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Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass, but for whatever reason, departed before he had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and, at first, literally crawling his way to safety, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he made a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.
Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up, but the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.
Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing immediately an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.
Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was, by all reports, already amazing, including a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.
Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry leaves himself open to making himself the object of Bass’s ire, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.
The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, so that suddenly to his former fellows the landscape suddenly seems charged with portents of his survival, and imagined visions of him torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.
By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.
Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.
Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.
The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth—he has to revisit it three times. It’s not enough for him to stage one sweeping chase scene—he gives variations on the same scene several times.
DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.
Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.
Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.
Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
By Roderick Heath
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.
The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.
The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.
Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.
Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.
This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.
Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.
The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.
Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.
Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.
At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.
Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.
At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.
Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.
Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas
By Roderick Heath
The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.
Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans by conceding to them excessively. Trouble is, the people who already loved Star Wars weren’t kids anymore: they were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent, yet equally necessary, concessions: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood while simultaneously reflecting their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be: a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.
I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain was an exemplification of something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and overhyped a lot of modern franchises have been—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films—all are testimonies to a kind of professional smoothness and anodyne brand of fun that has no low points like Lucas’ films do, but also none of the high points. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, great as they are, remade the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they are. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.
The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in many ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.
The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s, depicting the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.
Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.
That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with weak edits. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé is one of the most interesting characters in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of war. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth with the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serving at least four purposes. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars: tiny, enriching details flit by, from Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and boredly flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers to the two-headed race caller mouthing off sarcastically. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with bad ones like Anakin joshed by a bunch of kids who show no discernable performing talent.
Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the light saber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.
Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a light saber duel, are great entertainment, with a hint of the old to-hell-with-it absurdity that marked the older films. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.
But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.
A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.
Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.
This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.
Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirement of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.
The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.
That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.
I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.
Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.
At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.
The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.
One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace and the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works that recur throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are passing excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.
Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, a dashing figure in the first two instalments left as mere weepy baby mama here. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.
Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.
Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.
Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to this moments that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.
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Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Michael Cimino made a name for himself as a bright young thing working in New York advertising before turning to screenwriting in the early 1970s, thus joining the ranks of fresh and eager talents the “New Hollywood” was embracing in an effort to rejuvenate the industry. After working on the science fiction film Silent Running (1971) and the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1974), Cimino broke into directing with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a modest but beautifully made movie about a pair of buddy criminals on the road, straddling several of the early decade’s popular genres and thematic terrains. Cimino seemed like a perfectly evolved organism for New Hollywood, fresh, smart, driven, volatile, and a hopeless fabulist. In particular, he had that trait most prized by the age’s cinema scene: vision, that overwhelming sense of aesthetic aim that could conquer the cynical senses of an audience burned out by Old Hollywood’s tricks.
For his second film, Cimino aimed much higher, envisaging an epic film about the most controversial subject of his age: the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Funding for such a project was all-but-impossible to come by in the climate of mid-’70s Hollywood, so he braved the L.A. office of British record company EMI instead and spent two hours pitching executives his vision for the film. He must have done something right, because even with no script, actors, or production elements ready, he was still ordered to start shooting in five months. With the aid of Deric Washburn, who converted Cimino’s concept into a workable script, and Robert De Niro, a hot property after The Godfather Part II (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), Cimino’s unlikely project came to fruition.
The resulting film, The Deer Hunter, stoked hyperbolic responses from viewers. Greeted by some as the cinematic equivalent of Tolstoy and embraced by the industry and mainstream audiences alike to become a big hit, Cimino’s film went on to capture the 1978 Best Picture Oscar. The Deer Hunter bothered others with its viewpoint on the conflict, told entirely through American eyes, where Vietnam becomes an alien and stygian zone filled with sadists and wretches and random horrors. Seemingly uninterested in the political dimensions of the war, Cimino preferred to portray its young protagonists as people to whom war happens as a cruel and random imposition, rather than making them agents of a wider, conceptual approach to war, like the following year’s Apocalypse Now, or as radicalised avatars of shifting tides of social identity, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which was one of its big rivals at that year’s Oscars. Actually, The Deer Hunter does have a bleak and accusatory political side, portraying as it does the war as an event that invited the best from citizens who are then dumped back into the world variously mangled or bereft. Cimino had endeavoured to make a film purely about the experience of young men doing their bit according to their communal ideals, sense of patriotism, and personal ethics, and being deeply wounded in many forms and unable to make any sense of what they have experienced beyond the whirlpool of carnage. Some objected to Cimino’s signature flight of fancy, the central scene of forced Russian roulette-playing, as not just a symbolic invention and effective horror sequence, but as pernicious falsity; Cimino was awkwardly caught up in trying to defend its legitimacy. Yet, in the context of the late ’70s, the film represented a ballsy project all the same. Films of epic length were conspicuously out of favour. The situation of many Vietnam veterans socially and personally wasn’t good, and in spite of a small spate of Vietnam films released around this time, official catharsis wasn’t reached until around the time of Platoon (1986) and the opening of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project The Deer Hunter helped inspire.
Cimino’s ambitious scale belied to a certain extent the intimate and simple focus of his film, depicting the entwined fates of three pals, steel mill workers from the Pennsylvania town of Clairton drafted to fight in Vietnam sometime around 1970. Cimino employed a narrative approach here that he would revisit in his follow-up Heaven’s Gate, packing multiple strands of story set-up and asides that compile into a detailed portraiture of place as well as people. The film’s first third details how a trio of young heroes engage in a series of ritual events that comprise their farewell to the life they know. The trio, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Cevatolavic (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), along with their other pals and coworkers Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), complete their last shift at the steel mill, and emerge to a rare solar phenomenon, “sundogs”, which Mike, referring to Native-American folklore, declares a good omen for his favourite pursuit of deer hunting. They retreat for a farewell chill-out session in their local bar, run by pal John (George Dzundza). Steven is about to marry his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) over his mother’s (Shirley Stoller) objections, which she is glimpsed weepily confessing to her priest (Father Stephen Kopestonsky), before coming to drag Steven out of the bar to prepare for the wedding.
Both a source of power and a difficulty for the film lay in Cimino’s original, intricate blend of filmic techniques, seeming at once to be uniquely earthy, authentic, and realistic in a way anyone could grasp, and yet also floridly artistic and deeply stylised, even mythic in reach and resonance. What it definitely wasn’t, however, was a documentary. How Cimino illustrated his stark, cumulatively gruelling tale was what made it so arresting. His technique, notably confident for a second film, represented a rich polyglot of influences that seemed for a moment to represent a new paradigm for popular art, equal to what Francis Coppola had managed with The Godfather a few years earlier. Cimino borrowed technique from classical Hollywood epics: the vistas of John Ford and David Lean enfold and lend background to the drama, dwarfing the humans and their concerns and yet offering elusive promises of transcendence and communion, too. The fascination for behavioural minutiae recalls the eccentric genre cinema of Howard Hawks and Phil Karlson, crossbred with the new wave filmmaking of guys like Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jerry Schatzberg, and emphasising improvisation in his performances and acuity to the rhythms of actors. Cimino also added into the mix the dramatic approach of Italian post-neorealism, particularly the work of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and their spacious, allusive approach to narrative and characterisation, where characters seem to float through the landscapes they inhabit on a deceptively open and yet carefully choreographed fashion. Cimino’s credo was that films came alive because of their “shadows and spaces,” like classic Dutch art.
Another quality of The Deer Hunter that makes it relatively rare among major American films, even in the milieu of the 1970s, is the dignity it gives to working-class lives, the feel for the environs they live in: only a handful of Warner Bros. blue-collar melodramas from the 1930s and ’40s, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), had a similar acuity. The Deer Hunter hit a vein Bruce Springsteen was starting to mine profitably in rock music, casting the denim-clad worker as the essence of Americana, providing the national backbone, but also acting as the canary in the coalmine for its economic, social, and political upheavals. The evocation of Clairton is one of the best portraits of a small industrial town ever, speaking as a person who grew up in one. Clairton is a town hunkered under mist and melting snow, subsisting beneath the gothic mass of the steel mill, blotches of light and colour hovering amidst drenching blues and greens, riddled with callow, energetic, shallowly naughty young men and thwarted elders, a place of deep amity and pockets of abuse. Clairton interestingly is also portrayed as a specific ethnic enclave, with the Russian Orthodox Church at the centre of the local culture; its closest relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless captured the same milieu. Several of Cimino’s recurring notions are immediately in evidence here; the immigrant’s place in American life, blue-collar heroes with chips on their shoulders, violence as plague and crucible, and rituals social and private that define individuals in relation to the whole.
The Deer Hunter’s wedding scene is often an ideal litmus test for the different ways people watch movies; pointless to some, endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of the celebration that’s more than a mere party, but rather a communal ritual laced with an ebb and flow of detail that offers oblique characterisation and underscores the tale’s evolving themes. Bridesmaids trying to keep their dresses from getting soiled whilst dashing to the wedding. The boys drinking beer, playing pool, and singing along to Frankie Valli. The special technique for opening the boot on Mike’s Chevy. Linda (Meryl Streep) trying to help her drunken father (Richard Kuss) into bed and getting a black eye for her pains. Nick’s life-of-the-party joie de vivre counterbalances Mike’s social awkwardness, as both make a play for Linda’s affections; Mike misses his chance downing too much liquid courage, and Nick gets in a marriage proposal that Linda accepts. The supermarket manager doubles as wedding singer, crooning ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and cuts in to dance with Stan’s girlfriend. Stan’s buffoonish antics are plied with a mix of obliviousness and try-hard desperation, apparent in his posturing as ladies man and pistol-packing tough guy, and he provides slapstick humour with an appalling edge as he gets angry, stamps into the cotillion, and throws a punch that knocks his girlfriend out. Amid the humour and working social observation thread hints of fate. The ominous presence of a returned Green Beret sergeant with the proverbial thousand-yard stare who threads his way through the wedding party to throw back shots with declarations of “Fuck it!” has the quality of fateful visitation, the Red Death arriving at the ball, eventually riling Mike with his reserve.
Underlying the frivolity of the wedding is the intensity of fear: the young men are being feted for their honourable commitment to duty and because maybe they won’t come back. The blown-up pictures of them festooned on the wall of the reception hall have turned them into icons as sacrificial venerated. Mike performs a hysterical nude run through the streets of Clairton. His subsequent bleary chat with Nick resolves with Nick’s confession of a love for the primal grandeur of the trees during the hunt: where Mike sees the unifying crux of the single shot, Nick sees the enveloping glory of nature, “the colours in the trees,” something to sink into and fade among. Leaving Steven to his honeymoon, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John go on a last hunting expedition: Cimino sarcastically plays off a grand David Lean landscape with the humour and bickering of the young men, as John finds himself abandoned by the roadside and clueless Stan gazes about him at mountains that haven’t changed in millennia and swears that somehow they have. Mike declares the shift from one phase of life to another has begun when he refuses to furnish Stan with his spare pair of boots, and berates Stan for his complete lack of preparation, and his habit of constantly carrying a pistol “like John Wayne,” the archetypal macho posturer without the expertise or concision of habit to back it up. Nick intervenes as the confrontation becomes heated, and Mike heads off into the hills to track in a moment staged like a holy rite, complete with Russian church chorus chanting on the soundtrack. There he bring downs a monarch of the glen with single-minded precision, a sense of craft and purity of intent that prove to have prepared him, semi-consciously, for war.
Cimino executes a smash cut from the victorious, elated, exhausted hunters listening to John play his barroom piano with startling art to napalm blasts erupting in the jungle, swinging from the edge of the sublime to the infernal precincts—it’s one of the great scene changes of cinema history. Mike is depicted awakening on the battlefield, the drowsy reverie of the previous scene giving way to the immediacy of the first hour as though it is only remembered dreaming, a state of grace before damning. Mike is quickly stirred to action as a stray NVA solider kills civilians, and righteously roasts his enemy with a flame-thrower. Helicopters spirit in reinforcements, including Nick and Steven, who are amazed to encounter their pal in the grip of berserker fixation, only for a sudden VC attack to lead to their capture and imprisonment in a remote and makeshift lock-up. The guards apparently can’t hold their captives long in such a place and so have hit upon the novel idea of letting chance kill them off slowly by forcing them to play Russian roulette until they’re all dead. Steven narrowly survives and is tossed into a cage in the river where he’ll quickly lose strength and drown. Forced to take a great chance for even the slightest hope of escape, Mike, under the guise of trying to belittle their captors, cajoles them into putting three bullets into the gun for the game. He and Nick pass the gun between them for two agonising plays to make the VC lower their guard before Mike sparks a stunningly fast and successful insurrection.
This scene was surely the reason for The Deer Hunter’s success at the time and its continuing reputation as a classic of violent intensity. Mike’s heroic retention of nerve holds the situation together, and the scene builds with incredible force to the moment of punitive exactness when Mike gives the Vietnamese ringleader (Somsak Sengvilai) a third eye. This is thriller stuff as much as it is representation of war’s randomness, but this sequence undoubtedly conveys a powerful extra dimension, the spectacle of ordinary men passing through the outer limits of human trial in some septic circle of hell, where gnawing rats and other men’s life blood dripping on you are the least unpleasant aspects, and the confrontation with mortality becomes a state without past or future, only perfect being and non-being. The superlative acting, particularly from De Niro, captures the spectacle of men being stripped down to their rawest nerve, with wild swings from bowel-emptying fear to hysterical jollity and howls of vengeful abuse. Importantly, apart from the flash cuts depicting the climactic crucible of violence, Cimino generally films in the same way he shot the same men dancing and carousing—in long, intent sequences where behaviour unfolds frantic, flailing, relentless, until the viewer is all but wrapped in their clammy terror and fight-for-life imperative.
