warns Falconer he intends to use one of the escape tunnels under the castle to reach the Germans and help them infiltrate in order to save the castle. The Count dies in a hail of long-distance bullets, viewed at a remote remove by the Countess through binoculars.

Like many films of the period, the temptation to crawl back into the nominally bawdy, yet rather oedipally boyish world of the brothel beckons the heroes. When they first arrive at the Reine Rouge, the women are sprawled like props in a wonderland, mirroring, with insolent eroticism, the corps of soldiers, who gaze on in gobsmacked wonder. Later on, both hookers and soldiers are sprawled about between jobs lazily sucking on cigarettes and wondering what the hell to do with themselves. Falconer arms the prostitutes with Molotov cocktails. Clearboy predicts their failure: “There’s been a lot of sentimental junk wrote about whores, but they’re just plain defeated women!” But they proceed to rain down with gleeful, punitive relish on the German soldiers. Amberjack and Elk attempt to capture a Leopard tank with a bazooka, luring the colossal vehicle into the church, Amberjack, praying as the juggernaut roles up the centre aisle crushing the pews, desperately tries to load and fire the bazooka before being crushed. He and Elk manage to knock out the tank’s crew, and commandeer it, completely demolishing the rest of the church, and then promptly ditching their hard-won prize when the order comes to abandon the town. Rossi has to be talked around from his equanimity as a baker, reciting philosophical meditations with his face caked in flour, to return to the fray.

The film’s flaws are easy to pick. Michel Legrand’s music score is sometimes in the right key of trippy elegy, but far too jazzy and modishly ’60s at other times. A comic interlude in which Amberjack and Benjamin try to destroy the Volkswagen to save Clearboy the tragedy of seeing it destroyed in battle seems to have stumbled in from a different movie. Heeren belongs to the vast number of good-looking nonentities who decorated ’60s cinema. I dare say the whole stew could seem ungainly and strange to many, and yet Castle Keep’s poetic streak is powerful and original. Pollack pulls off the last act with an authority that’s impeccable. The magic realism crystallises in a bizarrely beautiful scene in which, trapped in the castle’s rose garden, Amberjack, Clearboy, and Rossi try to decide on a strategy. Rossi heads off to swim the moat, and the remaining two are trapped, becoming increasingly badly wounded. The image becomes more ghostly and strange, until Benjamin, in voiceover, explains their next action to woozily beautiful images of star shells and gunfire flashing over the field of roses. This is immediately nullified as it proves only an authorial flourish, for Benjamin reports to Falconer that the trio are dead. The final moments possess something of the same orgiastic, apocalyptic flavour of its film contemporary The Wild Bunch. Falconer and a badly wounded Beckman hold the castle against Germans who try to scale the walls by using a fire engine ladder as Benjamin flees with the Countess, whom he has to carry away from the fray. The petrol-coated moat ignites and the entire scene is consumed in stygian flames. It’s a delirious end to a film that ought to be far better known.


24th 11 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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 [1960], Braveheart [1995], King Arthur [2004]), 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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