1960s, Drama, Political, Thriller

Medium Cool (1969)

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Director/Screenwriter: Haskell Wexler

By Roderick Heath

Over fifty years since its release, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool remains one of the great unrepeated feats in cinema. Perhaps that’s a good thing: no-one should expect filmmakers to thrust themselves into the midst of a real, live riot for the sake of art or reportage, as recent events have proven. But Medium Cool is much more than just a unique record of cinema verite happenstance. During the fervour and fractiousness of the late 1960s, many filmmakers felt obliged to try and connect directly with the zeitgeist and get involved, to create movies with a direct connection in method and message with the cultural and political furore of the moment. The Chicago-born Wexler had a long and fruitful career as a much-lauded cinematographer. He initially gained regard for his incisive and palpable black and white shooting on films like Irvin Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest (1961), Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which he won his first Oscar. His textured colour on In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) helped define movie cinematography for the next decade in blending a documentary-like sense of immediacy and utilisation of diverse light sources with a rich and sensitive palette, reinventing glossy Hollywood moviemaking for a new era.

In the 1970s Wexler would win Oscars back to back for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976), and later worked with Terrence Malick, Dennis Hopper, and repeatedly with John Sayles, who had, ironically, signalled himself early in his career as a Wexler acolyte in making his script for the glorious B-movie Alligator (1980) into a sort-of sequel to Medium Cool. Simultaneously, Wexler, an unabashed leftist with an edge of the provocateur, essayed an equally respected career as a director, mostly of documentaries, beginning with his 1963 record of a Freedom Rider excursion, The Bus, winning yet another Oscar for his Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), and interviewing members of the fugitive Weather Underground for the 1976 film Underground. His only two feature films as director were to be Medium Cool and Latino (1985), a film about US involvement in Nicaragua.

Medium Cool infamously saw Wexler, his crew, and actors staging portions of their movie amidst the Democratic Party’s 1968 National Convention in Chicago. Partly through serendipity and partly through his cultural antennae working at a fine pitch, Wexler was on hand to film the swaggering repression dealt out upon the anti-Vietnam War protestors who had gathered in the city streets by the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard. The event both exemplified and amplified schisms between protestors and authority, factions in the Democrats, and the national and international political dialogue at large, to a degree that still echoes in fundamental ways. Wexler’s immediate inspiration was writer and theorist Marshall McLuhan’s treatise on the emerging age of mass media and television as the new, primary delivery system for it, diagnosing it as a medium that tended to dampen any sense of immediate emotional and social connection: the “medium cool” of the title referred to McLuhan’s description of TV as a cool medium, lacking urgency for all the speed it could deliver news and connection with.

Medium Cool unfolds partly as a traditional dramatic narrative, partly as a documentary, and overall as a kind of thesis statement on the nature of visual media, methods and styles colliding until they form their own integrity, speaking to each-other with their own forms of authenticity. Wexler’s focal point, John Casellis (Robert Forster), is glimpsed at the film’s opening taking footage of a car crash he and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) have chanced upon on the freeway, shooting the bloodied female driver slumped upon the ground whilst the jammed car horn blares out impotent alarm, before returning to their car as John comments in blasé fashion, “Better call an ambulance.” Wexler strikes a note here that’s become a pervasive cliché since, in questioning the motives and engagement of news collectors who seem more dedicated to feeding the beast of the mass-media with marketable images of gore and chaos than to the reality of what’s in front of them, but at the time it surely struck hard as a cold repudiation to the more familiar portrayal of heroic journalists solving public ills in so many Hollywood movies. But the scene is more neutral than it seems in also offering the lot of the reporters as one where they always become witness to tragedy and strangeness that has usually already occurred, recording the visual evidence for posterity with frigid bewilderment.

The film’s title appears over a shot that was something of a signature for Wexler as a cinematographer, an out-of-focus zoom shot of blurred lights, in this case the hazard lamps on the rear of the news crew’s van, redolent of a bleary and abstracted sense of the modern world’s strange textures. This segues into a stark yet mysteriously epic sequence unfolding under the credits as a motorcycle courier takes the film of the crash from the roving new crew back to the TV station for broadcast, traversing the empty streets of early morning Chicago, mapping out the city in a deserted and near-eerie state in pointed contrast to the later scenes of the film as the streets become an amphitheatre of human conflict. Wexler, oddly, stated this sequence was inspired by the otherworldly motorcyclists of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), a film which blended mythical concepts with a buried metaphor for the experience of Nazi occupation. Both facets inform Wexler’s quotation in context of his movie: the sense of blurred zones of life and death encouraged by technology as well as the more immediate portrayal of political violence and repression. John and Gus are next glimpsed as party guests as they and other journalists talk with guests, arguing over the vicissitudes of their profession and its impact upon society at large. “All good people deplore problems at a distance,” a black intellectual comments. A producer comments the approach of news programs with their emphasis on fragmentary episodes of calamity excises analysis and understanding out what leads to such events.

Medium Cool dedicates itself in part to portraying precisely what lies behind the climactic images of riot and affray in a manner contradicting this statement about the limitations of TV news, with Wexler utilising all the resources at his command, including both authentic footage of real events, recreation, improvisatory performance and scripted exchanges to present a coherent panorama. Wexler offers footage of the training of the riot responders working with a horde of people hired to stand in for a unruly horde of anarchic hippie protestors. The training session sports a surprising degree of good-humoured satire from the mock-protestors, particularly the man pretending to be Chicago’s then-mayor Richard Daley, who tries to mollify protestors: “I let you use the swimming pool every Fourth of July! We’ve operated the liquor stores at a minimum of profit!”, even as the National Guard file in with fixed but sheathed bayonets and jeeps festooned with barbed wire-clad bumpers, the hard edge of a militarised response to expected unrest revealed with a sense of foreboding. The relative jollity of the preparations and the pleasant and optimistic demeanour of the Robert Kennedy boosters interviewed in the Chicago downtown still bespeaks however a sense of things still working largely as expected.

Kennedy’s assassination is portrayed obliquely as Wexler surveys the functioning steaminess of a large kitchen, evidently supposed to be that of the Ambassador Hotel, as the cooks and staff go about their business whilst Kennedy’s speech is heard on the soundtrack. The door to the kitchen bursts open and a brief tumult is glimpsed, men jostling and TV lights glaring, as Kennedy, team, and media prepare to pass through, just before his killing. Wexler cuts hard to TV equipment already set up for his funeral parade, with John noting with queasy irony how good they’ve gotten since Jack Kennedy’s death at preparing for such events. Wexler’s eliding approach here relies on the audience to grasp the context as well as the unstated mood of dislocation and confusion that follows it, contrasting the infamous TV images of Kennedy’s bloodied form on the kitchen floor. Medium Cool purposefully weaves in a sense of workaday banality with the sense of history careening. Much like the kitchen staff whose activities directly adjoin a violent spasm of history, John and Gus shuffle their way through a variety of momentous events, plodding in mud as they try to capture a Civil Rights demonstration in Washington D.C. (with Jesse Jackson glimpsed amongst the rallying). The electrifying images that form posterity through news and documentary footage, however authentic, are themselves the carefully parsed remnants of events composed largely of milling distraction, confusion, and boredom.

It could be argued that Medium Cool reached back to an older ideal in documentary filmmaking less concerned with recording strict reality than with attempting to offer a panoramic concept of life in a given zone, associated with major practitioners of the form like Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, and John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, filmmakers who espoused the possibility of finding poetic form and expression in carefully crafted fragments of reality. “Did you know for every man in Washington D.C. there are four-and-a-half women?” Gus notes as he and John ready for another day on the job in covering Kennedy’s funeral, whereupon Wexler works in a Vertov-ish visual gag as he cuts rapidly between four different women filmed on the street and just the legs of one to register the “half.” The scripted and improvised scenes offer connective tissue that tries to present Wexler’s perspective on what he thinks the events he captures mean, which is to a certain extent a repudiation of the general supposition behind much documentary cinema, that it can be and should be a passive and neutral record of fact, whilst also contending with the basic question of what fictionalising means.

Forster rarely had so good a role after making an early mark in films like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and he was only slotted into the role after John Cassavetes, who was going to appear under his own name – hence the similarity in the character’s name – dropped out. John makes for an intriguingly astringent avatar for its photographer-author, with Forster embodying the miner at the coalface of the mass-media, playing the interlocutor for reality and image-play. Forster plays John with facets of both intelligence and also a certain bullish, insensate machismo that seems to signal he has working class roots, as if shooting footage for the mass media is in a way not that different to humping around lumps of meat in the stockyards, and also still has a bit of the boxer it’s signalled he once was in his mentality – hit hard, hit fast, don’t let the gore distract you. His distracted fascination in the fancy toys he’s tricked out his apartment with, bringing him into the space age for bachelor pads, has a glint of the deprived child now revelling to it even as he tries to act hard-bitten, one hit why he and Harold eventually strike an accord. Early in the film John has a girlfriend, Ruth (Marianna Hill), who’s a nurse, a relationship that’s barely more than a fuck-buddy partnering and clearly on its last legs. A key scene early in the film sees the couple shacked up in John’s apartment, sexual shenanigans blending with aspects of mutual contempt and spurned need, with Ruth lambasting John with a blend of forced humour and real feeling – “You’re a bastard. Why don’t you admit it?…A rotten, egotistical, selfish, punchy cameraman.” – whilst John listlessly shows off the wonders of his new centrally wired electronic system.