Mike’s plan works against the odds, or rather according to the fifty-fifty odds his three-bullet plan entails. He, Nick, and Steven, though battered and bloodied and near-unhinged, make their escape down river. But Steven falls from a helicopter during the rescue and shatters his legs, forcing Mike to fall after him and carry him across country. In the midst of a convoy of refugees, he’s able to get a South Vietnamese officer to drive Steven to help. In Saigon, traumatised Nick heads off into the Saigon night to dedicate his life to reliving his moment of existential crisis under the gun when a remnant French colonial, Julien (Pierre Segui), introduces him to the underground craze for betting on Russian roulette. South Vietnam is a corrupt fleshpot where everyone has essentially become an organism, living and dying without moral limits: Nick has a sleazy encounter with a prostitute with a kid in her room, but he’s enticed away by a street vendor selling statues of elephants. Mike returns home alone and haunted.
The third part of the film depicts Mike’s return and his efforts to take up his life, but finding that impossible not only because of his physical and mental injuries, but also because the social contract between him and his friends is still standing. Here, The Deer Hunter shifts into another storytelling mode, perhaps the more familiar, as its evident structural debt is to generations of panoramic, off-to-war-and-back tales like The Big Parade (1926) and Wings (1927), and more specific dramas about damaged veterans like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). But Cimino is exacting in specific details as he contemplates the odd lot of the modern soldier, hooked out of the midst of turmoil and dumped back into the mundane world. Particularly good and real-feeling is Mike’s initial return, his squirming discomfort when, ferried by a taxi toward his old home, he sees a banner of welcome. Rather than face the party waiting for him, Mike instead heads to a motel where he crouches against the wall, wrapped in tension and pain. The next morning, as the last of the party flitters away, leaving only Linda, Mike spies upon friends and the unchanged signifiers of his own life, outside of them and touched with inescapable longing to both run away and reach out.
Mike, escorted by Linda through town, is hailed as the returned hero, and Linda’s hapless idea of succor is to offer to go to bed with Mike, only for him to fall asleep for the first time since returning. The gentle, toey romance of Mike and Linda is haunted by the awareness that Mike has stepped into Nick’s shoes, and Mike is privileged to learn quickly that the women waiting for the men have been through their own ordeal. He happens upon Linda quietly weeping whilst marking prices on supermarket items, and Angela, reduced to an almost catatonic wreck by Steven’s injury and refusal to come home, can only communicate through hand-written notes. Mike’s attempts to reconnect with his remaining pals eventually sees his anger boil over at Stan, who threatens Axel with his pistol: Mike gives him a coarse lesson in the sort of truth he accosted Stan with earlier by taking his gun, emptying out all but one bullet, and then pressing it to his forehead: lucky for Stan, this time he gets an empty chamber.
One notable influence hiding within The Deer Hunter is the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who similarly dealt in virtually mythic stories told through accumulations of realist detail, and many of whose themes and images percolate through the film, and also Hemingway’s influences, James Fenimore Cooper and A.E.W. Mason. But Cimino reconfigures some of their essential notions. Whereas Hemingway often depicted survivors of conflict who found themselves recreating the tragedy of life and death on the small and controllable scale of man versus animal and finding existential surety there, Cimino depicts Nick as doomed to keep experiencing the moment of his own death/life—the click of the firing pin in Russian roulette—enacted on his own self. Nick descends into anti-personhood, his past erased with drugs and only able to survive like a goldfish between contests.
Meanwhile Mike’s reawakening sees him resist killing a deer when he returns to the mountains: his scream of “Okay!” to the mountains smacks of a mysterious and personal surrender that also brings relief. Although the hunt gave him the skills to survive the battle, Mike can no longer rely on such gifts and ethics to keep him sustained: in such a fashion, Cimino evokes a classical ideal of heroism only to undercut it and show up its greatest weakness. The American frontier hero has failed to survive Vietnam. Mike instead begins to turn into a different man, coupling with Linda and taking charge, at first half-madly when he subjects Stan to the ordeal, and then with more focus as he locates Steven, who’s hiding away in a veteran’s hospital, and drags him back to Angela, before heading back to Vietnam to find Nick. The climactic rite of the wedding sees Steven and Angela drinking from a twinned cup, invoking corny superstition: “If you don’t spill a drop, it means good luck for the rest of your life”—except that two red drops fall fatefully on the white lace of Angela’s dress. Such vignettes of mythopoeic flavour hint that for all its surface realism, The Deer Hunter is actually a form of myth-making. Indeed, under the surface, it has more in common with classical tragedy and myth than the precepts of Victorian realist writing. Cimino and Washburn offer a Sophoclean tragedy where earthly, communal lessons and the invocation of fate repeatedly enfold the young heroes. The pure trio of youth, Mike, Nick, and Steven could readily have stumbled out of any point in history for an anthem of doomed youth and gone off to fight in any war.
Mike’s odd, Zenlike sense as the hunter puts him readily into a legendary mould, whilst Nick gains mastery over death, one of the most hallowed mythic themes, at the cost of his humanity. Mike’s private trip—his obsession with the perfect hunt and the ethic of the “one shot” kill—echoes heroes from Siegfried to Natty Bumppo, right down to his implied celibacy: professional sleaze Stan rebukes Mike over his gruff and strict attitude toward him by bringing up his apparent sexual failures. Mike’s mastery of the hunt gives him a worldly power, as his focus and determination help him keep his head during a scene of Dante-worthy torment. But perhaps more important is the ethereal power it gives him. “This is this!” Mike rants at Stan, holding up a bullet, utterly bemusing Stan but revealing his own sensibility, at once atavistic and materialistic, perceiving the concrete nature of the bullet as the singular essence of reality, the separator of living and dead. Yet when faced with the bullet and the Russian roulette wheel, he tells Nick to put an empty chamber in the gun with the force of his will. Nick emerges from this with a magic power: when Mike returns and locates him, he has become “the famous American” who has survived innumerable tussles with death.
I’ve often felt that Cimino’s chief misstep with The Deer Hunter was his insistence on giving it a semblance of a plot. Mike’s mission to find Nick in the midst of a collapsing Saigon and the end of the war strains to fulfil the old-fashioned epic credentials of the story, contrary to the “shit happens” art of the movie’s bulk. Nonetheless, the furor of the illicit dens Mike finds Nick in evokes the visions of Bosch, as do the sideways glimpses of a pocket of existence crumbling, a place where small gestures like the pathetic stab by Julien at regaining a gasp of honour by eventually refusing Mike’s money, and Mike’s appeals to Nick’s drug-sodden memory, are doomed, yet ennobled. Notably, Mike only succeeds in breaking the spell that has kept Nick alive: Nick ambiguously seeming to finally recognise Mike, but then puts gun to head and shoots himself, the magic protection gone, perhaps deliberately willed away. Nick is sacrificed innocence, and his funeral marks the end of the film. Cimino’s fascination with ritual as communal conducer comes full circle as Nick is buried and his friends gather for a wake where a ragged, plaintive, rendition of “God Bless America” sets the seal: the duty is done, the cost great, the flow of life about to begin again. Cimino played his cards right. He had proven that a film on a painful subject with an angry streak could be made in a way that communicated to more than ideologues of either side. Cimino was lauded, famous, at the height of his powers as an artist and a force in the American film industry. What could possibly go wrong?
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler
By Roderick Heath
Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.
Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.
Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.
Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.
Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.
In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.
7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.
Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, he can simply leap into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.
The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.
The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.
The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.
The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.
The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).
Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.
Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.
Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.
Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.
“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.
The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What did become immediately passé was Harryhausen’s effort to produce special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work. Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.
It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.
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Director/Screenwriter: Miguel Gomes
By Roderick Heath
Tabu commences with a peculiar, droll vignette that refers to the days of Europe’s exploratory excursions into Africa. An adventurer in compulsory pith helmet treads forth into the wilds with native guides and porters, beating paths through the grass and leading columns through jungle and savannah as the image of the valiant penetrator of the unknown, armed with the nominal presence of the King, in the form of an empowering letter of proxy authority, as well as God, in his Bible. The explorer is, in spite of his noble mission, depressed and listless, driven on less by imperial ambition than by heartache. He’s pursued by the wraith, or fond hallucination, of his deceased wife, who blankly hovers over him when he rests and describes him as “poor and lost soul” when he decides to die if he can’t escape his heart’s pain. So the explorer walks into a river and is devoured by a crocodile, whilst his bearers dance in celebratory fashion; later, the legend of a ghostly woman with a crocodile at her feet haunting the region arises. This anecdote seems to have nothing to do with what follows except that it shares all its common themes: the troubled relationship between Europe and Africa, the sense of lovelorn melancholy, the immediacy of life and death and the strange way these phenomena commingle in the human soul, and the symbol of the crocodile, the glowering, toothy beast that becomes emblem for the latent animal passion in humankind, constantly at odds with its self-imposed attempts to cage it.
Tabu’s second movement leaps to contemporary Portugal, a fatigued, dully modern place where life is literally compartmentalised, squared off in safe bubbles of vacuously comfortable apartment living. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a 50ish woman who works with activist groups and occasionally provides lodgings for backpackers. She goes to the airport to meet a new lodger, a Polish girl named Maya who’s been travelling in South America. But a young traveller, who has a stilted conversation with Pilar in English, their common language, tells her that Maya decided to change her itinerary and hasn’t come. The young woman, of course, is actually Maya, a fact revealed with ruthless mirth as her companions shout her name to make her hurry up even as she’s still smiling politely at Pilar, who has decided to stick with younger friends. Pilar is devoutly religious and conscientious, taking refuge in providing solace and aid to others, but also excruciatingly lonely and frustrated. She sees movies and goes on adventures sometimes with a portly artist, who has a crush on her and makes an aborted attempt at a declaration of love, but Pilar secretly dislikes his abstract paintings and only hangs up the ones he’s given to her when he comes to her place.
On New Year’s Eve, Pilar watches fireworks from her balcony and listens to the sounds of distant parties. She is friends with a neighbour in her apartment block, the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s looked after by a nurse, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), an African immigrant actually employed by Aurora’s absent daughter, a marine biologist working in Canada. Pilar rescues Aurora from a casino where she’s lost all her money, and not for the first time: in spite of a promise not to return to the casino, Aurora had ventured again because of a premonition she had in a dream. Aurora, at the outset retaining hints of charisma and autonomy, begins to spiral toward decrepitude and senility, accusing Santa of trying to impose voodoo curses on her. As Aurora worsens and is hospitalised, she rambles on about an escaped crocodile, imploring her companions to search for it in the houses of apparently imaginary neighbours, and makes a request to Pilar to find one of them, named Gian Luca Ventura. Pilar finds Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) in a nursing home and brings him to Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, when they have lunch in a shopping mall, Gian Luca begins to explain his and Aurora’s shared history.
Tabu maintains a deceptively pokerfaced style, exacerbated in the second half as it shifts to historical drama rendered as a virtual silent movie, with only the older Ventura’s voiceover and the omnipresent trill of insects to disturb the passage of dumb-show theatrics. Under the film’s quiet surface is a synergistic flow of seemingly offhand ideas that coalesce into an ever-deepening, fascinating drama of time, not merely as a personal experience, but also a cultural one. Tabu seems to belong to a distinctive strand of Portuguese narrative art, recently exemplified by Raul Ruiz’s film of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon, in its preoccupation with exploring, rather than merely employing, history and storytelling as ambivalent zones of knowing and repositories of truth, sometimes imperceptibly and yet always vitally entwined with the present reality.
Much of the beauty of the film’s first half comes from the exactness of writer-director Miguel Gomes’ feel for character types, and the film’s initial mood is defined by the omnipresent pall of frustration and solitude that afflicts the main characters, particularly Pilar, depicted in casual, but exacting detail as a study of an everyday tragic. Pilar inhabits a zone of ready empathy and pathos in her typicality, as an increasingly invisible middle-aged woman who exists on the fringe of many contemporary scenes without ever holding the centre. She’s brushed off at the start by a young person who wants to hang out with other young people. Her male friend/admirer is an entertaining companion who suppresses romantic affection for her, but he is nonetheless a problematic personality too different for her to respond to with immediate inclination. He falls asleep during a movie, leaving her mired in weeping solitude, and then later makes a clumsy overture of affection that he then quickly retreats from, leaving Pilar more confused than ever. Pilar’s selflessness is admired by all: even the recalcitrant Maya, whom Pilar later trudges past when she’s canoodling with a boyfriend, enthuses over Pilar’s generosity.
Pilar’s saintly solicitude counters Santa’s nearly taciturn demeanour, as Santa bears the racist-tinted suspicion of the increasingly paranoid Aurora and the nosey concern of Pilar with businesslike cool, as she holds to the course dictated by the status of her job. Santa’s unease with language is depicted, as she’s learning Portuguese and bounding to the top of the class thanks, ironically, to reading that prototypical imperialist text Robinson Crusoe at bedtime. The racial tension and role awareness extant between Aurora and Santa introduces a theme that pays off as the film’s perspective shifts to the past, as Aurora’s ease at bossing around her black nurse like a maidservant hints at a past spent in lordly command. But the degree to which the worm has actually turned is apparent, as Santa enforces the regime imposed on Aurora by her absentee daughter to keep her on a tighter leash after her last casino venture, the former colonised now the coloniser, serving/imprisoning the waning remnant of a departed raj. Pilar, whilst dipping toes in activism, internationalism, and artistic bohemia, seems deeply and definably unhip as a steady pillar of stolid faith and square, unfashionable values. She replaces her would-be lover’s painting with a cosy landscape and prays each night before going to sleep in her lonely bed. Yet there’s something about Pilar that refuses reduction to a twee bystander in her own life, in part indicated by her selflessness and the regard others have for her and confirmed by the rapturous, luminously poetic prayer that she recites at bedtime. When Pilar attends a protest rally against the UN, she recites her prayer during a silence that baldly and hilariously contrasts the witless chant the crowd recites.