Ruth provokes John’s coldness by hinting it stems from his profession driving him to treat even his own life in the same way, prodding him to remember a scene from the infamous Italian shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963) where turtles deranged by Atomic bomb testing couldn’t find their way to the sea and asks why the filmmakers couldn’t help the animals. “How the hell do I know what they did?” John questions, “Those were Italian cameramen.” The scene resolves with the two chasing each-other naked about the apartment, play-acting a semblance of nature-child frivolity and spontaneity whilst actually sublimating their frustration and aggression. Ruth’s provocation becomes the thread of the whole film as Wexler ponders whether detached observation retains its own dignity or simply frees one from responsibility when faced with urgent truths. Is it the media’s job simply to watch as society stumbles in irradiated and madcap circles or to try and steer it towards a goal? And who gets to decide what goal is worthy? The note of elided reality recurs in a very different context as John, back in Chicago, is drawn into the lives of Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a young mother recently moved to the city from the rural South with her young son Harold (Harold Blankmanship), after John spots Harold seemingly about to steal the news wagon’s hubcaps and leaves behind a basket that proves to have one of the pigeons Harold likes to train within. John takes the basket and its charge to Eileen’s home in a crumbling neighbourhood. Both John and Eileen have a crucial relationship with the cultural texture around them, John through his work and Eileen in having lost her husband in Vietnam, a truth she’s been keeping from her son, who thinks his father is still alive. Harold is first glimpsed with a friend riding the L and releasing one of his birds downtown.

The glimpses of Harold, often reminiscing on times spent with his father or on the prowl trying to treat the city as merely another open habitat where he can roam and play, are imbued with a sense of lyricism that cuts across the grain of the urban-sophisticate zone John inhabits, allowing Wexler to take a breath with a languorously dreamy shots of pigeons wheeling across the sky, father and son tramping through rural brush, wildflowers, and mud, and Eileen being immersed in water, recollections charged with a sense of communion with a natural environment and connection with people living nominally on the fringe of the great American life but contrasting the squalor of the Chicago slums Eileen and Harold now subsist in. This sense of contrast also comes invested with a sense of clashing value systems quickly fraying in the harsh glare of the moment. Harold reads a book about pigeon mating habits and remembers his father advising him that a man has to rule his home and must resist all efforts by his wife to take control, whilst Eileen has reveries of attending country church meetings and being baptised. Meanwhile as John and Eileen drift into a relationship John inducts Eileen into the freakish vicissitudes of psychedelic nightlife and contemplate the juddering sense of reality beamed at them through the TV in the corner. John finds himself taking up a fatherly role for Harold to the extent that he can, giving him haircuts and schooling him in working a punching bag.

The intersection of news gathering and social tension, and the no-man’s-land between the blocs of power and claim, is illustrated when John encounters a black taxi driver, Frank McCoy (Sid McCoy) who becomes newsworthy when he hands in a parcel filled with $10,000 in cash that he found in his cab. John and Gus film Frank at the cab company office only to witness Frank being aggressively and provocatively interviewed by a police detective (Edward Croke). Later John talks his boss into letting him go out again to interview Frank at home, feeling his story could provide a rich human interest piece. They arrive in Frank’s black neighbourhood and immediately find the locale simmering with aggression and hostility, and Frank’s apartment is crammed full of local hotheads and radicals furious with him for playing the good citizen for whitey. John and Gus sweat their way through conversations with an air of threat in the air, with one woman claiming to be an actress demanding John film her, and a man intervening to save John from two provocateurs only to demand with equal force acknowledgement for saving his life. The encounter makes a mockery of John’s initial intent to celebrate an act of good citizenship which Frank now regrets, a sop to an ideal of society sustained like a zombie by a corporatized sense of social reportage and all too rudely contradicted by the undercurrent of seething anger of the black community.

Wexler pauses mid-film after this sequence for direct-to-camera speeches and testimonials by black radicals, including one (Felton Perry) who explains how even a seemingly hopeless and pointless act of random violence for a black man in the ghetto can become a brief but transfiguring moment of social and psychological potency. Wexler removes the nominal barrier between viewing of a drama and being spoken at for both journalist and film viewer here, with John finding himself both intimidated but also granted a peculiar shield through representing the intruding vision of the media, a wire connecting him infrastructure of social oppression. With mordant humour as well as cunning dialectic, Wexler cuts to John and Gus filming women being trained in pistol shooting, readying themselves for the great upheaval, with Peter Boyle appearing as the manager of the shooting range who unctuously jests with the newsmen before comparing learning to use a gun to learning to drive a car. The reactionary age is gathering steam, ready to meet protest and upheaval with a bullet, wrapped in bland and conciliatory language. Wexler’s approach here keeps in mind the theories of dialectic montage inherited from Sergei Eisenstein, using his contrasts to construct an intellectual case.

As well as the nods to Cocteau, Vertov, and Eisenstein, Wexler betrays a magpie eye for then-recent fashions in art cinema, particularly the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, quoting his Week-End (1967) in the recurring images of car accidents and blasé gawking and the direct-to-camera addresses that break down the barrier between drama and monologue, political themes and agitprop. Antonioni, too, registers in the early scenes depicting John’s detachment from emotional reality. But Wexler is ultimately a more pragmatic and journalistic talent than such filmmakers, trying to get in close to the moment and capture the fleeting blur of life in motion. Where for Antonioni in Blowup (1966) the image dissolves into ambiguity with a closer look Wexler merely suggests he’s pointing his camera in the wrong direction, wrestling more with the problem of context and the limitations of human awareness and empathy. John works up bardic verbal concision as he explains to Eileen how the whole thing works as the watch a televised memorial for Martin Luther King, the conversion of reality into a carefully shaped and packaged ritual, where even the nominal shame and social criticism – “A lot of experts saying how sick our society is, how sick we all are” – are part and parcel of the ritualised form, offering catharsis without struggle.

The question Wexler asks most obsessively throughout Medium Cool is whether true record through a visual medium retains a terrible isolate power or whether it becomes, however presented, simply an aspect of a stimulus-response mechanism on a par with the many more overt and sophisticated attempts to manipulate it, from the structuring of a TV soap to a mouthwash commercial, that the news itself becomes just another televisual spectacle, and therefore the authentic becomes instead part of a manufactured sense of reality. Or, as McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” A couple of years after shooting Medium Cool Wexler commented in Take One on one of his documentaries, Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), about how people kept telling him that one of the people interviewed, a survivor of political torture, nonetheless came across as insincere on screen, and noted, “Once it’s reduced to a medium like film or tape, we automatically make a theatrical judgment.” His approach on Medium Cool shows he was already aware of this problem, and incidentally finishes up repudiating the core tenets of Neorealism, which famously made use of non-professional actors with the directors carefully manipulating the appearance of reality around them: Wexler instead weaves professional actors into the texture of the everyday reality he’s encountering.

It’s bordering on superfluous to note that the disparity Wexler analyses has only become more urgent in the intervening half-century, leading to our present moment as digital technology threatens to shatter any faith in the image as truth and where many choose to find a paranoid internet-informed rabbit hole more convincing than any other reference point. In the years since more and more value has been heaped +upon the sense of ephemeral charge to be located in what can only be called dramatized reality, be it the carefully crafted pseudo-realism of reality television or an increasingly memoirist approach to literature, in a manner completely opposed to, say, the project of modernist literature which was to not necessarily tell “true” stories but actively try and replicate the concept of experience. A crucial pivot in John’s story comes when he chats with one of his fellow station employees, Dede (Christine Bergstrom), and she hints that he’s angered the station management in some fashion by letting another show’s team have some unused footage he took. John, alarmed, forces Dede to explain what she’s alluding to, and she hesitantly tells him that the management has been letting the police and FBI look at the footage taken at protests to identify radicals. John’s fury is palpable as he realises the paranoid signals he’s been receiving on the street have a genuine cause, that he’s been incidentally acting as a surveillance agent for the state: “It’s a wonder more cameras haven’t been smashed.”

Injury quickly follows insult as John learns he’s been sacked for no given reason, dashing between offices seeking explanation with increasingly frantic wrath, experiencing spasms of anger as he stalks up and down blandly functional institutional corridors. Wexler here seems to be tracing the outer edges of a kind of political thriller twist, but little more is made of it – there’s even some signs John might have been sacked more because he’s a pain in the ass rather than because he’s fallen afoul of politically tinted malfeasance. Getting fired doesn’t truly shake John: “Do I look worried?” he asks Eileen as she queries whether he’ll be okay. Time off work actually seems to benefit John in fact as he spends more time with Eileen and Harold. The microcosmic and macrocosmic begin shifting into unexpected and alarming alignment when Harold catches sight of John and his mother kissing passionately after returning from a night out dancing, a sight that at last fractures the fiction that Eileen has sustained with her son. Harold takes off with one of his friends and rides the L into the Chicago downtown, wandering around Grant Park in general obliviousness to the furore that’s being unleashed as the convention begins and the street clashes wind up, first glimpsed in jarring, spasmodic nocturnal footage where bodies flail and lights flare. Realising Harold is missing, Eileen heads into the city after him and finds herself in the midst of the protest. Meanwhile John has landed a job with another news service to film inside the convention hall.

Wexler’s use of pop music of the moment is sparing and smart in turning to what even then were offbeat acts, employing Love’s “Emotions” as a motif throughout with its twanging guitar and march beat, helping generate the film’s hippie-noir, nerve-jangled tone, and utilising several songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to offer deadpan-sardonic counterpoint to the onscreen action. Wexler dubs one of their numbers over footage of another band playing in the nightspot John takes Eileen too, the pleasures of climbing aboard the counterculture bandwagon mocked: “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” There’s a great little touch in this scene as Ruth is also glimpsed at the nightspot, dancing close to John as if to both tease him and his new girl whilst also offering a kind of forgiveness. Early in the film John takes Ruth out and they attend a roller derby match where Wexler sarcastically plays the version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” associated with the athletic hijinks of the Harlem Globetrotters over footage of fights breaking out between the players, a sequence that comically promises the oncoming spasm of violence so far mostly contained by the fencing of the derby rink. Later, Wexler employs a recording of “Happy Days Are Here Again” over footage of the convention hall as the delegates celebrate in divorcement from the riot on the streets outside, with hints of ironic recollection of the New Deal consensus emerging from the collective suffering of the Great Depression, the showmanship of democratic ritual contrasted with images of battered and bloodied protestors being treated. Harold has already been glimpsed offering his own incidental satire on political grandstanding as he announces himself to the empty stalls before a bandstand, happy to boom out his name as master of his private universe.

The final reel of Medium Cool is deservedly legendary in the way it captures as readily as any new crew, and surely better, the furore of the Battle of Grant Park as it was later dubbed. Bloom in character wanders amongst and with the protestors, confronted by rows of advancing cops and National Guards, before being caught up in the tumult in the park, climbing over park benches stacked as a rough barricade by the protestors to try and hold off the marauding cops. For a few moments all boundaries between art and life, performance and experience, completely dissolve in the face of events unfolding before the camera. The most famous moment, in which one of Wexler’s crew can be heard crying to him as he films undaunted even as a tear gas shell erupts before him, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!”, is itself at once real and falsified – Wexler had the voice dubbed in to show his own thoughts at the moment. It provides the essential singularity for such a blurring of boundaries, filmmaker suddenly a character in his own film, his own spectacular professionalism both celebrated and highlighted as the ultimate example of the detachment he’s been criticising. Bloom’s costume, a buttercup-yellow dress she chose herself, is a genius touch, exactly the sort of thing a modest country girl like her would be wearing whilst still trying to seem vaguely with-it whilst out on the town, and manages to stand out as vivid before both the dress of the protestors and the uniforms, imbuing her with a strange untouchable distinction amidst the madness, a country wildflower adrift between the madly clashing tides of society.

Wexler patterns his editing here after Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as he counters the clashing, advancing tides of protestors and cops and soldiers. But there’s a fascinating dynamic wherein the clash of theatre from both sides could well be encouraged and amplified by the presence of cameras to perform for: a cop bellowing “You stinking Commie!” as he picks out a hapless young student to wallop as if auditioning to be John Wayne and the screeching retorts from some of the protestors seem to anoint themselves as tragic actors in their own provoked drama. At one point the protestors are heard crying for a new van that seems to be driving off to come back, for fear that without the media eye the violence might be worse, or remain undocumented. Wexler’s cameras peek around the edges of the bloody theatre, noting the National Guards chatting with onlookers and one solicitously speaking with Bloom as she slips through a cordon, rifle in hand. Wexler films Bloom from a car as she strides down the avenue, passing by marching troops and jeeps as if caught up in some fascist invasion of a Stanley Donen musical. Eileen finally manages to track down John after encountering Gus in the park who then draws John out of the convention by radio, and they head off together in the news wagon to track Harold down, who has already made his way back home and gazes in through the window, forlornly beating on the glass.

A loud bang causes a jolt that causes John to veer off the road and collide with a tree. The cause is vague, perhaps a tyre bursting or perhaps some random shot fired off by some passing loon caught up in the delirium. A jolting twist of fate that nonetheless is not a surprise to the viewer, having heard on the soundtrack a news report that states Eileen dies and John is left in a critical condition moments before it happens. The random tragedy is a fait accompli in the matrix of the media, the cool medium supplanting the anguished event. It could be said Wexler here struggles to place an appropriate cap on his cinematic experiment, groping back towards a hoary brand of dramatic irony with John falling afoul of the same fate as the woman he filmed at the outset contrasting his embrace elsewhere of happenstance. The similar ending of Easy Rider the same year succeeded in representing the jagged psyche of the moment whilst also feeling believably random and cruel, where Wexler seems to be straining to make a point, as he stages a long zoom out before turning to reveal another cameraman who then turns the gaze of his camera on the audience, reality dissolving within the hall of mirrors that is the filmed image, retaining a moment and remaking it into something perpetual yet slippery. Nonetheless it is still an effective ending for its evocation of severance and pathos, with the added irony that John, in finally gaining something that tethers him to real life in its fine grain, also finally risks the danger of that life, the place where the camera is no defence. Another little drama lost amidst the din of history and the cold glare of the lens, blurring into an acknowledgement of falsity that makes reality more real.

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2000s, Action-Adventure, War

Troy (2004)

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Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Screenwriter: David Benioff

By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) unleashed a strain of big-budget historical epics in a moment that already seems like a strange glitch of modern movie history. A brief renaissance for a hallowed style in both literary and cinematic culture, before being perhaps permanently replaced by its great modern progeny, the cult of the superhero. The notion of a Hollywood studio throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at an adaptation of an archaic Greek poem seems even more bewildering and beguiling now. Upon release Troy was a middling box office success and met with a largely tepid critical response, including from me, but I found it worth revisiting. One trouble was that attempts to revive the historical epic were curtailed by the much less patient mood of the moment. Two of the more substantive entries in this brief craze, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), were both released in edited versions that robbed them of much potential heft only to be seen in a better light when their director’s cuts were released to home viewing. Revisiting Troy recently through the director’s cut, which restored more than half-an-hour minutes missing from the theatrical release, I found Troy aging surprisingly well.

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Petersen, the German director best known for vivid work in movies as diverse as Das Boot (1981) and The Neverending Story (1984), took a little time to find his feet when he went Hollywood, but In the Line of Fire (1993) kicked off a string of big hits for him, continuing with the bi-fi thriller Outbreak (1995), the US President-as-action-hero film Air Force One (1997), and the blue collar disaster movie The Perfect Storm (1999). Petersen took on novelist David Benioff’s adaptation of Homer with a huge budget and an impressive battery of actors, with Brad Pitt exalted at its core in the role of Achilles, under pressure to offer up as much beefcake appeal as Russell Crowe had in Gladiator. Benioff had just collaborated with Spike Lee on the much-acclaimed adaptation of his own novel The 25th Hour (2002), and the dizzied, mortified mood of the post-9/11 age explored pervasively in that film was amplified many degrees as Petersen and Benioff sublimated Homer into more pressing perspectives, as well as the straightforward business of making a heavy-duty crowd-pleaser. The film credits itself as “inspired by Homer’s The Iliad,” but draws on a wider survey of the Trojan Cycle to explore events not portrayed in Homer’s poem but expanded on elsewhere by other classical writers. The Iliad remains a unique and immoveable cultural artefact, at once an elegant, fine-woven piece of writing reflecting a cultural sensibility at its zenith, interlaced with near-endless echoes of that culture’s way of seeing and thinking and feeling, and also a fearsome piece of storytelling replete with lushly described violence and action. It feels intrinsically blockbuster-like, and has long wielded mesmeric power for anyone able to penetrate its style through its innumerable translators’ approaches.

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That said, The Iliad is also tantalisingly alien in its moral and religious values as well as historical setting. Making the Trojan Cycle conform to modern moral systems is a tall order, containing as it does a radically different sense of relations between people and societies as well as concepts of divinity and agency. The Iliad’s early scenes are propelled by Achilles and Agamemnon fighting over a woman named Briseis, an enslaved spoil of war, and a notable vignette later sees Achilles and Patroclus lounging around with their captured sex slaves as the last word in warrior lifestyle accessorising. And that’s without even approaching the operatic cruelties depicted in the city’s fall, all of which combine an aspect of bloodthirsty glee matched to an exacting sense of consequence in metaphysical terms: fate deals out deserts in remorseless fashion. The interwoven story of human warfare and divine attention and manipulation in The Iliad is crucial, particularly in that it emphasises the great struggle as a level playing-field, attackers and defenders alike aware of the finite balance of chance and fate that comes from fighting under the eyes of keenly interested gods, every permutation of character expressed as a living principle relating to the greater drama of clashing civilisations. Some of the revisions Benioff made in the adapting process simply obeyed modern screenwriting niceties, but others, like completely excising the Gods, had a more fundamental impact on the nature of the story being told. Left as a human story it just looks like a tale of a bunch of meathead aggressors annihilating a neighbouring country.

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For Petersen, Troy made an odd yet fitting follow-up to his career breakthrough with Das Boot as a conflicted tale of warriors engaged in a morally questionable undertaking, both obliging identification with those warriors whilst critiquing their attempts to hold onto a sense of personal honour in impossible circumstances. The opening depicts a dog searching for its master on a field of battle and licking his bloodied corpse, striking both a note of pathos and sets up a neat narrative flourish late in the film. The confrontation of the two armies, led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae (Brian Cox) as he tries to conclude the brute process of aligning the Greek city-states under his overlordship, facing off against the horde of Triopas (Julian Glover). The two kings agree to settle the matter with a clash of champions, with Tripoas deploying hulking fighter Boagrius (Nathan Jones) and Agamemnon calling forth the oft-intransigent Achilles. Once he arrives at the battle he easily fells Boagrius with a display of quick and lethal nimbleness. Achilles serves under Agamemnon grudgingly, uninterested in the warlord’s power lusts or patriotic smokescreens, instead servicing only his own, immense talent as a fighter and desire for an appropriate amphitheatre to seek immortality through fame.