This scene, rendered in one, slow zoom closing in on Pilar’s stoic visage, is brilliant, illuminating with enriching wryness the way humanitarianism has supplanted and become a religion for many, whilst perceiving how it offers stolid pieties and studied outrage in place of the rhapsodic power and poetic fullness still apparent in Pilar’s worldview. There’s a hint of irony here, as Gomes actively contends with the losses and gains of any historical moment, contrasting the smallness of much of modern life with the lost grandeur, poeticism, and romanticism of the past; but the past is rendered not necessarily as a lost golden age either. Similarly, present here is a hovering awareness of the way age reduces people from creatures of fecund sense to wearied circumspection, and the crossing point between the two can come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be regained. Aurora is the avatar for this notion, as the film examines her final weeks and then loops back to explore her past in an unexpected pirouette of focus and meaning. Like Aurora, Ventura proves to have been supplanted by a descendant. His house is occupied by a young spiv with key chain and sweatshirt, who theorises that his great-uncle now no longer occupies his house because “he went bonkers.” Pilar goes to the nursing home where the old man has been deposited, sitting in a waiting room whose sterile cul-de-sac quality is all the better communicated for being unexaggerated in its blank modern emptiness. When she extracts Ventura, she’s confronted with a snowy-haired gentleman who wears a weathered old hat that rests like a totem on his head, redolent of a fascinating past. After Aurora’s funeral, Pilar and Santa go to eat with Ventura in a shopping mall cafeteria, and Gomes’ drifting camera almost casually transforms the place, through the potted plants of the mall’s indoor garden, into an anticipatory simulacrum of jungle, the humdrum suddenly taking on a charge of the authentically exotic.
Aurora’s and Ventura’s shared past, as he explains it, goes back to colonial Africa of the early 1960s, whereupon the second part of Tabu commences, shocking as it reaches a climax, even as certain aspects are inevitable. The person Aurora once was is now revealed in sometimes unflattering detail: a strident planter’s daughter who was world-famous as a hunter, a mischievous, imperious, and occasionally cruel personality under the surface of her cool beauty, redolent of a coddled upbringing. Gian Luca was a playboy who washed up in Africa after meeting Mario (Manuel Mesquita), an adventurous jack of all trades who had once trained to be a priest; after getting a job with a mining company, Gian Luca became a fixture in the colonial community. In this fashion, Gian Luca was eventually introduced to Aurora, who had recently been married to a pleasant young member (Ivo Müller) of the local pseudo-aristocracy. The real incident behind the older Aurora’s rambling about an escaped crocodile proves rooted in the crucial incident that brought her and Gian Luca together: the crocodile was a baby, a present given to her by her husband, and its occasional escapes usually saw it ending up in a pool at Gian Luca’s house, where their mutual attraction soon erupted in a clandestine affair. The affair flourished in spite of, and in fact partly fuelled by, her pregnancy by her husband and the oncoming plunge into the immobility of motherhood that rendered Aurora even more reactive than usual: when one of her family’s cooks, a reputed juju man, predicted the pregnancy and that Aurora would eventually die alone and bitter, she sacked him.
Tabu, like many works of modern narrative art, is as much about its own telling as it is a story told, but the great final effect of Tabu is in how concisely it dovetails the impulses to both tell and make a show of the telling. The flow of Gian Luca’s speech is rarefied and yet riveting, reproducing the intended effect: the older Ventura’s soft-spoken narration underscores the action, rendered at once remote and ironic by the lack of dialogue, but unfolding with the curious grace and immediacy of personal anecdote. The film’s contrast between the humdrum realism of Pilar’s story and the historical romanticism and melodrama of Aurora’s could have become arch, but Gomes’ strict control and sense of humour are mediated through his stylistic choices. The change in film stock in the shift from contemporary to period setting evokes the past through a rougher prism, albeit one that is often more immediate, communicative of grittier, fleshier textures. The point underlying this is the notion that we in the present—any present—experience the past either through memory or through the remnant self-representation of the period—any period—and the effect of the artifice becomes ingrained with the meaning. An early scene in the Pilar half of the film, in which the artist first appears, depicts the duo as part of a tour group being shown through underground catacombs by a rambling guide who tells them theoretical details about the place—that maybe it was once used by Romans and Moors—but then reminds them that “what I’m telling you is stories, not facts,” provoking the artist to finally rebel and shout out, “Why do you keep talking such crap?” Pilar cracks up in hilarity, the only time she does so, and whilst the artist is himself hardly idealised, his comedic abuse evokes Gomes’ conviction that the past can only be reconceived and brought to life by the complex interplay of evidence and artistry. Gomes recreates the alien strangeness of early ethnographic documentaries in an early scene where the explorer’s porters begin to dance for the camera after the explorer commits suicide, recreating the gaze of the colonial project only to turn it back on itself.
Tabu’s mastermind has made a film in part about colonialism, though with an infinitely lighter touch than the shrill overtones that subject usually invokes, and suggests the commencement of a cycle playing out its last gasps in depicting the death of the last generation of colonial survivors. The world glimpsed in Tabu’s second-half flashback is engaged in the early processes of epochal shift, as civil war and the end of the direct colonialist project in Africa is commencing. The flashy, internationalist world of modern pop culture is infiltrating even this backwater, as Mario’s band becomes a minor hit with a song prized today by music fans for its simple grittiness. An offhand, recurring detail confirms the wheels of time and the sinuous links of history, in a peppy Spanish-language version of “Be My Baby” to which Pilar listens on the radio at one point, and which later turns out to have been recorded by Mario’s band when working as a backing band for a female singer during a sojourn in Europe. Later, the intertwined nature of personal and social history is elucidated in a more alarming fashion, as a murder that punctuates the story, a purely personal affair, is repurposed in a declaration of war by rebel guerrillas, signalling the start of general bloodshed. Similarly, the firm moral grounding of the old world is giving way, as Gian Luca’s tale depicts a too-early grasp at sexual independence and Aurora is exposed as a peculiar by-product of colonialism in her deadly, strident independence, both proto-feminist victim of repressive social ideals and backdated remnant of a culture created by murderous self-interest and built around a sense of domain and overlordship.
The film, it is eventually revealed, takes its name from a fabled mountain close to the plantations where most of the period drama unfolds. The mountain is considered sacrosanct by the native Africans and notoriously inimical to explorers, and one of the characters of the historical portion, Mario, had his life saved by the man who became Aurora’s husband when a disaster cost the lives of several of Mario’s friends at the mountain. Later, the more vivid and corrosive meaning of taboo rises to the surface as Aurora and Gian Luca’s adulterous passion cleaves apart the incestuously tight-knit colonial world and its careful balance of opposing forces based on studiously observed rules. The bond of fellowship between Mario, Gian Luca, and Aurora’s husband (who is never actually called by name; only his status counts in the fading memory of Gian Luca) is broken. At the same time that the bonds of colonial nicety are disintegrating, with revolution manifesting as whispers and tales of bloodshed, not yet manifesting and actually taking an act of intra-fraternal murder to give it a push towards fruition. So the arrival of systemic disintegration is, to all intents, the by-product of moral failure, a failure that is both illusory in empirical effect and yet linked by a web of circumstance, a network of cracks in the structure that conjoin.
The contrasts in character are employed to a fascinating end: just as Aurora is revealed as someone as different to the repressed but conscientious goody-two-shoes Pilar as night to day, so, too, is Gian Luca, who in old age seems like a remnant of a swashbuckling era, finally and vividly contrasted by his pal Mario, whose lust for life, industry, bravery, and egotistical rectitude seem quite humiliatingly greater than his more superficially dashing pal. But Gian Luca’s character emerges in his hapless surrender to fate and judgement, and Mario’s postures of martyrdom are undercut early when the voiceover informs that Mario’s fondness for the company of natives resulted in a son whom he sometimes indulged by taking him for rides in his car along with a half-dozen more village progeny. Gomes’ final point is less moralistic, however, than biological and systemic: good, bad, moral, immoral, everybody dies. But the shape of the hole left by their absence describes oceans of meaning. As melancholic as Tabu’s themes are, Gomes retains a constant supply of dry, faintly absurdist humour percolating throughout much of the drama, the comic often indivisible from the tragic. This is apparent in the slumping shoulders and depressively staring, can’t-give-a-shit visage of the explorer in the first shot, the hoots of laughter Pilar releases when the artist upbraids the tour guide and the windy pathos of the artist’s proposal, and most particular in the élan of Mario and his band’s performances for their pool-party cliques. Shots of Gian Luca tearing about on motorcycle, chasing Marion in his car, depicts a celebration of a reckless youth in pure untrammelled, rule-free space reminiscent of African comedies like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), albeit with that lawless spirit lost in an irretrievable past.
Gomes’ layers of storytelling engage finally with varieties of mythology. Aurora’s hunting prowess as a virgin, which deserts her not when she marries but when, having taken Gian Luca as a lover, she gives her pet crocodile a romantic name, hints at likeness to figures out mythology like Atalante and Die Nibelungenlied’s version of Brunhilde, again pointing toward the import of ritual and its partner, taboo, as a fabric that still ties together human relations. Conversely, Gian Luca’s mention of how her hunting had made her internationally famous harkens to an age of glossy magazine articles from the time when traipsing about Africa shooting animals (or saving them) made people quite famous indeed. The climax of Gian Luca’s narrative depicts murder, cover-up, and the loss of life’s fondest loves, fittingly melodramatic culminations that justify patience with the telling. What has been depicted in the first half proves to have been a logical, if no less tragic, end for Aurora, who paid long and bitterly for her transgressions. Gomes’ silent-film refrains pay off in the climax, as Gian Luca cowers in fear of the gun-wielding Aurora, and a point-of-view shot from behind his shielding hands allows a crack through which to watch Aurora as she fires the fun, an equally fatal, though not mortally so, glimpse of transgression. It’s the sort of visual epiphany that could have sprung out of silent cinema, and finally Gomes’ conceits coalesce into a singularly distilled moment made all the sharper by the antihero’s instinctive panic, uncertain as to whether he’s the target or the object of rescue. The light in Aurora’s eye seems hardly tethered to immediate reality, but rather to obey the hunter’s instinct. The narrative finally, acerbically notes, that after ending a man’s life, everything else in her life is an anticlimax. The inner sense of what we’ve seen, including Aurora’s alienation from her daughter, born on the floor of a grass shack and reclaimed by her father and undoubtedly left to be regarded forever thus as the icon of her own debasement, is left tragically illuminated. Few films have ever managed to twin the macrocosmic and the immediately personal with the grace and cleverness of Tabu.
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Director/Screenwriter: Alain Gomis
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I recently had the pleasure of meeting African-American storyteller Michael D. McCarty when he came to the Chicago area to bring his mostly African tales to eager audiences at the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival. His performance was a reminder of how rich in wonder and home truths the world’s stories are and why films that tap these ancient fables are so compelling.
I received a reminder of this fact yesterday as I watched the Senegalese film Tey. Director/screenwriter Alain Gomis introduced the film by asking us not to worry about the confusing premise too much and just focus on the present. Good advice, because Tey tells the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community.
The opening moments of Tey put us directly into the doomed man’s shoes. Satché’s (Saul Williams) eyes flutter open and we see what he sees—his bare stomach and the top of his pants. His hands pat his stomach, and then we hear some crying and wailing. Satché emerges from the bedroom to the hugs and tears of his family and friends as they mourn his impending loss. They go into the courtyard of the compound and sit in a circle. Satché’s father praises God that his son was chosen, and the assembled offer testimonials both kind and cruel about Satché. His mother (Mariko Arame) has the final word, a heartbroken mother telling how much she will miss him. Then it is time for Satché’s best friend Sélé (Djolof Mbengue) to take him out and ask him, “What do you want to do?” The rest of the film chronicles how Satché chooses to spend his final day of life.
Satché’s fate echoes through many stories I’ve heard over the years, particularly from Joseph Campbell, including the grace killing of the noble hostage well told in the Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971). Christians might see the story of Christ in this tale of a man chosen by God to die, but it’s hard to know if Satché’s death will be a transformative sacrifice for his community despite the honors bestowed upon him and joy surrounding him. There is something of the heroic soldier here, a man who has seen “the fear,” as the people he encounters call it. Yet, we also see a child soldier in camoflage fatigues carrying a weapon as Satché scans the streets of Dakar, somewhat undercutting the notion of the bravery society assigns to state-sanctioned violence.
What is most important, and what director Gomis emphasized in the post-screening Q&A, is the familiar admonishment to live each day as though it were your last. For Gomis, this is not a call to achieve as much as you can in whatever time you have, as it is in many Western societies. Indeed, Satché is chosen in the prime of life, before he has been able to put his American schooling into practice to help rebuild Senegal; he will never have the chance to rush to achievement as the fictitious Mozart did in Amadeus (1984).
Instead, Gomis focuses on connection, on living completely in the moment. This realization creeps up on Satché, coming to fruition when he finally grieves for himself after Uncle Thiemo (Jean Mendy), the man he has asked to wash him for burial, demonstrates on Satché in both a chilling and oddly reverential moment what he will do to prepare Satché for paradise. After this, Satché’s life force weakens, and he must be helped as Sélé walks him to his home and gives him the left-handed handshake that signals they will not see each other again for a very long time. Gingerly, Satché pushes open the metal doors portentously marked with Xs and goes into the courtyard of his home to see his wife Rama (Anisia Uzeyman) and two young children for the last time and lay down that evening to die.
With handheld and stationary cameras, Gomis’ cinematographer Christelle Fournier shoots extreme close-ups and scanning shots as Satché takes in his surroundings and the people in his life. We see leaves and the shadows the leaves make on the ground. We watch Satché drink the milk out of a coconut from a young man who is heavily in debt to a missionary school, and we wonder who is more unfortunate—the educated young man who will be in servitude to a debt for many years to come or the one who will not wake up the next morning. Uncle Thiemo tells Satché that he will actually live longer than someone who does not know when he will die because Satché has the awareness to really take in the most important aspects of his life in his final day. Indeed, Gomis recreates the feeling of all times converging in a single moment of being completely alive when Satché sits in his compound with Rama and sees his children, now teenagers, say good-bye and walk out the gate.
During the Q&A, Gomis commented on the positive changes Senegal has been undergoing slowly as more of the young people who went abroad to get educated and find opportunities are returning to the country, a detail he added to Satché’s story. We were shocked to learn that there are no movie theatres left in Senegal, and therefore, this film will not be seen in its own country outside of a cultural center or two that might set up a screening. He said he cast American actor Saul Williams as Satché because he admired Williams’ acting abilities, because he looks so Senegalese, and because his lack of knowledge of the languages spoken by the other cast members would give him an aura of standing a bit outside of the everyday world.