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Meanwhile Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), King of Sparta, is feasting the Trojan princes Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) after concluding a hard-earned pact of amity between the two cities. That pact is immediately endangered as Paris and Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) maintain heavy-duty eye contact throughout the banquet before scurrying off to make love in secret. So smitten are the couple, and so detesting of her boorish husband is Helen, that Paris hides her aboard the ship taking him and Hector back to Troy. When Paris reveals his breach to Hector, the older brother is furious and knows well what the consequences might be, but makes the fateful decision to carry on to Troy as Paris insists if they turn back he will face Menelaus with Helen. Upon arrival in Troy, their father King Priam (Peter O’Toole) greets Helen and resolves to defend his sons’ choices. Menelaus appeals to his brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox), a warlord who’s been waging a relentless campaign to unite Greece under his leadership, and Agamemnon eagerly leads a vast fleet to assault Troy.

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The one piece on his chessboard that tends to move itself about is Achilles, so Agamemnon, at the advice of his key vassal and advisor Nestor (John Shrapnel), elects to send another, King Odysseus of Ithaca (Sean Bean), to talk Achilles into coming along. In the director’s cut, Odysseus is first glimpsed being mistaken by Agamemnon’s envoys for a shepherd as he sits on a hillside looking shabby and unroyal and listlessly toying with their expectations, a neat vignette emphasising the Ithacan king’s canniness and lack of pretension. He travels to talk with Achilles, who’s given himself over to training his adolescent cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund). But it’s only the advice of his sagely mother Thetis (Julie Christie) that convinces Achilles to go seek his glory, whilst predicting it will come at the cost of his own life in the end. Making a spectacular show of landing on the beach before Troy, Achilles captures Priam’s niece Briseis (Rose Byrne), a Priestess of Apollo, but his and Agamemnon’s mutual dislike and competitiveness flares into outright hatred when the warlord claims Briseis for himself. Achilles stands aloof as Hector brutalises the Greek horde until Achilles’ callow nephew Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) takes the field dressed in his armour, and gets himself killed by Hector, sparking Achilles’ murderous intent.

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The version of Troy that screened in movie theatres in 2004 was solid but overly skewed towards servicing Pitt’s star wattage. The director’s cut recast the film in a more rounded, fleshed-out, better-paced fashion. It also gives a superior survey of Petersen’s self-conscious attempt to make the film a tribute to, and last hurrah for, an older brand of blockbuster cinema, trucking in actors like O’Toole, Christie, Glover, and Nigel Terry (playing the Trojan high priest Archeptolemus) out of David Lean epics and Old Vic heroics. Troy’s take on Homer was reconstructed to fit a fraught moment as the Iraq War was doggedly refusing to prove a neat victory and had unleashed schisms of controversy and political opinion with a heat scarcely felt in the western world since the Vietnam War. From today’s perspective the film also certainly evinces Benioff as a dramatist first testing the waters of metaphor-laden mythological storytelling, on the way to creating and overseeing the TV adaptation of fantasy writer George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (2011-19). That show, at least until the badly received concluding seasons, would dominate pop culture for nearly a decade, and it would carry over cast members Bean and Glover. Troy laid down aspects of the Game of Thrones blueprint, in testing sturdy conventions for moral complexity and a dark sense of political and military power as monsters scarcely controlled by the people who affect to steer them.

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Taking on material like Martin’s, already composed with an eye to deconstructing genre canards, proved a more fitting vehicle for such interrogative ends, but Homer’s poems have survived in large part because of their malleability as explorations of conflict and character: everyone from Virgil to Shakespeare to anime makers has applied a new sensibility to them. Benioff’s emphasis on Agamemnon’s bad faith in defending his brother Menelaus and monstrous campaign of empire-building instead steers towards a blunt metaphor for tyrannical warmongering, rather than an inevitable clash of well-matched adversaries. The two brothers are offered not as exemplars of the Greek warrior creed but as a crass and bullish caricature of the less attractive side of macho nature, Agamemnon dedicated to fostering power at all costs and Menelaus portrayed as a hypocritical chauvinist who wants Helen back not, as in the source myths, because of his overwhelming love for her but to kill her with his own hands. They’re pointedly contrasted with other characters, including the romantic and valiant but fatefully callow Paris, and more particularly with Achilles and Odysseus.

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Troy was hardly the first film to tackle Homer on film, but there’s still been a significant dearth of major adaptations of The Iliad. Perhaps the most notable earlier versions had been Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955) and Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (1962). Wise’s film, Hollywood-backed but Italian-shot with a pan-European cast, smartly cast strong, gritty actors like Stanley Baker and Harry Andrews as Achilles and Ajax, but placed most of its emphasis on Helen and Paris as tragically boring lovers. Ferroni’s, whilst in style a regulation entry in the Italian peplum craze, offered a surprisingly acerbic sense of the canonical characters that anticipates Troy in some ways, except for the Trojan prince Aeneas, as nobly played by Steve Reeves: he would reprise the role in an equally enjoyable sequel, The Sword of Aeneas (1962), taken from the second half of Virgil’s The Aeneid. To make the mythology dramatically manageable, Benioff excised many essential figures like Diomedes, Little Ajax, and Cassandra, and passed their story functions onto other figures. The film’s version of Briseis makes her a member of the royal family and Apollonian priestess, and blends together her namesake from the poem, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Polyxena, some of the greatest characters in western lore, and it might be asking too much of role to contain such multitudes, and yet Troy manages to found them into one effective and efficient dramatic alloy. The idea of Cassandra as unheeded prophet is passed on to Hector and Paris, who keep recommending smart courses of action to Prim only to be ignored.

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To their credit, Petersen and Benioff apply a purposeful sense of psychology and dramatic context in revisiting and revising ancient legend, pausing to consider each major character and their motives and their purpose within the great gallery of mythic occurrence. Troy manages what not so many films like it ever managed, to keep a compelled focus on the human drama within the container of the epic, bolstered in particular by attentive casting, in offering actors like Saffron Burrows as Hector’s anxious wife Andromache and James Cosmo as Glaucus, Priam’s stalwart general. There’s an aspect of double-edged achievement to this, in obliging immortal mythology to subsist within the cramped space of a contemporary realism and naturalism, grinding gears with The Iliad’s description of a pivot of worlds, turning it on many levels into just another war story. The poem’s driving drama, the inevitable march to battle between Achilles, the perfect warrior dedicated to his own fame given a new spur by personal vengeance, against Hector, the valiant defender of his homeland, the warrior-prince who’s also a father and family man, evokes stark oppositions and resolves it in favour of the former, cutting against the grain of contemporary sensibilities which would celebrate the latter.

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The poem applied rigorous sense of identity as well as mythic function to the two men: Hector’s tendency to arrogant bellicosity contrasted Achilles’ valuing of honour and lack of interest in merely political motives gave them complexity whilst also pinning them down as exemplars of their respective worlds, and also highlighted traits that both elevate and defeat them. By contrast the film skews Hector into a canny and fretful stalwart, with Bana’s embodiment of strongly rooted and stolid virtue contrasting not just his foes but his mercurial brother and fatalistic yet over-confident father. Casting Pitt as Achilles was the engine for the film’s pitch and advertising, with Pitt trying to stretch his stardom and acting to new zones. Pitt had long shown himself to be an interesting actor, gaining plaudits for his striking grotesques in Kalifornia (1993), Twelve Monkeys (1997), and Fight Club (1999), but his star cachet as the incarnation of the ideal west coast blonde princeling often sharply contrasted his ambitions. As with Tyler Durden, playing Achilles allowed him to try and balance his schismatic star identity and acting sensibility by inhabiting a character defined as the prototypical star, beloved of colleagues and able to swing sexual gymnastics with multiple ladies in properly pimp fashion, the figure whose presence is needed to sell the enterprise to the hoi polloi despite all the efforts of smarter and more driven creative minds, and admired and feared for his impudent physical genius.

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Pitt’s Achilles as a fractured antihero with an ironic intellectual streak, a murderous hunk of taut muscle with the mind of a Sartre character, fully aware of the tenuousness and absurdity of mortality and feeling obliged by his own prowess and pessimism to dedicate himself to the extermination of humans as his metier, often delivering lines in alternations of brisk cynicism and stringent honesty in terse asides. Pitt may well have been trying to emulate Marlon Brando as another very American kind of actor who proved himself nonetheless more than capable in classical roles. But Pitt lacks Brando’s deft verbal facility, and he can’t quite defeat a note of awkwardness in trying to play such a conflicted character. Certainly, however, Pitt looks the part, the blessed and magnetic folk hero made in the image of Ares for carving foes into sculptural studies. As the war combusts, Achilles swiftly moves to start cementing his legend status by driving his ship loaded with his Myrmidon warriors ahead of the Greek armada to land on the Trojan beach and carve a path through the defenders.

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Achilles and his men sack the Trojan Temple of Apollo, slaying the priests and capturing Briseis, and Achilles taunts Hector when he arrives with a retinue, predicting their clash but letting him flee for the moment. Achilles’ display of warlike prowess, in which only fellow super-warrior Ajax (Taylor Mane) manages to join the action, infuriates Agamemnon, and he tries to bring Achilles down a peg by commandeering Briseis, whom Achilles has promised safe harbour to. Achilles retaliates by refusing to participate in the first great confrontation of the Greek and Trojan armies, which comes before the city walls. Paris elects to meet Menelaus in one-on-one combat, but when Menelaus proves far too strong for him Paris appeals to Hector and rather than let Menelaus kill is brother on the ground Hector slays him and then Ajax, sparking a pitch battle that sees the Greeks retreat in bloodied chaos, the Trojan archers and Hector’s fighting pith proving a deadly combination.

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Troy struggles in its early scenes as it tries to balance its competing urges towards serious adaptation and blockbuster service. The film pays tribute to the sword-and-sandal genre’s hallowed habit of celebrating beefcake to the point of offering Bana and Bloom flouncing about in crop-tops and Pitt in leather kilt, and the tone of the acting takes a while to settle down. Kruger, who quickly went on to prove herself a considerable actress in fare like Inglourious Basterds (2009), was introduced as a fresh face in the role of Helen, but she was still finding her feet as a performer and impressed few at the time as worthy of the role. She still seems watery compared to, say, Irene Papas in Michael Cacoyannis’ version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (1971), where Helen was a strident, galvanic presence who wields herself with a blend of arrogance and pithy survival smarts. That said, the version of Helen here is true to her portrayal in The Iliad as a flighty creature trapped by her own choices and withering within the ironic space of being considered important enough to both spur a war and caught in a spiral of contempt without and within, building to a scene in which Hector refuses to let her give herself up to the Greeks, assuring her such a gesture would be of far less valuable than the one she know plays as Paris’ supportive influence.

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It’s always tempting for romantics to be very forgiving towards Helen and Paris, although they’re supposed to be the kinds of blithe and thoughtless youngsters who cause endless trouble for other people. Bloom, best known for playing the omnicompetent Elf hero Legolas in The Lord of the Rings films until this point, was nonetheless smartly as Paris, a man redeemed more by his honest ardour than by his capacity to live up to the standards of a macho warrior age, the archetypal lover-not-a-fighter who nonetheless starts mastering arts of archery as the conflict becomes grimmer and more personal. Cox’s Agamemnon, by contrast, walks close to the edge of ham, but it’s extremely effective ham, playing the outsized engine of imperial bloodlust who gains his own, deeply personal spur to ruthless prosecution of the war in Menelaus’ death. The film finds its feet as the war heats up and the narrative leans more on The Iliad, although not always remaining faithful to familiar legend: the restored introduction for Odysseus in the director’s cut introduces a note of contrast in character and attitude.

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Troy copped a deal of critical flack for some of its twists on the classical lore in touches, like the early deaths of Menelaus and Ajax and letting Andromache, Helen, and Paris escape in the end, although given the inconsistencies in the legends – there is after all one strand of the tradition that holds the real Helen was replaced by a simulacrum for the war’s duration whilst she was kidnapped to Egypt – and a long tradition of creatively rewriting the stories this is no hanging matter. Revisions often simply get to the same place sooner. Perhaps a more truly unworthy touch is making Aeneas (Frankie Fitzgerald) some random guy Paris gives the Sword of Troy to in the climax. The film’s reconstituted political context is highlighted as Nestor frets to Agamemnon, after the Greek horde has lost a battle like a Bronze-age CNN pundit: “If we leave now, we’ll lose all credibility – if the Trojans can beat us so easily, how long before the Hittites invade?” War of aggression must be haplessly recommitted to through the prospect of losing the aura of invincibility. Perhaps the film’s most interesting and original spin on the theme of war is the way it acknowledges the way conflicts never obey one specific ideological stream, instead representing communal action informed by many different urges and viewpoints, ranging from monomaniacal strategizing to a deeply personal expression of need. Nestor and Odysseus recognise the necessity of continuing the fight along such lines, requiring Agamemnon to remove his ego from the equation and get Achilles back on side.

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Petersen had established himself as a slick and forceful stylist on Das Boot with a palpable sense of atmosphere and a mixture of classical storytelling skill matched to aggressively mobile camerawork, and The Neverending Story wielded a grand and beautiful evocation of fantastic landscapes, a sensibility Petersen couldn’t bring to bear in this naturalistic take on myth. Troy shares something of the same ethos regardless, coming on with great energy, a muscular immediacy strongly contrasting the more popular, highly stylised approach Zack Snyder would unleash on his take on Greek history, 300 (2006). Perhaps to really nail the flavour of the source material might have required something like the mix of elegance and brutalism John Milius gave to Conan the Barbarian (1982), or what John Woo on The Battle of Red Cliff (2009), managing the tricky task of balancing vast spectacle with a sense of the individual potency of great fighters in a most Homeric fashion. But Petersen imbues an elemental sense of pallid sunrises and blood-soaked sand, alive to flesh and grit, appropriate for a story set at the dawn of western history. He pulls off some visual coups, particularly in the first confrontation of the two armies, and the grand overhead shot of the Greek horde charging through the opened city gates in the climax. The fight sequences have appropriate sense of pulverising force and ferocity where Achilles’ near-acrobatic style contrasts the more earthbound foes he contends with, although the beach attack scene reflects the pervasive influence of the Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998) to an unseemly degree.

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Patroclus dies at Hector’s hand whilst pretending to be Achilles, dressed in his armour and leading the Myrmidons into battle when the Trojans attack the Greek beachhead, earning the martial valour he craves in the most brutal fashion and delivering to Achilles a wrath-inducing shock. Whereas in The Iliad Patroclus’ death finally gives him a personal spur that amplifies his talent to the level of genius and world-shatterer, Troy sees him slowly forced to concede the value of his human attachments, in the loss of Patroclus and the spectacle of his own impact on Priam and his caring for Briseis, which proves at once his downfall and also a last, salutary gift, a humanising urge that also obliges his destruction. The build-up to the duel of Achilles and Hector is particularly well-done, as Achilles, glaze-eyed in his merciless fury, wheels up to the city gates and demands Hector come out and fight. Petersen’s build-up for the sequence, expertly drawing out the tension, also successful locates the primal roots of every gunfighter and swordsman duel in popular art. The two well-matched men meet in a fight decided as much by character as physical strength, Achilles’ monomaniacal focus overwhelming Hector’s more scrupulous purpose, before Achilles brutalises his body by dragging it behind his chariot. It’s a testimony to how good storytelling doesn’t dim that I distinctly recall, when seeing this film in the movie theatre, hearing audience members groan in shock when Achilles kills Hector.

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The subsequent scene in which Priam sneaks into Achilles’ tent to beg for his son’s body is a moment for O’Toole, aged and haggard and yet still with his old thespian talent undimmed, to make a mark, especially in the moment when he answers Achilles’ comment, “You will still be my enemy in the morning” with the hard retort “You are still my enemy tonight,” the fire buried under his snowy locks allowed a momentary flare amidst the necessary moment of mollifying. Achilles’ own sense of emotional crisis crystallises in relenting as he weeps over Hector’s corpse, conscious of how much he’s lost in gaining what he long wanted, shocked out of his haughty zone of philosophical butchery. Achilles’ contentious relationship with Briseis is also a surprisingly strong element, the captive priestess’s contempt for the invader, and his disinterest in her sense of humanist and religious offence, mediated by potent attraction. After Achilles saves Briseis from gang rape after Agamemnon gives her to the troops, their flashing wilfulness culminates in a sexual tussle, before Briseis tries in hopeless desperation to hold him back from taking the fight to Hector after Patroclus’ death, and then giving a moan of horror and grief when she sees Achilles return from his fight, with an appropriately cruel evocation of madly clashing emotional impulses.

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It might be said that the film emphasises Achilles and Briseis’ relationship as a nicety in stepping around what many have taken for Achilles and Patroclus’s romantic attachment, although nothing like that is explicitly portrayed in The Iliad. Achilles resolves to depart the battle, only to be obliged to stay when Odysseus dreams up a plan to break the military deadlock between the two camps. Euripides notoriously disliked Odysseus as a character intensely, despite his valorising in Homer, often portraying him as a man who turned is great intellect towards manipulative and cynical ends. Petersen and Benioff rather see his cagey, meditative intelligence as crucial in a vital way: personalities like Agamemnon start wars and those like Achilles fight them, but only one like Odysseus can win one. Odysseus dreams up the ploy of the Trojan Horse, and the script deftly sidesteps the complex web of circumstances that made the Trojans fall for it in the source myths through having the Greeks falsify an outbreak of plague, revealed as a fraud in a revisit to the opening as a dog licks a corpse’s arm of fake lesions. The climactic sack of the city is a tremendous piece of spectacle, and the director’s cut is particularly revealing in the longer, more savage and lingering depiction of the Greek invaders engaged in mass rape, vandalism, and slaughter.