Gomis’ instincts were dead-on in every aspect. Tey is a hauntingly beautiful film that confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability.
Tey screens Tuesday, October 16, at 2:30 p.m. Alain Gomis is scheduled to attend the screening. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Richard Marquand
By Roderick Heath
George Lucas’ Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is, for better or worse, one of the defining films of the modern era. Splendiferously entertaining, it’s also a stylistically powerful film, one that rarely gets praise as such, as if it all sprang fully formed out of the head of the Zeus of nerds. Star Wars has been since its release the first step most any young film fan takes—including, yes, me—towards a love of the medium. It also is usually the first target for the budding film snob. I admit to having made both steps, and then come back again. The essential glee of the original trilogy is in its conceit of taking the kids from American Graffiti (1973) and sticking them in spaceships to go tearing about the galaxy fighting The Man, only to confront the ultimate terror: perhaps one day, they’ll be The Man. Watching the first film again recently, I was struck by how much Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo look and sound so very, very ’70s, and how strong the semi-satiric tint is. It’s not hard to imagine the whoop of good-humoured knowing in the first preview audience’s appreciation of this hunk of old-fashioned corn, invested with disco-era wit and pizzazz, purveyed for their entertainment, after having to pretend the likes of Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974) were fun. Lucas tried to avoid that sort of specificity and self-mockery in his prequels, which have far more of the formalism of chivalric romance to them, and laid himself open to intense criticism in the process.
Return of the Jedi has consistently remained my favourite of the original trilogy. Don’t get me wrong: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), often cited as the best of the series, has some formidable qualities. With an eye for scenery and touch with actors, experienced filmmaker Irvin Kershner proved an uncannily good choice to lend deeper stylistic and thematic reflexes to Lucas’ Roy Lichtenstein-meets-Hugo Gernsback model. The sheer immensity and beauty of the scifi vistas on display in the second episode are indeed the most lovingly detailed and tactile, answering the gritty, technocratic zeal of the opener with a stylisation that blended vivid Technicolour Expressionism with Amazing Stories covers. Add to this the intelligent expansion of having Luke (Mark Hamill) trained as a Jedi by the diminutive Yoda (Frank Oz), and the genuinely brilliant twist of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) proving to be his father, and you have a model middle episode. But I’ve always found the episode inert on a story level, and the subplot of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the familiar Millennium Falcon crew, whilst witty, essentially treads water for most of the running time. In contrast to the impressively malefic vigour of Luke and Vader’s light saber duel, the action for the other characters sinks to a level close to lesser Doctor Who episodes where people run through corridors firing badly aimed rayguns. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is if anything almost too busy: it wraps up the outstanding plot strands, offers a final battle of tremendous scope, introduces the real villain of the saga, Ian McDiarmid’s palpable Emperor Palpatine, and fulfils the mythic overtone the series had strained to reach from the start.
Jedi also has Ewoks, a point usually counted against it as a sign Lucas was giving in to excessive juvenile appeal, planting seeds for his later total concession to it with Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). That knock is probably true, and yet the Ewoks have never bothered me. I have to admit that a certain amount of the charge this episode carries for me lies precisely in the simultaneously funny and slightly horrendous sight of the furry little beggars taking on the imperial forces, and giving a good enough account of themselves to make the victory of others a possibility. The Ewoks, superficially silly little furballs, actually prove to be jokers in the deck who help turn a well-laid trap into a double-edged blade. The Ewoks, almost unbearably endearing as they are, simply exacerbate the basic appeal of the series—the little guys take on the overwhelmingly powerful and come out on top.
It’s tempting to stress some of the peculiar, countercultural synergy invoked by the Ewoks’ place in the story as pseudo-indigenous warriors who use guerrilla tactics to bring down an unstoppable superpower: parallels with Vietnam and the shift of empathy around to Native Americans in the Western genre are not inappropriate, but could easily become laboured. Much more immediate credulity was given to the same “weird yet handy aliens as metaphorical version of aboriginal populaces” pitch when they were rendered as giant cat-people in Avatar (2009). Another major strike listed against the film, but again one that doesn’t bother me as much as it might, is the fact that the plot boils down to a replay of the first film, with the rebels trying to take out another Death Star. Perhaps it’s the fact that the script introduces some neat variations on the theme, as the Emperor deliberately suckers the rebels into trying to repeat the past, or the sheer scale and vivacity of the imagery in play, but Jedi succeeds in painting an equally enjoyable portrait of techno-fascist blitzkrieg versus outsider bravura.
The visual and aural drama achieved by Lucas and his design team, including concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, production designer Norman Reynolds, and cinematographer Alan Hume (replacing Gilbert Taylor and Peter Suschitzky), plus John Williams’ rich and inspired scoring and the teeming brilliance of the special effects, formed a large part of the film series’ capacity to rip a practically Pavlovian response from so many viewers. Yet, none of it would have mattered much if the sense of epic wonderment was not backed up on some level by a genuine love of story: the drama and characterisation of the series are always elemental, and yet always leavened by a care for detail, no matter how fleeting, even down to bits of throwaway humour that offer surprises, like the trainer weeping over his dead pet, which seemed to everyone else like a voracious hell-beast. The brightly coloured, but scuffed, tactile, even degenerating technocratic sheen of the first film shades into a darker, cleaner aesthetic, with the Nuremberg-via-Swedish-Moderne beauty of the Empire’s architecture. This contrasts vividly with the wastes of Tatooine and the forest purity of Endor, the name of which retains a biblical echo, and the look of the films echoes the thematic tensions based in the gap between technology and humanistic values, control and freedom, destruction and repression. The manichaeism of the conflict between the “dark” side of the Force and its counterpart is reductive, yet it also accounts for much of the nagging power of the series, in how it consistently invests the surface drama with an undertow of primal psychological anxiety, overt action always flowing in counterpoint to a nearly unseen battle for mastery over the forces of creation and annihilation themselves, the difference between them never farther apart than a choice.
The job of directing Return of the Jedi was actually offered to David Lynch before production, but he passed to do Dune (1984) instead: the thought of Lynch tackling Star Wars material is a fascinating what-if of cinema history. Coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan might have made a good choice to step up to the plate, but he was already moving off in his own direction. The job was eventually given to relatively unsung Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, who had displayed a talent for blending realism and theatrical passion in the context of pulp material and lending a contemporised edge to old-fashioned storytelling, in his spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand’s subsequent output was highly uneven, with the Joe Esterhasz-penned Basic Instinct prequel Jagged Edge (1985) notable between two weak pop romances, but his death just four years after making this film was still a sad loss. Marquand displayed formal gifts for keeping the elements of action on a colossal scale, which perhaps demand much more attention than they’ve ever been given. One telling aspect of Return of the Jedi’s influence is that it’s still pretty much the go-to point of reference for staging for franchise climaxes, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011), all taking some cues in story and style from Marquand’s film. Also telling is how few of them manage to reproduce its economy and intricate, deceptive blend of complexity and naivete.
One element of the series that was commercially daring at the time, though it now seems relatively familiar, was the scruff-of-the-neck approach to hurling the audience back into the storylines, which the iconic opening explanatory scrawls only partly mitigated. There is only the plunge into stories already in motion, with a handful of expository remarks to give a context. Return of the Jedi relies on knowledge of previous episodes to make sense of it and also to give it power. Far from limiting its appeal, however, this touch helped make the series as pop-culturally pervasive as it is, engaging the audience in the serial-like dynamic (“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!”) over a longer period of time than usual, but all the more intense for that reason, whilst also looking back to the ritualised, in media res structuring of classical epic poems. The oedipal death battle between Luke and Vader is gripping for having watched Luke’s evolution from a bright and eager farm boy to a baleful figure of fate, and supped on Vader’s blackly humorous poise as bringer of wrath and cruelty. The film’s first movement wraps up one of the major dangling threads of Empire, as Luke, Leia Organa, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) infiltrate the palace of grotesque Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt, where Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, is kept as a trophy on the wall.
One particular reason why I love Jedi is because it’s the episode that’s most in touch with its pulp forebears, quoting from a broader range of such models with humour and a solid, physically concrete lustre. The film’s first third is essentially an extended riff on pirate flicks and Orientalist adventure sagas, with Jabba as a particularly caricatured Sydney Greenstreet-esque sheikh, with his dancing girls and court of sycophants fugitives from some particularly overworked id. Those tropes are blended with some monster business, as Jabba drops those who displease him into a pit with the ferocious Rancor, in the most successful of the series’ many hat tips to Ray Harryhausen. The familiar, oversized grandiosity of the Fritz Lang-esque sets and the proliferation of bizarre alien faces here is invested with defiantly dark humour and an edge of weirdness more intense and psychological than anywhere else in the series: for example, C-3PO and R2D2 are ushered into a robot dungeon where unruly fellow droids are being tortured, and Jabba’s gremlin pet laughs in mockery at the humiliations doled out to those who incur his displeasure. The crypto-S&M edge reaches an apotheosis when Leia, caught in the act of trying to extract Han from his hibernation, is chained to Jabba’s throne as his latest harem girl, reduced from a heroine hitherto defined by independence and asexual power to a scantily-clad pet abutting the distinctly penile monster. It’s an image that provoked a million adolescent fantasies; rumour has it the whole concept was concocted in riposte to Fisher’s complaints she never looked like a woman in the earlier episodes. In the context of the series’ elemental logic, it’s practically a rape fantasy, and interesting as just about the only overt element of eroticism. The creative team leaven it by giving Jabba’s comeuppance to Leia herself, who strangles her would-be enslaver with her own chains, a surprisingly potent image of female self-reclamation riding on the back of soft-core sexploitation.
Meanwhile Luke’s appearance to rescue the crew from Jabba and annihilate his power takes the form of a sequence of pure, scifi-tinted swashbuckling. Gone are the postmodern quotation marks of Star Wars, when Luke and Leia made their swing across a vast airshaft. In Return of the Jedi, that self-doubt is gone, and pure adventure is in, as Luke and Leia flee Jabba’s sail-barge on a rope, and the barge crashes and erupts in fire, a climactic flourish and a promissory signature that the bad times are ending. Jedi is, indeed, distinguished structurally by the destruction of corrupt regimes, first Jabba’s, and then the Empire. Whilst moral shading of the enemy is hardly a priority of the series, in this case, there is a distinct and purposeful schism set up with the wickedness of Jabba, and the malignant, fascist-chic technocracy of the Empire. Whereas Jabba suggests a caricature of lascivious greed, an emanation from the subconscious, the Empire is a polar opposite, a projection of the superego and a deracinated obscenity on a cosmic scale. The eroticised domination Jabba assert over Leia and Han is rendered on a far more grandiose scale by the Empire over everything, but finally twinning back to the Emperor’s weirdly sexual desire to possess Luke, son of his own “seduced” underling Vader, a note the insistently underscores the final confrontation of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor and erupts when it becomes plain that Luke’s sister Leia could be similarly subsumed.
The mythic quality of the Star Wars series was apparent from the start, but perhaps more apparent in terms of its specific imagery and wide story arcs rather than in the serial-like zest of the actual storytelling. Lucas’ reading of Joseph Campbell had encouraged him to create a web not only generic but also of cultural influences, and the retro-futurist society he dreamt up blended elements of the Western, Asian wu xia and jidai geki genres (the word “Jedi” derives from the latter), Arthurian and Norse sagas, early scientifiction romps like Burroughs’ Barsoom tales, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and more sophisticated space operas like Lensman and Dune. In this episode, the fact that the films had evolved into an active expression of a mythological tradition, with roots in tribal campfire tales, acknowledged when C-3PO recounts the team’s adventures to a thrilled audience of Ewoks for whom C-3PO has become an ironic kind of god-shaman (with the real god-shaman Luke behind his apparent miracles), inculcating wisdom and stirring the tribes to action. The saga here takes a humorous meta-narrative glance at its own storytelling zest as a ritual of immeasurable legacy. Even the accidental edge of incestuous attraction that had flitted between Luke and Leia in the earlier episodes, before plot loops were closed by making them prove to have been siblings, links with a strange neatness to the way that theme is always linked to questions of mysterious roots and family, taboo and heritage, which constantly resurface in the mythic pantheon, from Oedipus and Jocasta to Siegmund and Sieglinde’s romance in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungen myth, whilst Luke’s battle with the father figure takes on Freudian overtones, hinted at in Empire, as Luke sees his own face in a decapitated Vader’s helmet, the paternal figure swathed in anonymous alienation.
In the previous episodes, and particularly in Empire, Vader’s faceless malevolence had been perhaps the series’ most remarkable coup, fearsome and alien, blackly comic in his casual violence and psychopathic wrath, and always weirdly charismatic in his towering, contemptuous brand of evil. Jedi does to a certain extent rob him of this stature, though that’s not incidental, as the Emperor wants and needs Vader to be beaten down in order to replace him. But it’s a peculiar sop to our sensibilities—the need to feel that anyone so attractively wicked has to be redeemable, even pathetic, on some level. Yet one of the sleights of Jedi is how the Emperor hardly seems paltry next to him. On the contrary, thanks to McDiarmid’s terrific performance (one that would withstand pressure in the prequels), he is even more insidiously, penetratingly effective, but crucially, without charm: he’s like a sleazy uncle just released from prison for unmentionable acts, now completely and utterly devoted to his own malicious pleasures, goading Luke with glee over the seeming cast-iron trap he’s set for the rebels. By comparison, the actual forces of the Empire, represented by the likes of Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), seem effetely castrated, in spite of wielding colossal starships, forever walking on eggshells with puckered anxiety over displeasing the almost godlike wrath of Vader and the Emperor.