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It’s unsparing as a portrayal and indictment of the dark side of war that sharply contrasts the attitude of martial vainglory that’s generally been more popular in new millennium cinema in the likes of Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings films, aggressive conquest envisaged as a general degradation and a succession of ugly consequences to prior choices wrapped in high-flown concepts. Petersen also delivers the right kind of grandiose theatre, with Cox’s Agamemnon at full throttle, revelling in his destruction of the city and slaying of the stricken Priam, before catching Briseis and promising her degradations beyond parallel. Whereupon the cunning priestess shoves a dagger in his neck. Achilles rescues here from Agamemnon’s vengeful bodyguards, only to be riddled with arrows by Paris when he thinks Achilles is attacking her. Again the film manages a surprisingly good job here of conflating the far-flung routes of mythology into a potent and logical climax, hitting the key ironic beats, the great warlord felled by a woman, the mighty duellist brought down by love and a wielder of the unmanly bow, leaving Odysseus as the one to put coins on the eyes of the dead and invoke the names of the fallen amidst the ash and ruins and fetid sighs of exhausted passion. Troy doesn’t rise to the heights of the greatest historical epics and mythological movies, but it’s a full-blooded and intelligent work.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

The Driver (1978)

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Director/Screenwriter: Walter Hill

By Roderick Heath

Night and the city. Sulphurous hues of street lamps and luminous neon hieroglyphs. Clammy sex in fetid hotel suites. Feverish gambling in the small back rooms. Bloody battles in grimy alleys and warehouses. Walter Hill’s filmography most readily calls to mind such textures, although he just as often ventured out into the dusty west or into the iron and concrete jungles of prisons. Hill seemed set for a major film career as he rose up the ranks as a screenwriter, penning films like The Getaway (1972) and The Mackintosh Man (1973) for classical hard-asses Sam Peckinpah and John Huston. Hill debuted as a director with Hard Times (1975), and scored big hits with The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hours (1982), as well as producing and penning instalments of the Alien series. Hill resembled some other filmmakers who emerged around the same time, including Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and John Milius, in his range of inspirations and stylistic reflexes, his love for old-school storytelling virtues and a love of tough guy mystique contradicted by an urge to search for instability behind the façade, mediated by an attempt to mate such reflexes with a sense of updated immediacy and realism, and a near-anthropological interest in people on the fringes of society. Hill loves tales of people trying to survive hostile landscapes be they rural or urban, exploring that theme overtly in The Warriors, Southern Comfort (1981), and Trespass (1992), often limiting the scope of his action to a brief and concentrated timespan redolent of classical drama: even Aliens (1986), although realised by James Cameron, took an essential Hill template for its story.

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The Warriors, almost certainly Hill’s best-known and most-loved film, manages to seem at once palpable and stylised, mating myth-history and comic book aesthetics with a pungent sense of place and physical immediacy in sustaining its own little cordoned world. Hill’s love of the textures of ‘50s noir and rock’n’roll flicks eventually drove him to make Streets of Fire (1984), a film conjured almost entirely in an argot of retro tropes. Despite what seemed to be Hill’s commercially amenable fascination with pulp fiction mores, he proved at odds with the increasingly fantastical tone of the evolving action blockbuster, rendering his box office touch scattershot. Like some of his fellows, Hill stumbled in the late 1980s. He made ill-received attempts to expand out of his genre comfort zone with the comedy Brewster’s Millions (1985) and the rock musical Crossroads (1986). Hill’s turn towards revisionist Westerns in the mid-1990s, with Geronimo: An American Legend (1994) and Wild Bill (1995), was also met with general apathy, but they were interesting and textured works that informed Hill’s later role in creating the cult TV show Deadwood. His attempt to reunite Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with their American roots as Last Man Standing (1996) was unfortunately a distressingly dreary entry, and his first two films of the new millennium, Supernova (2000) and Undisputed (2002), were dumped in release. But Hill’s sporadic late-career efforts Bullet to the Head (2012) and The Assignment (2017) have their virtues as self-consciously trashy sketches of auteurist humour.

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Hill’s The Driver, his second film, sits at the intersection of filmic avenues, a gritty, terse, nasty chimera, part movie-brat assimilation of old film noir and westerns, part quintessential study in 1970s streetwise verisimilitude. In many ways it’s Hill’s most restrained and minimalist film, like its hero operating on a high-band wavelength often bordering on the subliminal, and it was met by general critical and audience bemusement upon release. But it’s become enshrined as an inescapable influence on subsequent neo-noir cinema. The Driver made an immediate and unmistakeable impact on Mann’s style as purveyed in his debut Thief (1981), and echoes in labours by filmmakers occupying the crossroads of independent and genre cinema, including Jim Jarmusch, Jeremy Saulnier, and Quentin Tarantino’s LA crime films, particularly Jackie Brown (1997). It’s received overt homages in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), and some of its visual imprimatur can also be detected in films as disparate as Repo Man and The Terminator (both 1984). The Driver’s failure to connect in its day must have felt especially bitter and ironic given it seems to designed to at once ride the wave of popularity for action films built around car chases, borne out of the popularity of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), and to provide a sharply different approach to and anatomisation of the mystique of this certain kind of movie.

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Anticipating The Warriors in depicting the flotsam of a nocturnal existence engaged in primal battles the sunlit world never knows, The Driver also retained Hard Times’ portrayal of exile-in-society antiheroes, whilst moving beyond the immediate sway of Peckinpah and Huston. The Driver saw Hill emulating Jean-Pierre Melville and his particularly Gallic brand of crime movie with its glaze of existential cool and alienation chic as exemplified by Le Samouraï (1967), and his inclusion of French actress Isabelle Adjani tipped a hat to the influence. It made sense then that just about the only film market The Driver initially scored a hit in was France. Hill’s efforts in marrying high-powered chase action with a spare, existential, rather European vibe had also been strongly anticipated by Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), but Hill brought the style back home and rooted it firmly in a bracingly intense and intimate feel for the seamy backwaters of Los Angeles and the traditions of American underworld portraiture. Often it feels as much informed by the likes of Nelson Algren and Edward Hopper as classic noir. The first glimpse of the film’s antihero, known only as The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), comes with a mythopoeic note, as we see him rising out of the underworld – riding an escalator up into a car park where he selects a car to break into with a specially-made key, and drives out into the Los Angeles night.

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Hill cuts to the interior of a casino, a space of phony-plush cool where Adjani’s character, known as The Player, plays as the dealer in a card game with an expression of intense ennui, waiting out the night’s games with fellow gamblers seeking the elusive charge of fortune but currently only receiving static. These two disparate citizens of the nocturnal world soon prove to be linked, as a pair of masked hoodlums (Nick Dimitri and Bob Minor) burst into the casino, assault a security guard, and make off with the bank. The Player, leaving the casino, hovers near the rear entrance and seems to fix on The Driver as he sits parked and waiting, having already smashed through a wooden barrier to access the rear of the building. The robbers dash out and climb aboard with The Driver, who begins a dash through the LA downtown, streets close to deserted in the wee small hours save cop cars that come blazing out of the shadows and give chase. The Driver’s innate genius is proven as he eludes, outruns, and wrecks his pursuers, as well as his bullish refusal to be cornered or intimidated, as he charges headlong at a pair of oncoming cruisers, defying the bullets that glance off the windscreen, and forces them to swerve and crash, much to the chagrin of his charges. After being sure of their escape, The Driver dumps the stolen car in a car graveyard, and curtly informs the thieves, after they’ve given him his share of the loot, that they won’t be working together again: “You were late.”

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The Driver’s latest escapade stirs the city’s most fearsome hunting dog out of his kennel: The Detective (Bruce Dern) is first glimpsed playing pool by himself in a tavern, itching for an opponent worth of his mettle. The Detective scarcely conceals his delight when he finds The Driver has left behind his fashioned key as a taunting calling card: “Cowboy,” one his partners notes, to The Detective’s reply, “No shit.” The Detective knows well who The Driver is and his desire to nab him ratchets up to an obsessive register: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” The Detective has The Driver brought in and shown off to witnesses from the casino: most state they didn’t get a good look at him, except for The Player, who states categorically that he isn’t the man. The Player, it soon turns out, was specifically courted to play the misdirecting witness by The Connection (Ronee Blakely), The Driver’s agent who finds him jobs, and The Driver breaks with his usual hygienic protocols to pay The Player off personally, perhaps because he’s attracted to her but also perhaps sensing she’s to play some unknown role in his looming battle with The Detective.

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This link seems to be confirmed by the Fates as The Detective comes to call on The Player in her upscale apartment whilst The Driver is speaking with her. The Detective leans on The Player, knowing full well what her function in the game is, and rattling her cage when she defies him with all her languid cool: “Of course there was that one little scrape. That kind of nasty one. The one that got swept under the rug?” True to the roguish proclivities of the 1970s zeitgeist (and now?) as well as to Hill’s efforts to blend schools old and revisionist, Hill offers The Driver as an admirable figure despite his criminal profession, a man who operates definitively according to a silently enforced code of behaviour both in himself and expected of others, whilst The Detective is a ripe bastard in representing law and order. O’Neal’s inhabiting of a stern, taciturn, rigorously professional persona is pitted against Dern’s depiction of a man who likes talking, if to specific effect. The Detective’s pleasure in goading and provoking and showing off his mastery manifests with sadistic concision as he tries to fracture The Driver’s hard shell by tossing hot coffee on his hands whilst they converse, and then daring his foe to punch him at the cost of two years in prison. The Driver’s bone-deep self-control asserts itself and he pulls back from landing the blow.