The pseudo-spiritual edge with which Lucas imbued his tales—the mystique of the Force and the Jedi—was the most significant innovation he brought to the cinematic space opera, and taken most clearly from the element in those Asian genre films where the hero ascends on both a physical and metaphysical journey. The journey is here expressed through Luke’s slow development from callow farm boy to a new member of the resurgent breed to which his father once belonged. Marquand’s Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge had both posited the fascinating attraction and repulsion of evil in immediate erotic terms, whereas here it’s slightly more distanced, though no less potent. In spite of the fairy tale politics and deliberately remote settings, the fundamental reflexes of the series always lay in specific post-1960s questions of personal liberty and identity. Easy enough to see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda—the echo of the yearning of the counterculture era for enlightened figures of new-age mysticism—and the Emperor as their evil, Mansonesque flipside. But is Luke’s confrontation with his evil father an emblem of specific generational conflict over giving in to the compromises and cynicism of age, a by-product of the series’ flower-child underpinnings, or a confrontation with a Freudian nightmare of the self and the chain of creation that always binds together the sex and death urges? Both, more, and none.
Still, the evolving conflict that leads to the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the touch that has proven the most fascinating element Lucas and his cadre of cocreators, including veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and Kasdan, were to give to their take on the mythic form. The narrative impulse is strained by contradictory needs, between the urge toward grand action and the necessity of pacific self-control that finally moves, like the deepest heroic myths, into the realm of mysticism, even religion: a conquest of the interior duality that is a greater triumph than conquering a foe, and yet also key to besting that foe. Thus, Luke’s experience runs in counterpoint to such forebears as Siegfried/Sigurd who, in the Norse version of his mythology, defeats monsters but only learns fear in awakening the cursed Brunhilda; or Percival’s shedding of his armour to find the grail; or even Jacob’s wrestling with the angel who visits him. But Luke’s attainment of enlightenment, exemplified by the capacity to step back from wrath and prostrate himself before cruelty, is a Christlike gesture, and the only one that can liberate his father from the totality of evil. Whilst the battle continues, the real climax of Jedi is the moment of Vader’s confrontation by a choice, as the Emperor tortures Luke to death, his inhuman visage swinging between his son and his overlord with an intensity sharpened to Wagnerian heights by Williams’ scoring.
The smashing of the malignant machines of the Empire (Lang’s long shadow again?) is nothing compared to the simple act of Vader picking up the leathery old bastard who has perverted his life and hurling him into a pit. If the prequel trilogy achieved anything at all, it is that this action is even more palpable. Like much of the rest of the series, the power of this moment lies in its emotional directness and storytelling savvy: in spite of the wealth of special effects on hand, it’s achieved by the rapid alternations of close-ups between Luke’s agonised face, the Emperor’s sadistic glee, and between them, Vader’s unreadable mask covering emotional reflexes that are titanic. The journey from Luke’s discovery of his slaughtered foster parents in the first film by the forces Vader seems to represent most purely, to the moment in which Vader, so long the angel of death, expires in his arms as a wheezing, pathetic old ruin, finally disassembles the seemingly simplistic moral divides of the series. Luke attains manhood at last both by killing and redeeming his father, and whilst the other rebels get down with the Ewoks in a moment of goofy triumphalism, it’s Luke who stands out from the crowd, giving his father’s body a Viking pyre funeral, and gazing into the night and seeing the shades of the men who made him.
Otherwise, the action-adventure element of Jedi is beautifully straightforward, and the zest of the set-piece action scenes, including the speeder chase through forest trees at unnerving speeds, are still technically impressive and entertaining, all the moreso for not being belaboured. The series appeal to a delight in nerdish detail is likewise as strong as ever here: the exactly designated spacecraft, the fleetingly glimpsed characters with striking, weirdly memorable looks and names, including Jabba’s underling Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Lando’s blithely introduced sidekick for the final battle, and the much-loved Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose), the rebels’ crayfish-faced commander. Lando’s evolution from shifty corsair to swashbuckling hero, clearly taking cues from many an Errol Flynn forebear, is completed as he leads the seemingly doomed attack on the new Death Star and refuses to buckle in the face of impossible odds, convincing Akbar to stick it out in a space battle that rewrote the book on special-effects spectacle. It’s tempting to state that special-effects arts had reached a kind of perfect mean with this episode, rendered with intricacy and more sophisticated than almost anything seen before and yet retaining a physical, tactile quality that CGI, with all its fancifulness, would lose: it’s the fearsome beauty of the battle scenes that has always gripped me, the sense of real, gigantic hunks of metal smashing into each other, the wild, frantic battles that wend between the great ships, and the final race of Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) into the heart of the Death Star to destroy it. The three-tiered struggle of the finale—the space fight, the forest guerrilla war where the Ewoks try to buy the rebels under Han and Leia time, and the multiplaned duel of wits and will between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor—is sustained with a use of dialectic montage that’s a long way from Griffith and Eisenstein and yet linked, and it’s achieved with a deceptive ease that demands admiration: in spite of the rapid shifts of focus and tone, the action retains a seamless, associative integrity, with no shot that’s incomprehensible, no action that is poorly linked with another.
Most gratifying perhaps to the cinephile’s eye are Marquand’s knowing quotes from the panoply of antecedents that always lurked in the series, quoting the landing of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) in the early scenes of Vader arriving in the Death Star, Chewbacca swinging into action with a Tarzan howl, and the Ewoks blowing their horns in the call to battle reproducing the calling together of the tribes of Israel in The Ten Commandments (1956). The mythic, aspiring tilt of the series and its roots in knowing pastiche are in constant, balanced dialogue throughout Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to forget the slacker-era cynicism well summarised by the characters in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in dismissing Return of the Jedi as empty triumphalism in comparison to the “real” crappiness of The Empire Strikes Back’s end. That sort of cynicism is, for me, a reminder of the political defeatism that was so popular, and has proven so corrosive, in the late twentieth century. Whilst I would hardly argue that the Star Wars films radicalised a generation, nonetheless in a fashion similar to the ’30s Errol Flynn films and their possible formative influence on ’50s and ’60s radicals, I suspect the spirit of Star Wars, often dismissed by some as reactionary, lurks behind many a contemporary rebel weaned on such fare. We all need to remember that some regimes can, should, and shall be brought down by the plucky outsiders.
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Director: Rupert Sanders
By Roderick Heath
My recent encounter with the greatness of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen fired up my hunger for fantasy-adventure cinema again. Few films new or old could be expected to measure up to such a standard, but I still ventured out in search of satiety to the nearest multiplex, where the promise of a contemporary fix awaited in the form of neophyte director Rupert Sanders’ aggressive reframing of the Snow White myth as grim(m)ly inflated epic. For most folks, naturally, the essential, classical vision of Snow White is the trilling teen in medieval garb sweeping up between songs, as found in Disney’s game-changing animated film of 1937. The actual Grimm Brothers story, hewed from a folktale which had spread in variations right across central Europe, is a good distance from that cutely domesticated version. Whilst the Disney film retained faint echoes of its fundamental darkness, the source material proffered some epic cruelty, ending properly when the Evil Queen was hoist by her own fashion-diva petard, forced to put on a pair of red-hot iron shoes, and danced about in agony until she fell down dead. Such is the shudder-inducing climax of a tale couched in the visceral strangeness and unfiltered emotional and psychological wellsprings of such tales.
Sanders’ attempt to present a more grown-up, gritty, warrior-princess version of the legend isn’t the first to try to move back towards the source material: 1997’s TV-made Snow White: A Tale of Terror has a minor cult following who enjoy its outright gothic nasty, and some classic horror films like Argento’s Suspiria (1976) have invoked it. Snow White and the Huntsman, however, aims more for dark-hued adventure, a template which at first might make most think of The Lord of the Rings films. On closer inspection, it is closer in spirit to a tradition of modern fantasy filmmaking like Krull (1984) or The Neverending Story (1984) or Willow (1987), and, proportions maintained, mainstreams the mythopoeic inquiries of John Boorman. Director Sanders, amazingly, is a first-time filmmaker, plucked from directing British advertising, thus putting him squarely in a column with Ridley Scott and Legend (1985), as well as Hugh Hudson and his revisionist Tarzan epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), which also prefigure this kind of film.
Snow White and the Huntsman has proved a surprise hit with audiences in spite of largely mixed reviews from critics, and perhaps both responses have similar reasons, for the film has clearly managed to dovetail young audiences of the moment: Kristen Stewart loyalists from the Twilight franchise and fans of the sturdy heroine of The Hunger Games (2012). The first franchise almost immediately exhausted critical goodwill and the second will soon enough, but I found Snow White and the Huntsman vastly superior to either; it represents a formidable, if hardly flawless, entry in the genre, more evolutionist than revisionist. The film’s essential pitch mimicks a contemporary craze infiltrating a lot of modern takes on retro culture by freely rearranging their elements with ironic disparities, if not quite on a level with the overt absurdity of mash-ups like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) or the pseudo-novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Snow White, even in the older, nastier, story, is a traditionally passive figure, the adolescent changeling victimised by an avatar of aging, narcissistic, self-loathing femininity, who finds harbour taking care of seven boy-men, and is finally awakened from a rapturous coma of pubescence by the kiss of sexual awakening. The sense of hierarchy encoded in the tale is inevitably retrograde, and Snow White and the Huntsman takes the risk of sounding like one of the popular Politically Correct Fairy-Tales books from the ’90s in disturbing the tale’s internal tensions, which like most folktales practically screams for Freudian interpretation as a metaphor for essential processes of youth, the fear of the mother being supplanted by the daughter, and the drug-like intensity of the most intense moments of puberty. If there’s a problem with giving such tales a warlike makeover, it is, of course, in the sense that the innately feminine material has to take on a macho aspect, as if girls are only strong when they’re acting more like men.
Still, Sanders and screenwriters Hossein Amini, Evan Daugherty, and John Lee Hancock, take the hierarchism seriously, positing Snow White as a princess who gradually takes on an aspect clearly inspired by the concept of King Arthur in Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) as a unifying entity who is intimately tied to the natural as well as human order. Thus, Snow White’s familiar coterie of trailing animals is recast from simply reflecting her niceness to symbolise the way she becomes the fulcrum for a return of that order, and steps into her father’s place as the anointed ruler of the hazily medieval kingdom in which the drama unfolds. Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds, unlike last year’s post-Twilight fairytale reconfiguration, Red Riding Hood, in restoring gothic grandeur and a sense of metaphysical, Manichaean weight to the folktale panoply.
In a lengthy prologue, the recent history of the medieval kingdom of Tabor is laid out by Chris Hemsworth’s narrating hero, equipped with amusing Scots accent, as King Magnus (Noah Huntley), and Queen Eleanor (Liberty Ross) give birth to a baby whom the Queen dubs Snow White because of her wish to have a pale-skinned child that would match the perfect beauty of blood on snow. Snow White (played as a girl by Raffey Cassidy) grows up friends with William (Sam Claflin), an occasional teasing brat who’s the son of her father’s loyal brother, Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan). Not long after her mother dies during a harsh winter, a mysterious army attacks the kingdom. Magnus rides out to battle but finds the enemy are magical simulacrums that shatter into metallic fragments when struck. He rescues from their midst a prisoner, the stunning Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and, enchanted by her looks, decides to marry her. But she poisons and stabs him in the marriage bed, consummation of her plot to take over this kingdom as she had done with several others. Her real army steams in and slaughters everyone in the castle except William, who just manages to escape, and Snow White, who is secretly kept captive in a lofty prison where she grows into the adult shape of Stewart. Ravenna’s malignant regime slowly reduces Tabor to a wasteland, while she has been keeping herself young and beautiful thanks to a spell woven by her witch mother and the occasional ingestion of the life force of other pretty young women.
When the advising magical mirror she keeps on the wall (here a large bowl of polished brass that disgorges a liquid metal familiar) tells Ravenna she can secure her state forever by plucking out the heart of Snow White now that she is of age, she dispatches her unctuous brother Finn (Sam Spruell) to fetch the girl. When he tries to ravish her before delivering her to his sister, Snow White stabs him with a nail torn from the wall and manages to lock him in her cell. She flees the castle through its sewer only to be stranded in inhospitable terrain, finally collapsing in the midst of a miasmic, evil-infested forest.
Enter Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemworth), stage hunky, freshly plucked from a trough after losing a tavern brawl by Finn, for he’s one of the few men who know their way around that stygian woodland. Ravenna coaxes Eric into the venture by promising to revivify his dead wife. But once he’s led Finn and his team through the woods and located the trapped and desperate Snow White, Eric realises he’s been lied to. He kills Finn’s men and chases Finn away, and irritably leads Snow White, whose identity he is unaware of, out of the forest and into the care of a village of women and children who are hiding out from Ravenna whilst their husbands are off fighting with Hammond’s resistance, in which William is proving himself a budding hero. Finn is sent out by his recriminating sister with a large force, and William, having learned that the royal sibling is hunting the girl he thought was dead, joins up with Finn’s army in hopes of finding her. When Finn’s army attacks the village, Eric is forced again to save Snow White and flee with her into the wilderness, where they are taken prisoner by a gang of dwarf bandits, including Muir (Bob Hoskins), Beith (Ian McShane), Coll (Toby Jones), Gort (Ray Winstone), Duir (Eddie Marsan), Nion (Nick Frost), Gus (Brian Gleeson), and Quert (Johnny Harris). With Finn still on their tail, the lot of them flee into the deepest, enchanted glades of the forest, where fairies flitter through the air and the land still hasn’t been poisoned by Ravenna’s influence. A colossal white stag, embodiment of the natural order in the forest, pays homage to Snow White as its human equivalent.
Sanders fills his film with some derivative but still consistently striking visuals, achieving a genuine majesty and hallucinatory intensity at some points and investing the tale with a lucidly sensual feel: there’s a heady, aptly symbolic force behind his recurring employment of motifs of blight and rot despoiling pure mantles, from blood dripping into blindingly white milk to the contrast of black crows and dark trees with the dazzling lightness of snow, that convey visually the essential oppositions of spirit. The two über-femmes at war in the narrative convey divergent visual textures in their physiognomies whilst, natch, their internal selves are opposite: Snow White embodies the contrast of light and dark, blight and purity, with her hyper-contrasted beauty, and yet she is, of course, all good, whilst Ravenna’s efforts to retain an unblemished exquisiteness sees her retain the look of the honey-haired golden girl, except, of course, she has a howling void where a soul should be. In one weirdly affecting and beautiful moment that tweaks an old sexploitation gimmick in DeMille epics, she bathes in a tub filled entirely with milk, rising out of the fluid coated in the stuff as if she’s made out of plaster, whilst the run-off is collected by desperately hungry peasants. Ravenna congratulates herself for this generosity, recalling her own days of childhood struggle with Finn. Meanwhile, Snow White subsists in her chilly, barren cell, gazing up toward the sun she’s only seen through a narrow aperture for years, looking disturbingly like a concentration camp survivor, her sturdy bone structure still impressive in spite of her pale and filthy form.
Sanders, then, whilst joining the ranks of many directors tackling fantastical fare for the sake of making a name for themselves perhaps on the way to other things, actually seems to have an affinity for this material: the scenes in the refugee village situated in a reedy marshland reminded me, oddly, of moments in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), and a similar sense of chaos surrounding fringe worlds of subsistence invades the scenario here. He imbues his film with tactile qualities in engaging with the pseudo-ancient, mystically pervaded world it portrays, and it helps that he displays a fairly judicious sense of when to employ CGI and when not to, making the film one of the most profitable fusions of new and old approaches. There’s a wild grandeur to the sequence in which Snow White, escaping her castle prison, has to hurl herself into the sea to escape from high, ragged cliffs and is swept ashore, and an air of malevolence in her subsequent struggling through the stygian forest after leaving her horse trapped in the surrounding mire (recalling a key moment in The Neverending Story). The edge of malevolent anthropomorphism the Disney film loaned this portion of Snow White’s odyssey is here built upon, with trees that harbour batlike demons and mossy growths that sport winking eyes, as if the poor girl has stumbled into the very swamp of the id. Later, as heroine and helpmates take refuge in the faerie glades, stylisation takes a sharp swerve toward more familiar visions of lustrous nature, as a pantheistic undertone emerges, conflated, as in the Siegfried and Arthurian myths, with an overlay of Christian idealism—Snow White, early on, prays when alone in her cell to offset the misery of life under Ravenna—where a natural balance can be restored. Snow White’s holistic link to the world around her, giving a deeper, less immediately chauvinist meaning to the way the word “fairest” attaches to her, is first signaled when she and Eric are attacked by a troll in the haunted forest, a terrifying beast that swats Eric seven ways from sunset but investigates the girl with respectful interest. Nonetheless, Eric’s essential decency is proven as he (grudgingly, of course) takes on the job of protecting rather than hunting Snow White.
Ravenna is one of the more engaging villains in a mainstream film of recent years, and Theron, who, Monster (2001) Oscar notwithstanding, has had a difficult time finding a true niche in Hollywood, presents her as a memorably egomaniacal creature who throws temper tantrums like a super-villainous Lucy Van Pelt and justifies her utterly rapacious hostility through rewriting all reality according to her personal prejudices. There is sympathy for this devil: the spell her mother worked was designed to help her retain her beauty in full knowledge it would be her best weapon in a brutal, covetous, sexist world, and harsh experience has made her misanthropic beyond all reason. Her worst moments of evil are almost always capped by proclamations of her own righteousness as an avenger of past wrongs, rich against poor, man against woman, whilst, of course, she is doomed to constantly repeat those crimes in her sociopathic ruthlessness, devastating the wealth of Tabor and reducing it to a poverty-stricken hell hole, and leaching off young women with literal, relentless parasitism: Eric’s wife, we learn eventually, was one of the many reduced to a haggard husk by this parasitism, and then killed by Finn. This spin on the Bathory myth gives heft to a more immediate drama being enacted here, between the older woman/actress whose days as a stunning beauty are numbered, and the younger woman/actress who is supplanting her. As some of the less gentlemanly comments I read up to the date of the film’s release pointed out, Stewart is a less classical beauty than Theron, a contrast that is aptly exploited throughout, particularly in the finale where Stewart takes on an amusingly butch façade in leading her army against Ravenna’s.
Rest assured (for better or worse), this is not the post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell Snow White. Our heroine has two guys to choose from (probably as another result of Twilight, love triangles are definitely back in), but the film further tweaks the familiar tale, as Eric proves to be the true love whose kiss will rouse the girl from her coma. Said coma is induced when Ravenna, in one of the film’s more peculiarly protean twists, transforms herself into William and feeds Snow White the poisoned apple, the forbidden fruit taking on suggestively Sapphic dimensions. Sadly, explorations of the erotic dimensions of fairy tales, as in predecessors like Legend or The Company of Wolves (1984), are as verboten these days as it is in the superhero genre, and the sensual edge of Sanders’ filmmaking never gets any real manifestation save in the inevitable climactic moments where we wonder which necrophile hero will revive the heroine. Instead, today’s fantastical filmmakers are expected to stress such material as avatars for less internal, symbolic, intuitive problems, a la the faux civics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies as opposed to the fetishism of Tim Burton’s, or the naïve romanticism of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, as opposed to the monstrous sexuality of the original. Whilst the schism between William and Eric as a potential partner take on clear, social dimensions—William is sleek, ardent, boyishly pretty, whereas Eric is a hulking, virile proletarian—the film avoids making either one morally or physically lesser or covertly villainous to make for a simple choice for our heroine. Finally, the rough-trade huntsman wins out because he’s more substantial than his nobleman rival; damaged, aggrieved, and occasionally boorish, he is nonetheless stolidly reliable and swaggeringly sexy.
Whilst Eric is a fairly lumpen hero, I will cop to a bit of a man-crush on Hemsworth, who’s got all my good will after his turns as Thor; unlike too many would-be beefcake icons of the last few years to rise in Hollywood, he actually offers charm and hints of acting chops to back up the physique, whilst also dwarfing some who have tried to mould themselves into an action hero. Speaking of dwarves, the little guys who form a warrior band that guard Eric and the Princess are played by an astounding battery of fine British character actors (though perhaps it is a bit egregious to cast such actors in such parts, especially when Warwick Davis needs work) and characterised as pugnacious yeomen, classically working-class and frustrated, angry, and depressed by having lost their self-respect as miners and craftsmen. They prove eager, in spite of their initial criminal misanthropy, to sign on the Princess’ adventure, and the notion of a kind of class rage driving a desire for regime change flows through Snow White and the Huntsman with surprising doggedness, if not exactly depth.
If there’s a fundamental problem with Sanders’ film, it manifests mostly on a scripting level. Not that there’s anything overtly bad about it: composed by an unlikely battery of serious wordsmiths, including Amini, who wrote Iain Softley’s brilliant unpacking of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive last year, and Hancock, whose The Alamo (2004) was unfairly disastrous. But in grafting the Grimm brothers’ tale onto a familiar fantasy-adventure template, Snow White and the Huntsman accepts that template too completely, hitting all the obvious story points. It kills off a likeable character at a crucial moment to give the last act emotive juice, and charges into an action finale that, like some weaker modern fantasy-adventure films (Willow and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ), culminates in a dully staged tussle between heroine and villainess in a remote tower when they could be using the whole world as an arena.
It’s this lack of fundamental imagination on a story level that finally retards the very real qualities of Snow White and the Huntsman—with so much potential ground to cover, was remaking every swashbuckler where an exiled princeling fights to reclaim the kingdom really all they could come up with? Yet there’s a fascinating tension in the depiction of Snow White as embodiment of all the fundamental graces who must learn how to kill, even if it is an entirely evil enemy, to restore her world. When Eric’s kiss jolts the Princess out of her coma, she’s not merely awakened but born again hard, wandering out before her mourning subjects and sparking them to life in turn with the compulsory rousing speech, and appearing moments later in armour to lead the cavalry out. It’s a gleeful and pretty hot image, though I could have used a better, more attentive sense of build-up to this moment. But the charge of the cavalry along the shore to Ravenna’s castle, with our heroes in the lead and the dwarves inside the castle to raise the portcullis for them, is a truly thrilling moment of epic sweep, strongly reminiscent of the finale of El Cid (1961), The Lion in Winter (1968), and the best scene in Scott’s otherwise ramshackle Robin Hood (2010). The fade-out leaves what will happen in her budding romance with Eric, who hovers uncertainly at the edges of the royal pomp of her coronation and for whom she looks in initially frantic distraction, perhaps to be reconciled in the proposed sequel in the works. For once, I look forward to a sequel, in the hope that Sanders can broaden his mythic imagination without losing his grasp on the finite mixture he sustains here.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details associated with other versions of the story, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context. In spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked to the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelung or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure as well as the magic helmet called the Tarnhelm, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Nicholas Meyer
By Roderick Heath
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is today often identified by its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, fluidic imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour rich and futuristic, yet also fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, is thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
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Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)
By Roderick Heath
The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.
Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.
His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including the sailor from the photo, armed with rude weapons found on the street.
Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime-store religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.
Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.
Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.
Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.
As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity out of an Italian peplum film from 1911: glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.
Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.
Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.
Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.
With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.
As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.
Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.
Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.
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Directors: Ronnie Yu and David Wu
By Roderick Heath
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for. This guardian is Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. This enemy gang is named after its leaders, conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers, once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, like the tale of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to ask for release so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward identities. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The conjoined male and female villains of the first film, who, with their magic powers, can beat up people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery, and a coherent use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche, help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain man’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.
Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.
Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.
Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.
Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.
Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.
I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.
It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.
We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.
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Director/Screenwriter: Catherine Breillat
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I think it’s very interesting that Catherine Breillat has continued her recently begun survey of female-centric fairy tales (the first, Bluebeard, premiered in 2009) with a film made for French television. Only in France, perhaps, could a controversial director with a penchant for filming explicit sex make a film certain to be watched by millions of girls—and that is certainly good news for the future women of France. For Breillat brings her feminist sensibilities to the story, borrowing freely from other fairy tales (mainly Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), to create a hero’s journey for girls and both subtly and directly confronting male audiences with the damage they do to women.
The film opens with an old woman (Rosine Favey) laughing wickedly while holding in her arms a baby who looks only minutes old. She is a powerful fairy who intends to curse the child, a princess named Anastasia, to die at age 16 after pricking herself on a spindle made from a yew tree standing in the graveyard. Three young fairies (Douina Sichov, Leslie Lipkins, and Camille Chalon) arrive too late to prevent the old fairy’s curse because they stopped to bathe in a nearby pond. After a comic scene in which the fairies peck at each other about their boasts to more power than they have, each nonetheless is able to mitigate the sentence when they arrive to bestow their blessings on the princess: one says the girl will sleep rather than die, the next says she will fall under the spell at age 6 and dream a full life for 100 years, and the third offers her the gift of awakening at the age of 16 because “childhood lasts too long.”
The film moves immediately to a 6-year-old Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) who strains at the restrictions of being a girl and even proclaims she is really a boy named Vladimir. Perhaps in a fitting punishment for rejecting her gender, she is stricken with the spindle prick while dressed in a ridiculous pink kimono over a short, lacey tutu as she prepares to dance en pointe among a flock of similarly garbed girls. She finds herself in an underground cavern filled with skeletons and ruled over by a boil-covered man who says he is a reflection of her rotting flesh. She wins her way out of the cavern by bowling down some bones and goes into the wider world.
Anastasia is whisked by an empty train to a country of dwarves, who eject her. Her next and most important stop is a trackside cottage, where she is taken in by a woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kerian Mayan), and becomes Peter’s sister. She is delighted to shed her ballet costume and dress in Peter’s clothes, and the pair becomes inseparable. From this point on, the film moves forward in a faithful rendering of most of the parts of “The Snow Queen.” Peter looks into the face of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) one snowy night. His heart is pierced with ice and his eye is tainted with a snowflake; his subsequent rejection of Anastasia and desire to break free is diagnosed by his mother as Peter reaching that Awkward Age. But one night, he leaves with the Snow Queen, and Anastasia sets off on her hero’s quest to find him and melt his heart. Her quest will take her back to the country of dwarves and a meeting with their albino king and queen, onto an encounter with the bandit maiden (Luna Charpentier) and her gang when they attack her coach, and finally on a doe-back ride to Lapland before we return to the castle where the story began. The 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) awakens to the sight of Johan (David Chausse), a handsome descendent of Peter, looking down upon her. If you’re waiting for a title card that says “They lived happily ever after,” you haven’t taken the lesson of the quest to heart.
Although the film is titled The Sleeping Beauty, all the action really occurs in “The Snow Queen” section of the film. This, I think, is Breillat’s strategy for turning the negative images of women Charles Perrault set to paper right on their head. First, Anastasia is no passive beauty who falls asleep just as she is awakening to sexual feelings. She may be a princess whose wish is others’ command, but she knows that she belongs to a second-class gender. The evil fairy is old, an image of a woman deformed by the self-loathing patriarchy engenders in women. The young fairies know they aren’t strong enough to fight the power, but it seems that the 100-year dormancy is a prayer that things will be better for women in the future.
Anastasia’s journey resembles Dorothy’s in Oz, right down to the little people, and ends with the shaman telling her that she has always had the power to defeat the Snow Queen, as evidenced by the fact that she won over many powerful and dangerous people and got them to help her. But the journey offers additional lessons. For example, Anastasia tells Peter he is being cruel by cutting back the rose bushes outside their home. Peter explains that brambles benefit from a cutting back, sending more shoots out during the growing season and producing flowers of many colors for all eternity. Anastasia answers that there is no eternity. Is it best to please ourselves by making the rose bushes produce abundant blooms, or might it be better to let them grow their own way, even if they stop looking beautiful or spread their prickly branches widely? Anastasia has an instinctive feeling toward the roses, but trusts in Peter’s love—a trust he will betray by falling for a projection of the feminine rather than the real thing.