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The Detective has two partners in his roving crime squad, the ‘Red Plainclothesman’ (Matt Clark) and the ‘Gold Plainclothesman’ (Felice Orlandi). The former is a relative newcomer to the team who feels uneasy when confronted by The Detective’s methods and attitude, making plays at challenging The Detective’s confidence and assurance as it becomes clear the senior cop will contemplate breaking rules and laws to achieve his objective as well as abusing and humiliating people. The Detective responds to Red’s weak resistance with a mix of disdainful amusement and friendly-aggressive mentorship: “You’re a loser. But I think you’d like to be a winner.” The Detective eventually decides the best and most efficient way to catch The Driver red-handed is to set up a bank robbery himself. He fixes on a pair of sleazy stick-up men, ‘Glasses’ (Joseph Walsh) and ‘Teeth’ (Rudy Ramos), whose most recent job was robbing a pharmacy, and are in need of a new getaway driver because their current one, Fingers (Will Walker) has become erratic, despite having once been good enough to have been in on another job with The Driver as his back-up. The glimpse Hill offers of Glasses, Teeth, and Fingers in action together summarises their essential natures and potential dangers in deft strokes: Glasses loses him temper for little good reason, Teeth shoots out the windows of the pharmacy to make a big noise and intimidate for equally little reason, and the rattled Fingers speeds away in crazed style, almost careening into an oncoming truck and sideswiping a parked car.

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The Driver neither entirely adheres to old-school generic niceties nor strains to deflower them in the manner of something like Chinatown (1974). The characters operate according to their natures and functions, signalled by their reduction to systemised generic titles rather than names and the disinterest in defining them according to their biographies. But are ultimately all forced to confront the hollowness of their actions. Not for the last time in his oeuvre, Hill’s characters here resemble honed metaphors for life as an on-the-make Hollywood creative. Plotting colossal projects and living transfiguring dreams whilst subsisting in ratty apartments, trying to retain maverick ethics whilst surrounded by sharks and lowlifes, to smuggle through personal statements under the nose of authority. Hill’s most recent film The Assignment tweaked the figuration to offer the mad scientist villain as the easily bored and maliciously talented artist figure, but here The Driver’s ethic as a practitioner of a rarefied art accords perfectly with Hill’s method in his, trying to hone every shot, word, and gesture down to a pure and essential form. Most of the characters and their interactions embody Hill’s screenwriting precepts. Relevant information, no chit-chat; gestures and skills mean more than words. The Detective’s privilege is indicated as the relative spendthrift with talk, although his use of them likewise has a sense of effect.

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A year before Werner Herzog cast her in his remake of Nosferatu, Adjani seems present in a different kind of vampiric drama and similarly cast for the almost hallucinatory quality of her beauty rather than the volatility that had made her an instant star in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). The Player, like The Driver, is someone entirely immersed in a hardboiled world although she occupies a higher end of the scale for the time being, her apartment a sleek and pricey abode that seems to hover high above the LA night, albeit one just as sparsely furnished and almost shell-like as any of the dives The Driver inhabits, signalling she’s another one ready to flee at a second’s notice. The first glimpse of The Player, dealing in a poker game in the casino, registers her as both an uncommon presence and one utterly bored, compelling the eye and deflecting it at once. The Player explains her motives for getting mixed up with his business to The Driver when he visits her with casual, almost fatalistic concision, stating that the apartment is paid for by some occasional high-roller lover but “lately the cheques haven’t been so regular.” Her and The Driver’s relationship is transactional in stated terms, as The Detective’s threats oblige The Player to push The Driver in turn to make sure he can make it worth her while to maintain his alibi.

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But some arc of attraction seems to also spark between the pair, sufficient to draw The Driver to her and vice versa in risky ventures, each cognisant of the other as both a danger and also a bird of the same feather, intense and disinclined to large gestures, speaking language through their piercing gazes instead. “Cowboy music,” The Player notes as she visits The Driver’s seamy flat: “Always tells a story. Drunks, whores, broken hearts.” Hill’s thumbnail for the appeal of genre storytelling, a certain brand thereof at least, one preoccupied by the losers and outsiders amidst American life. The Driver, despite being in a lucrative line of work who’s been working heavily, subsists in the crummy grandeur of cheap hotel rooms with inexpressibly hideous peeling teal paintwork. It’s a lifestyle The Detective notes with a certain level of approval as a sign of The Driver’s dedication and intelligence, living in a manner that offers no hint of secret wealth or indeed any signs of actual life: “Boy, you’ve got it down real tight. So tight there’s no room for anything else.” Despite his seemingly unswerving realism and professionalism The Driver nonetheless eventually reveals motives fuelled by something more elusive, including a belief in a run of luck – “I’m riding a wave” – that must be followed to its end as if he too is a gambler, one playing his game with the universe.

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The criminals The Detective selects to play out the necessary roles in his master plan immediately irritate The Driver when they try to commission him, seeing in them the precise qualities The Driver disdains. “How do we know you’re that good?” Teeth demands when The Driver names his high price when he meets with them in a car park. The Driver immediately and vengefully demonstrates to them his quality by taking over the criminals’ Mercedes and driving it pell-mell around the car park, slamming it against walls and columns, terrifying his passengers and leaving the car a battered wreck, before turning down their offer. The Driver’s antagonism with Teeth ratchets still higher when the criminal turns up on the landing outside his apartment, brandishing a massive revolver to bully him into signing on. The Driver nonetheless remains profoundly unimpressed, at first challenging Teeth to pull the trigger and then, after meeting his gaze for many moments in a staring contest, socking him in the jaw and throwing him down the stairs. “I just wanted to talk,” Teeth groans to The Driver’s cold reply, “You did.” Glasses goes to meet with The Detective to confess failure in obtaining The Driver’s services, whereupon The Detective calmly sets about arranging it himself by visiting The Driver in his apartment and challenging him to engage in the contest, even returning to him his lock pick.

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This key confrontation sees the two characters conversing in hard glares, the stakes and connections unspoken and yet stated through semaphore of body language and attitude, with The Driver signalling his acceptance of the game by taking the key. O’Neal had emerged as a major star with the success of Love Story (1970) and he followed it up with hits like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), and stretched himself to great effect with Barry Lyndon (1975). O’Neal had a peculiar screen persona, appearing very much the blandly handsome everyman imbued with a limpidly romantic cast, contradicted by eyes that harboured a hue of wounded animal ruefulness and shrewdness, blended qualities that informed his best roles and performances. Hill had written one of O’Neal’s earlier vehicles, The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), and The Driver plays in a fashion as a more self-serious iteration of that film, and suggests Hill saw unrealised dimensions in the actor. Although he signalled a move in that direction with A Bridge Too Far (1977), O’Neal wasn’t associated with tough guy parts, and after The Driver’s failure no-one would again. Which was a real pity, as O’Neal’s career was left with no place to go, and yet he inhabits the part of The Driver perfectly, with his squared-off poise and air of physical competence held on a tight leash of hard-learnt restraint, and when The Driver resorts to direct acts of violence it’s both blindsiding and convincing.

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The air of caginess, of some private reserve O’Neal was keeping locked away from the world, became a potent reservoir when it came to projecting The Driver’s borderline maniacal commitment to a private ethic and project of asocial resistance. The Driver seems less motivated to engage in criminal activity for money but to thumb his nose at people who live by less concerted ways, an aspect of his character The Detective readily grasps because it’s an attitude he shares, if whilst expressing and actualising in quite different ways. Dern, by contrast, had almost become synonymous with a certain kind of role, callow creeps and unstable outcasts, like his Vietnam veteran-turned-terrorist in Black Sunday (1977) and his infamous part as a psycho who kills John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Hill readily tapped Dern’s ability to play galvanising assholes but also showed cheekiness in making him the representative of authority. The Detective compares his own approach to his job as one rooted in the same presumptions as newspaper sports results – points on the boards neatly demarcating all players as winners and losers, the nominal task of upholding a public responsibility and enforcing community laws subordinated to the needs of ego and simple equations of power.

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The Detective sees himself as the winner in a job for a society that values only winners, a proto-Trump figure in extolling an exclusively Darwinian sense of the world where the rules are only incumbent upon those not naturally chosen for success, for status, for the right to self-identify with the spine of the establishment. On the other hand The Driver is contrasted by Glasses and Teeth as well as the two stick-up men he taxis at the outset, bandits who almost by definition will possess or foster traits that work against The Driver’s professional sensibility as well as his distrust of violence as people quick to temper and irresponsible. Glasses seems like a reasonable and steady captain for gangland activities in comparison to Teeth, who The Driver immediately pins as a potential hazard with his attitude and delight in violence and provocation, and soon gets all the evidence he needs to back up the assessment. Glasses eventually proves to have his own explosive and duplicitous streak. The Driver’s habit of talking a hard line with flaky colleagues despite not carrying a gun is a test he liberally applies, quickly revealing hotheads and reactive fools, a point of character that feels reminiscent of some Western heroes like Barry Sullivan’s character in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), presenting the truest tough guy as one who can maintain a pacifist demeanour but doesn’t flinch from speaking cold truth and laying down the law, or from action when absolutely necessary.

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And as in such a model, this trait makes antithetical characters underestimate The Driver, something Teeth learns when The Driver easily disarms him and beats him up. Glasses falls into the same trap. When The Driver eventually takes on the job, he demands that Teeth sit out the robbery, so Glasses uses Fingers as his accomplice, only for Fingers to foul up during the heist and allow an alarm to sound: Glasses is so infuriated he guns Fingers down. Once The Driver delivers him to their rendezvous point in an empty warehouse, Glasses points his pistol at The Driver and makes it clear he’s going to kill him too, mocking him for not killing a gun, only for The Driver to suddenly swing up a pistol from where he’s nursed it out of sight and blow Glasses away. A great, jolting surprise that again obliges both viewers and characters to revise their understanding of The Driver, one reminiscent in a way of Tuco’s “shoot, shoot – don’t talk” quip from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but without the lilt of black humour, instead striking a bleak, rueing note in confirming The Driver, despite his dislike of guns and violence, knows damn well he has to be good at both in his world. Glasses’ attempt at a double-cross relieves The Driver of any burden to split the take and he heads off to arrange with The Player to swap dirty money for clean.