When the film reaches past the traditional ending of “Sleeping Beauty,” Breillat brings Anastasia into the present. Anastasia flirts with Johan, letting him unbutton only a few of the many buttons running down the back of her old-fashioned dress. Her desire awakened, she imagines a mature version of the bandit maiden (Rhizlaine El Cohen) has returned. The young bandit excited Anastasia during her adventure by threatening to stab her, and their mutual excitement erupts again in a fantasy of lesbian love. Now prepared, Anastasia is ready to consummate her passion with Johan, but honestly tells him that her true love is Peter, that all men must understand that women stay true to their idealized lover. The next time Johan comes to see her, he finds only her dress. Heartbroken, he does not see her again until a few months later, walking down the street dressed provocatively in modern garb. She’s pregnant but rejects him nonetheless to live on her own terms, saying that she entered his world alone. The world of fairy tales, it seems, has nothing to offer modern women, a condition Breillat’s films might begin to repair if only she didn’t express so much pessimism about the possibility of gender equality and mutual support.
Breillat’s visual lyricism creates magic and whimsy. Watching Anastasia riding on the back of a doe across a snowswept vista is positively breathtaking, and the cast creates weirdly compelling tableaux awash in color and grandeur. The switch to the flat, unadorned world of today is a rude awakening that is perhaps a bit too bleak and heartless. Breillat has done much to explicate the feminine world to itself and to astute male viewers, but perhaps she is getting impatient at the lack of progress. I can only send words of encouragement to her and those who find so much inspiration in her work.
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Director/Screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The year’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, has earned enthusiastic notices from critics around the world, testament to the arrival of its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul among the elite of world cinema. This Thai screenwriter and director has a refreshing point of view that pays tribute not only to his personal history and his country’s traditions, but also to the influence of the Chicago experimental film scene to which he was exposed while attending the film school of Chicago’s Art Institute. Festival goers who are unfamiliar with Weerasethakul’s films or point of view and who simply want to see what captured the top prize at Cannes are likely to be disappointed with this film. It takes more patience than the average film, and its magic realism isn’t of the twee variety most Americans are used to. Thus, I’ll pass on some advice Mexican director Francisco Athié gave me and the rest of the audience attending a screening of Vera, his psychedelic meditation on death: “It is like an LSD trip. If you go with it, you will have a good trip. If you do not go with it, you will have a bad trip.”
The film is set in a rural area of northern Thailand, where the title character Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a successful farm. We see him out among his workers, one of whom shows him the pest problem they have in their tamarind grove. Boonmee is concerned about his farm and his workers, since he is in end-stage renal failure and has no heirs to whom to leave the farm. His sister-in-law Jen (Jengira Pongpas) has come up from Bangkok with her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to look after Boonmee. She worries about the immigrants he has employed to work on his farm, particularly a young man from Laos who handles Boonmee’s dialysis treatments: “Aren’t you afraid they will kill you and steal from you?” It’s obvious that Jen will not accept his offer to give her the farm, even with Boonmee’s promise that he will return as a ghost to help her out.
This promise isn’t as empty as a Western viewer might think. During a dinner the three are sharing, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears. She says hello to her sister and nephew and later tends to Boonmee’s care after his Laotian helper returns to Laos to marry. Also joining them at the family table is Boonmee and Huay’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has become a monkey ghost. His dark form and glowing red eyes don’t seem to frighten anyone, and he tells his father he watched the search parties Boonmee sent out to look for him but didn’t dare return. He had set out into the woods to search for a monkey ghost he had photographed and ended up mating with it. Weerasethakul films the flashback—the darkroom where the photo was developed, Boonsong’s search in the forest, the search party—one of the films within the film.
The main film will be interrupted several times to tell different stories that may or may not relate to Boonmee’s past lives, including an absolutely mesmerizing story of a homely princess who mates with a catfish that quite reminded me of a mythic story of agrarian communities I heard from Joseph Campbell about a maiden who mated with an eel. It seems clear that Weerasethakul based this film not only on a book of past-life stories a monk collected from people he encountered, but also on universal mythic traditions. He also seems to chart the evolution of the human race, as Boonmee, followed by Jen and Tong, is led into a deep cave like a salmon to its birthplace and, there, expires. His funeral comprises the last leg of the film, which will see a worldly monk from Bangkok become spooked in the rural monastery and seek refuge in Jen’s hotel room, and one final surprise from Weerasethakul. Not only does the monk use the hotel shower in an extended sequence that vaguely echoes the homoeroticism of Weerasethakul’s previous films, but he also goes out to dinner with Jen, only to look back before they leave the room to see them still sitting on the edge of the bed watching television. Weerasethakul’s comment about cinema’s ability to have two “lives” occurring simultaneously (the real life of the actor, including his ability to watch himself on the screen while sitting in a theatre, and his character’s life) is a staple of experimental film, but it also refers to his examination of reincarnation.
Uncle Boonmee is the last part of Weerasethakul’s “jungle” trilogy (I’d call it a reincarnation or time trilogy myself) that includes Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. With each film, the director has grown more confident in mixing the worlds he has wanted to explore. The first film was clearly demarcated into two halves: one, a standard drama of a budding homosexual relationship and a fable about the encounter between a soldier and a powerful shaman who transformed himself into a tiger that suggests the consuming power of love. Syndromes and a Century looked at the continuity of human behavior and interactions and, thus, history’s tendency to repeat itself, as Weerasethakul explored his parents’ history in its first half and then updated it to modern times with the dialogue nearly the same in each half. With Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has gone for the big score, showing how all times coexist—and certainly personal memory mixed with national history and the collective unconscious shows this to be true. The ambition of this film is enormous, and that Weerasethakul pulls it off with grace, humor, and beauty shows his is a talent that has finally matured. I sincerely hope audiences will dig deep and allow his connection with our symbolic and mythic dimensions to reach them.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screens Sunday, October 10, 3 p.m., and Friday, October 15, 6:30 p.m. (rush tickets only). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: John Huston
By Roderick Heath
This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.
Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, sensual, incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.
Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.
Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere.
When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself. When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.
Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.
The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.
“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.
Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.
One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.
It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.
In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”
All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergei Paradjanov
By Roderick Heath
From amongst his too-few crop of marvels, Sergei Paradjanov’s best-known film alongside 1968’s Sayat Nova, was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and it was the one that made his name. Although rendered in a similar hallucinatory, totemistic, folk-myth design as Sayat Nova, Shadows is quite different in that it at least tells a concrete, discernible narrative, managing to conjure something like the immense, segmented sprawl of classical sagas in an hour and a half. Where the later film tackled the cultural landscape of Paradjanov’s native Armenia, Shadows, based on a novella by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, describes the culture of the Ukrainians of the Carpathian Mountains in the eighteenth century (as suggested by the flintlock pistols the men carry), but could, in truth, be of almost any time. Whilst Shadows offers up the dramatic and tragic life of Ivan (Ivan Mikolajchuk), and his Romeo-and-Juliet love affair with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the story provides a mere framework for Paradjanov’s visuals fugues and ritualised evocations.
Nothing has meaning in Paradjanov’s films unless it linked to the totality of the natural world and the chains of tradition. Shadows unfolds in a series of linked, but segmented chapters that both extend Ivanko’s story and portray the world in which he lives, a world that is elemental even in its spirituality. In the first few minutes of the film, the young Ivan (I. Dzyura) loses most of his family. Ivan is almost crushed by a tree his older brother Olexa is felling: Olexa dashes to push Ivan out of the way, and is killed himself. At the church funeral, his father Petyik Paliychuk (Aleksandr Gaj) mocks the wealthier farmer Guteniuk (A. Raydanov) who, he says, “gives money to God but fleeces the poor.” Enraged, especially when Guteniuk’s wife calls him and his wife beggars, Paliychuk pursues him outside and spits insults, until Guteniuk strikes him dead with his axe. Ivan’s mother (Nina Alisova), who’s already lost all her other children and now her husband, and thus cheated of prosperity, maintains a bitter hate of the Guteniuks, but Ivanko’s one redeeming light in life is a daughter of the hated clan, Marichka (V. Glyanko as a girl), whom he first spied at his brother’s funeral. In the melee that followed his father’s murder, he slapped her, but then chased her down and made friends; by the time he had forgotten his father, he was welded to her like steel, sharing a nature-child love, playing in the woods together without clothes.
When the pair grows into young adults, they’re still perfectly in love. But Ivan’s mother’s resentments against the Guteniuks have not faded, so their love can still only manifest beyond the boundaries of the town, in the woods and fields. Ivan goes to earn some money as a shepherd in the mountain pastures above the town. One night, when the land is wreathed in a thick fog and the shepherds work to keep their flocks together, Marichka wanders out into the forest, drawn by the light of a strange star. She comes across a lost black lamb on a steep ledge, and, trying to rescue it, plummets to her death in the surging river below. Ivan joins search parties looking for her and comes across her beached, frigid body. He spends the next few years in a state of unproductive grief, increasingly tattered and slovenly, his looks lost behind a beard and filth. He slowly returns to a normal life helping the local church, and especially when he encounters Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), a young woman with an estate; they share a charged moment when he shoes her horse and she laps up the sight of him. They are soon married, but the past and the future for these two soon prove sadly tangled.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an immersive experience in the best sense, demanding a reorientation of narrative priorities and outlook, but rewarding that attention with a vigorous sprawl of fantastic images and vividly envisioned metaphors. Many filmmakers, especially more contemporary ones, would try to capture a sense of the historic and the alien through a kind of minimalist preciousness, but that was as alien to the madly inventive Paradjanov as blockbuster action. He created images with physical force and expressive enthusiasm, with some visions, like his grand crane shots plunging through forests and swinging over gorges, that seem to defy all physics of film photography. It’s hard then to write about the electric quality of such images as Ivan and Marichka embracing in the woods as a sun shower pelts them with glittering bolts of rain, as if the very elements are blessing them.
The spiritual is innately physical here, and the film’s soul, like that of the society it portrays, is Christianised, but often still reflexively pagan, even pantheistic. This contradiction is lessened in an environment where nature is all-powerful. Emblems of religion and spirituality are hewn out of the raw materials provided by nature, wood and stone, and the vagaries of the elemental world are cruel and haphazard. “Beggars like them shouldn’t be allowed in here!” the Guteniuk matriarch screams in the church as the Paliychuks mock them, and the church, linchpin of social ritual in the mountain villages, fades into unimportance as magic and misfortune become governing lights: the narrative of Shadows seems to move further back into the mystic past rather than forward with the world, as characters, stripped of what they want, choose deeper, darker alternatives. Marichka’s death, not even halfway through the film, is a truly shocking one that leaves both Ivan and the story in tatters, and picking up the pieces becomes the most arduous of processes. Paradjanov here uses the most effective and simple of devices, bleaching all the colour out of the film, snatches of gossip on the soundtrack charting the village’s reactions to his ruined state as he goes through his labours and bathing with a dissociated disinterest.
Paradjanov’s animated, often first-person camera constantly invokes the experiential, sensual world, tethered to the corporeal and yet charged with spirits unseen and lurking: from Ivanko’s father being bashed on the head by Guteniuk, blood running down over the lens, or the camera seeming to fall with the tree that crushes Olexa, to the whirling camera in the very final scene, life is a disorientating cascade for Ivan. In the most intricately orchestrated sequence, when Marichka is lost and drowns, and as Ivan and the villagers search for her, a hand-held camera chases Ivan and others through the gloom of morning, faces and bodies appearing out of the fog, tumbling down slopes, torches burning in the haze. When Ivan eventually boards a great raft with others to ride down the river in search, Paradjanov’s camera flies overhead in a stunning crane shot, as the vessel emerges from the murk and disappears again like a momentarily substantive dream. Clear geography and visual order are blurred, even as the setting is explored in the most atmospheric of fashions, so that one practically feels Ivan’s adrenalin-stoked, frantic leap to action, resolving finally in a slightly askew shot as Ivan sits on a stone in silent grief, with only the lower half of Marichka’s beached body in the frame. His energetic search, the whole logic of his life, the giddy rush of adolescent love, and the bounty of nature, come to an abrupt, sickened, motiveless halt.
In the second half, Ivan’s marriage to Palagna seems motivated entirely by mutual attraction, and their union, which sees a ceremonial yoke placed over their shoulder whilst they’re blindfolded, a revivifying one for Ivan. On their wedding night, Ivan strips Palagna bare and tears off the last item—a bead necklace, which shatters in his grasp—leaving her breathlessly, silently expectant, and rigidly cautious: a scene that’s teeth-grindingly erotic even as Paradjanov cleverly avoids nudity. Their marriage soon proves to be a haunted disaster, for though they labour prosperously together in the fields, Marichka, desperate for Ivan’s physical love, finds him increasingly unresponsive, and in their first Christmas together, Ivan is struck by the sight of a deer grazing near Marichka’s grave as one did just after she was buried. Both husband and wife begin attempting to commune with the spirit world, unable to face the one immediately in front of them, the sterility of which is confirmed in a wide shot of the couple eating their Christmas feast in silence. Ivan makes offerings of food to attract spirits, and Marichka seems finally to appear to him, gazing forlornly through the window, but Palagna doesn’t see her and pins up a curtain. Later, Palagna strips off her clothes and walks into the night to play shamanka, begging the spirits to make Ivan love her and give her a child.
Paradjanov’s psychology, symbolism, and sorcery come together now, as Palagna is approached by the local magician, Yura (Spartak Bagashvili), stricken with fascination for this transgressive woman who, like himself, is obeisant to older gods. Yura is glimpsed, in the film’s second brilliantly orchestrated sequence, working magic to turn away a destructive storm by enchanting a pair of horses he then rides out into the fields to create a counteractive wind. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, and when Palagna approaches to congratulate him, he begs her to come soothe him. A tree close by explodes in flames as the pair screw on the ground: an image conjoining Yura’s mastery of magical power and his masculine force, as he gives Palagna, who’s been associated visually with dead and barren trees, the orgasm she hasn’t been getting from Ivan. Yura, although not pretty like Ivan, draws all the potency of the physical and spiritual worlds into his frame, and he soon proves the most fearsome of cuckold-makers.
This cruel ménage soon enough comes to a head when Palagna and Ivan go to a tavern and sit at the same table as Yura, and Palagna, when her husband’s not looking, cuddles up to the magus. A friend tells her off, and Ivan fronts up to Yura, but the sorcerer strikes Ivan with a hex. Ivan reels outside, dazed and shattered, and glimpses Yura and Palagna, having clearly claimed each other’s affections. He wanders off through felled woodland, the smoking, severed stumps of what had once been forest perfectly reflecting his now-denuded existence and wasted psyche. As he drinks from a spring, he glimpses Marichka’s spirit, and chases her into the forest, both of them strangely greyed and deathly-looking; when Marichka finally reaches out to touch Ivan, he dies with a scream.
The stinging paradox of this plot—that fulsome, seemingly naturally imbued love isn’t strong enough to hold off a chain of destructive events and the inevitable process of decay, and yet imbues these paltry lives with legendary greatness—defies potential sentimentality, even if the finale’s suggestion that Ivan and Marichka are reunited on another plane isn’t so far from, say, Titanic (1997). That they could only find their fulfillment as shades tied to the forest is a fine and fair solution to the impossibility of their lives and also to the violent brevity of this way of life, and yet it is certainly death, whilst in the film’s very final scene Ivan’s fellow villagers get on with life, turning his wake into a rollicking party. Ivan essentially dies in the same way as his own father, though Yura does not strike Ivan with his axe, instead merely slamming it on the table to work his hex. The reduction of Ivan’s life story to that of an unlucky fool who dies a cuckold after a bar fight seems to contrast the charged atmosphere of mystical meaning, but the immediate and the spiritual are still bound together here, for Ivan’s final failures are offenses to nature as well as mankind. The tree that is Palagna, the living essence, is something Ivan fails to bring to fruit, chasing instead the wispy remnant of eternal, sterile love into the forest.
Throughout the film, events and motives are tangential, especially emotion, extreme passions driving events on with organic but illogical force: Ivan’s father denouncing Guteniuk to expel his grief over Olexa; Ivan slapping Marichka to punish her for her father’s violence and then forgetting his father when being with Marichka; Ivan marrying Palagna to forget Marichka, whom he loses in a totally capricious accident; Palagna’s acts to make Ivan want her putting her in Yura’s orbit and then forgetting her husband. Even the accidents and idiocies of this world are inspired by some other, possibly noble, cause. There’s a coarse, realistic kind of psychology here, where people sublimate one need into another, and small twists of circumstance throw lives entirely off course. Tribal microeconomics are also described with terse import, as the prosperity of the Paliychuks is degraded as their labouring menfolk have been steadily decimated (Mother Paliychuk recites the names of her many lost sons and her husband) and the Guteniuks’ rapacity contrasted, an imbalance with long-reaching, murderous consequences. Ivan is the victim of a world out of equilibrium before he even arrives in it. What holds that world together is communal ritual, the reflexes of which are a refrain of the film’s texture: from Paliychuk’s funeral marchers, tramping in single file across the snow-caked land, to the villagers dancing in a long line, Marichka and other adolescent girls arrayed with sprigs in their hands in the church, blessed in their youthful fertility, and the curious binding motif of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding: universal customs described in specific terms, of course.
The faces and bodies of Paradjanov’s actors are more important than traditional acting abilities; Bagashvili’s fearsome visage suggests a human intermediary with Noh masks. The earthy realism of the cast is so convincing, it’s hard not to believe they weren’t simply recorded for documentary purposes. Which is, of course, very difficult acting, and Bestayeva is particularly compelling, with her blend of desirous disappointment and dismissive pith, snapping with force at Yura when he comes upon her making her naked invocations, “What’s wrong with you? Never seen a woman before?” The achievement of the film is to make the historic and the alien seem as vivid as the life around you, and though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a more conventional film than Sayat Nova, it is certainly no lesser. l
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Director: John Milius
By Roderick Heath
Looking around lately, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that there’s a terrible paucity of truly good fantasy-adventure films out there, especially if, like me, one gravitates to the grittier side of the genre after the tongue-in-cheek qualities of old swashbucklers and the juvenile-oriented tone of a lot of older films, like the fabled Ray Harryhausen films (which still at least delight the eye), get a bit thin. Recently, of course, we’ve had The Lord of the Rings series, a fine but top-heavy achievement, and endless Harry Potter episodes, which are, for all their mild entertainment value, relatively static, twee, and disposable, as are so many of the recent CGI-encrusted entries where storytelling is subordinated to immediately dated spectacle. Nor does the disreputable side of the genre have much to offer, with only the likes of Beastmaster (1982) or Yor: The Hunter from the Future (1983), and flicks starring Lou Ferrigno. Luckily, when I feel the need for bristle and brawn, I always have Conan the Barbarian to cheer me up.
Not that John Milius’ 1982 film is perfect: it has a sometimes too-stately pace and a thin story, sports some stodgy touches, could use more action, and irks fans of Robert E. Howard’s iconic 1930s pulp hero with deviations from Howard’s mythology. But it’s still my favourite by far from the glut of fantasy films that came in the wake the success of Star Wars (1977), whose space-opera zest reinvigorated several genres of fantastic cinema, and it skirts a kind of greatness. John Milius, cigar-chomping, gun-loving, right-wing “zen anarchist,” is one of the most infamous and oddly lovable of the Movie Brats, memorialised by his filmmaking friends as both Paul Le Mat’s drag-racing bad boy in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and as loopy Walter in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1997). He had a gift for larger-than-life narratives and a giddy energy. Having worked, like Coppola, Cimino, and Malick as a screenwriter and script doctor through much of the early ’70s, including penning the thoughtful, if not entirely successful, revisionist vigilante flick Magnum Force (1973), Milius also contributed to the script of Jaws (1975) and cowrote Apocalypse Now (1979). The impact he had on the latter project can perhaps be most strongly discerned through Conan the Barbarian.
Once his directing career got off the ground, Milius’ gifts were confirmed by the uneven, but enjoyable and nuanced The Wind and the Lion (1975), and the elegiac surfing saga Big Wednesday (1978), but he descended into self-parody with the Commie-bashing epic Red Dawn (1984). Conan, the film in between, made a true film star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who had delighted many with his charisma in the documentary Pumping Iron (1978). Schwarzenegger, his physique still at its peak and his acting skills utterly basic but effective enough for the role, was a miraculous bit of casting luck for Milius. Milius also returned a favour to Lucas by casting James Earl Jones, who had been providing the voice of Lucas’ hugely popular baddie Darth Vader without credit, as his own paternalist supervillain Thulsa Doom, who, in the first few galvanising minutes of this film, exterminates Conan’s tribe of hardy, steel-producing Cimmerians.
A peculiar fault of Conan the Barbarian is that its first 15 minutes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic drama that the rest can hardly live up to them. The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ awesome main theme, portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on. Father then imparts the lore of steel and their tribe’s god Crom to his son as they sit on the peak of a snow-crusted mountain, boiling clouds rushing overhead. Soon, Thulsa and his mounted marauders ride through the wintry forests and crash into their village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father. His mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is then hauled away with the other surviving children who are sold as slaves and put to work turning a colossal mill wheel, growing into the homely Austrian mug of Schwarzenegger, made so strong by his years of labour that he can push the wheel by himself.
What’s particularly impressive about this cavalcade of cruelty and calamity is the fact that it plays as a virtual silent movie, the only dialogue being the recitative exposition of Mako’s gravelly voiceover and the instructions of Conan’s father. Much of the first hour of Conan the Barbarian represents an “origin story,” as Conan finds glory as a gladiator, has his horizons expanded when he’s sold to Mongols and trained in Eastern swordplay, introduced to reading, writing, and sex, and then released by his nervous keeper, who senses something untameable in him. Conan stumbles upon the mausoleum of a long-dead king still enthroned wearing his armour. Conan, thinking this must be Crom, takes the dead man’s sword, which is far superior to any Conan’s seen before. Conan soon survives a grappling with a vampiric witch-woman, and saves Subotei (Gerry Lopez), a Mongol warrior she’s chained up to starve. Conan and Subotei become partners in thievery and survival, and gain a third fellow, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They break into a tower that’s a temple of a snake cult which uses the same emblem that Thulsa Doom had once used as his standard, rob its jewels, and kill the colossal serpent the cult keeps as a deistic stand-in.
Much of the pleasure Conan the Barbarian offers is in how it sustains a self-mythologising grandeur akin to Star Wars, Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia, whilst infusing a genre that was all too often fey and tacky with a rugged, tactile, sensualised vibe that channelled the imagery of ’70s fantasy artists. Almost every frame, flagrantly brutal and sexy, looks like something rendered by Boris Vallejo. Milius leapt feet-first into the material, replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism. It’s a great part of the film’s gamey charm for those of us who wonder if Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter would even know what to do with a boob if presented with one. And yet, a loose, witty, warm humanity is the film’s constant undertone, as Conan and Subotei wander throughout the ancient world with a strange innocence, getting stoned, robbing, killing, getting laid, and punching out camels with much the same boyish incorruptibility that Milius’ all-American surfer dudes exuded in Big Wednesday. They’re rough and murderous, but only as much as they need to be. Conan’s basic decency in spite of his brutalisation is signalled early on when he’s given a stripped-down slave girl as reward and he quickly soothes her fears by wrapping her in a blanket.
That warmth is particularly discernable in Conan’s anxious romance with Valeria, the first time either warrior has found a true partner in love, and in the rhythms of fellowship they share with Subotai and the wizard (Mako) Conan encounters living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans, who will become his chronicler and spiritual helpmate. It’s a quality that imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential loneliness of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital. The ironies of Conan’s life, that his trials have transformed him into an unstoppable force, are drawn clearly when Conan finally tracks down Thulsa Doom, both men now understanding the “riddle of steel” that Conan’s father had mentioned to him and which has totemistic vitality. “Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger!” Thulsa recites as he casually encourages one of his followers to casually leap to her death to prove his own power.
Thulsa has reinvented himself as the magician-priest of the snake cult of Set, a story flourish that Milius uses to take some amusing pot shots at hippie mystics and communal fantasists, with the cult’s followers’ brandishing flowers and Conan easily infiltrating their ranks by answering questions like “What do you see?” posed by a priestess as he looks into a sacred pool, with: “Er…eternity!” Thulsa and his two chief henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) who rode with him back at the fateful beginning, suggest a cross between opportunistic gangster sleazes mixed with manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan’s rugged individualism and practicality provides a firm counterbalance. An uglier edge of Milius’ satire appears when Conan beats up a leathery old cult priest (Jack Taylor) who clearly wants to have sex with Conan in order to steal his robes and infiltrate the cult as its thousands of member converge on Thulsa’s remote mountaintop temple.
A more significant fault with the film is that Thulsa, Rexor, and Thorgrim aren’t really well-described or worthy opponents for Conan to take down. There’s still a great deal of pleasure to be wrung, however, from their inevitable comeuppances at Conan’s hands. The henchmen, who resemble two-thirds of Spinal Tap, are a source of humour as well as antagonism, such as Thorgrim’s bug-eyed amazement at his own strength when he knocks down a colossal stone pillar and Rexor, having turned himself into the bare-chested priest surrounded by buxom priestesses, presiding over sacrifices like a homicidal, medieval swinger—all he’s missing is a peace sign hanging around his neck. And Jones brings undeniable gusto to Thulsa that makes him genuinely serpentine in his evil: no one else could pronounce “Tree of Woe” in quite the same way. Max Von Sydow is as vigorously hammy in his short appearance as King Osric “the Usurper,” who actually sets Conan and crew on their mission against the snake cult when he asks them to retrieve his daughter, the Princess (Valerie Quennessen), who has become Thulsa’s high priestess.
Milius’ style of staging and shooting was interestingly different to some of his generational fellows, emphasising a deep-focus, rather three-dimensional sense of space, and a flowing mise-en-scène, somewhat different to the rapid, crisply edited illustrative style of, say, Spielberg. Milius’ set-pieces have a balletic complexity of movement, offering many near full-body shots of action designed to show off the physicality of his actors, particularly apparent with Bergman, a trained dancer: in this way, Milius’ fight scenes seem rather less dazzling than those of some other action directors and yet radiate a genuine sense of material force. He also wrings the simple narrative for all the grandeur and beauty he can, evident in hypnotic sequences like the heroes infiltrating one of Thulsa’s orgies, and the conclusion, in which Thulsa’s disillusioned followers toss their torches into a pool. It’s here that the theoretic similarity to Apocalypse Now is strongest (even the fire and water imagery is closely akin), particularly as Conan refuses to take Thulsa’s place as the Princess’s object of veneration.
The film’s impact is enormously deepened by Poledouris’ score, the greatest work he ever offered before his extremely untimely death: indeed, it’s a serious candidate for the greatest movie composition of the past 30 years. Poledouris, a surfing buddy of Milius’s, had studied at USC under Miklos Rozsa, whose mighty work on Ben-Hur is suggested in the Conan score, with its sweeping, pounding anthems and richly orchestrated love themes. However, the original template was Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Milius had used in editing. Conan the Barbarian was, in that regard, almost as referential as a Tarantino film: the costumes of Thulsa and his henchmen were based on Nevsky’s Teutonic baddies, and touches throughout the film certify the influence of several classic sword-and-sandal flicks, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Japanese films like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964).
Schwarzenegger was and is a perennial candidate for the worst actor to ever be an A-list star, but a part like Conan was perfect, especially as he had at least the gift to not merely look but act as tough, stoic, and strong as a mobile mountain. This blended well with his ability to project a sense of humour and simple, but vivid emotions, particularly evident when in the anticipation of battle with Thulsa’s army, he recalls with pleasure the calm freshness of days in his youth. It’s Bergman though who almost steals the film with her unconventional kind of lived-in beauty and dashing physicality, her expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes balanced by moments such as her eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother that are iconic in the history of on-screen tough gals. Conan the Barbarian will soon, as all things are, be remade, but the old one, in spite of its faults, does exactly what Conan himself does best: it kicks ass.
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