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Hill’s infusing style on The Driver mimics his writing in trying to film and frame to an essentialist credo. Relatively little of the movie takes place in open daylight, and when it does this is clearly offered as The Detective’s realm rather than The Driver’s, The Detective and his crew hovering around backstreets and rooftops and car parks awaiting calls to action just as The Driver and his ilk parse away time in dim, interior, almost claustrophobic environs. Hill often frames The Driver in relation to faded and battered artworks and fancily framed mirrors on walls in hotels and bars, hinting at the tattered romantic textures lurking behind his life-hardened façade. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop’s photography unfolds in earthy tones of grey, brown, and green, usually only broken up by odd flashes of bolder colour like a cop car’s lights or the balls on a pool table, and relatively colourful locales like the various taverns and the casino have their gaudier colourings muted. The Driver’s visit to pay off The Player at her glitzy, modernist apartment complex feels particularly vital as a thumbnail for Mann’s aesthetic. The duo meet in the sickly greenish glow of fluorescent tube lighting along a blank concrete catwalk that looks like infrastructure for a space centre, and ascend by elevator to hover high above the gleaming cityscape, lowlifes become astronauts by dint of living amidst but not as part of modern American life.

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The inherent visual tension helps draw out Hill’s backdrop thesis regarding American success as release from relationship to history and environment, whereas the losers in The Detective’s parlance must persist in spaces where such things reign over them. Hill’s expect use of Lathrop’s widescreen pictures nudges the edges of Hopper-like abstraction throughout, often moving in for flashes of action and then returning for deadpan medium-long shots scanning corpses and wrecked cars with the equanimity of a classical landscape painter. Hill had to make his driving action scenes feel novel and distinct from famous precursors. It’s been said the template Hill hit upon has proven particularly influential on video games, presumably in the smooth and gliding sense of speed and motion he captures in the key chase sequences, getting close enough to generate immediate intensity but avoiding chaotic freneticism through excessive editing. Often his camera stands relatively aloof from the vehicles, noting their arcs of motion, straining against earth and gravity, so their lines of motion become dance-like, and often framing O’Neal and his passengers, including Adjani in the climax, in a manner that clearly shows them amidst the action. The fact that most of the chase scenes take place in the very early morning allows Hill to let the cars rip with little to stall or frustrate them, instead turning the chases into contests of pure driving skill, tearing through downtown avenues and seamy factory spaces.

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Hill also spurned any music accompanying the chases, employing Michael Small’s mostly electronic scoring with its eerie drones and squiggles strictly for brief passages of atmosphere. Blakely, contrasting her best-known role as the beloved but damaged diva in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), plays The Connection with a veneer of tight-wrapped proficiency, breathy voice and bright red lips contrasting her rather asexual dress style, a fitting partner in free enterprise for The Driver and one he seems tight with, and yet she keeps a wary distance, making clear to The Driver she has no intention of getting killed for his sake when he gets her to dig up a fence for the cash. Hill’s more ruthless brand of humour shades into horror as Teeth corners The Connection in her apartment and makes her reveal where the money handover is to take place by inserting the barrel of his huge pistol deep in her mouth. The Connection quickly coughs up the required information and tells Teeth she told The Driver she wouldn’t die for him, only for Teeth to push a pillow over her face and shoot her through it, as if delivering his own, cold punchline to a cosmic joke. The brutal, quasi-sexual violence here renders the games of dominance throughout the film at their most palpable and disturbing extreme, underlining for Teeth as Glasses’ killing of Fingers did for him that he’s truly dangerous, like a rabid animal that must be put down, and the hard lesson The Connection doesn’t live long enough to learn its no-one can stand neutral from the fate of their allies in such a world.

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The climax is set up as The Driver has The Player meet The Exchange Man (Denny Macko) at Union Station only for Teeth to pounce and snatch the purse containing the key to the locker containing the clean money. The Detective chases down the fence and shoots him as he tries to elude the cop on a train rolling out of the station, whilst The Driver, with The Player in tow, chases after Teeth and his new driver ‘The Kid’ (Frank Bruno) in a careening duel of speed and skill, with The Driver behind the wheel of a sturdy pick-up truck he’s stolen opposed to The Kid’s flashy muscle car, which just cannot shake him. Hill’s choice of vehicles in this scene works both as a visual joke inverting marketable images, the streamlined and fearsome lifestyle accoutrement unable to outrun the boxy and utilitarian machine, and as a metaphor for Hill’s preference for plebeian solidity over flash, and with The Driver and The Player remaining perfectly pokerfaced throughout. The battle resolves in a warehouse where the two vehicles stalk each-other before The Driver’s nerveless way with a game of chicken causes his opponent to crash spectacularly (and finally cracks The Player’s stoic veneer), and Teeth finds himself beaten again, this time more finally, as the contest between him and The Driver winnows down to the more elemental and classical art with a gun, an epic moment that gains a moment of salutary humour as The Kid hightails away, happy to survive his first and probably last tilt at the criminal big leagues.

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This battle seems to finally anoint The Driver as the Western hero reborn, chasing down varmints, equally accomplished on his steed and at the draw, existing outside civilised norms but imposing cohesion on a wild landscape through sheer force of will and discipline. There’s one last part of the game to play out, however, as he and The Player return to Union Station to retrieve the money only to find The Detective and a line of cops ready to nab him. The bag he takes out of the locker proves however to be empty, part of a rip-off intended by the deceased Exchange Man, leaving The Detective without the necessary evidence to arrest The Driver. The Player and The Driver both stride in their separate directions, dissolving into the dark, whilst The Detective finds himself the butt of a droll and queasy gag as he’s quite literally left holding the bag. A denouement that deflates multiple balloons, validating neither the lawman nor the outlaw, official and rebellious perspective each found wanting, at least on the scoreboard level The Detective so eloquently extols. But The Driver, having ridden his wave to the end and come out clean, has emerged with a more rarefied form of capital, his creed fulfilled, his body intact and free, even if perhaps destined only to continue on his sharklike way a few more nights.

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1930s, Auteurs, French cinema, Political, Thriller

The Shanghai Drama (1938)

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Le Drame du Shanghaï

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Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenwriters: Alexandre Arnoux, Léo Lania

By Roderick Heath

Georg Wilhem Pabst’s run of films of the late silent and early sound cinema eras remain essential viewing for movie lovers and scholars, and the director himself synonymous with that moment in European film culture. Pabst, born in Roudnice in what was then Austro-Hungary, studied engineering but drifted into the theatre, already experiencing a successful transatlantic career as a stage director before World War I broke out. After spending the war in a French internment camp, Pabst took up filmmaking in his late thirties, and emerged as a major talent with his fourth feature, The Joyless Street (1925). That film, featuring Greta Garbo before her jaunt to Hollywood, also marked the beginning of his reputation for making or amplifying female stars at crucial junctures. After making the first film to explicitly tackle Freudian theory as a subject, Secrets of a Soul (1926), Pabst directed two movies touched with legendary lustre with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), which Pabst directed in collaboration with Arnold Fanck, scored a huge popular hit and kicked off a craze for mountain climbing films. Pabst’s war film Westfront 1918 (1930), humanistic disaster drama Kameradschaft (1931), and Expressionist musical The 3 Penny Opera (1931) were hailed as some of the most vital moviemaking achieved in the early days of sound.

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And yet, after the early 1930s, Pabst falls completely out of sight as far as most cineastes and critics are concerned, although he would keep making movies for another twenty years. The reasons for his erasure are laced with bitter ironies and ambiguities. In his glory days, Pabst was feted for the determined blend of social critique and psychological investigation apparent in his films as well as their artistic vigour, informed by his leftist allegiances. His sense of style modulated degrees of realism and stylisation, veering from careful, Erich von Stroheim-esque detail to heightened Expressionist effects in trying to describe the physical and mental landscape of his age, and how one created the other, with a penchant for vivid, often antiheroic female protagonists. Jean Renoir hailed Pabst as an influence with his capacity to “create a strange world whose elements are borrowed from daily life.” Pabst had already moved to France to work even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, but his exile proved one of anxious wanderings. In his first years in Paris he ventured into splashy science fiction-fantasy with L’Atlantide (1932) and a well-regarded adaptation of Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), which sported a pointed jab at Nazi book-burning. But Pabst’s sojourn to Hollywood to make A Modern Hero (1934) proved a rude comedown for a director known for his tight creative control as he clashed with Warner Bros. He soon returned to France, but could not regain his standing.

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Pabst was caught in Austria as World War II broke out, and found himself under the thumb of Joseph Goebbels, who obliged him to make a handful of movies during the war that had nominally safe historical themes, including The Comedians (1941) and Paracelsus (1943): the latter film has been studied with some interest as evidence of Pabst’s artistic resistance with its theme of the heroic title character trying to counter mass hysteria with rationalism. Nonetheless many former fans and fellow leftists held Pabst in disdain for his collaboration, and some accused him of returning to Nazi-held territory because he preferred the stature he would supposedly have retained working there to following other figures of German cinema to Hollywood and subsist in the studio production mills. Pabst didn’t help his reputation by offering fuzzy explanations as to why he was in Austria and never explicitly apologising for bowing down. As if making aesthetic rather than rhetorical riposte, after the war’s end Pabst reverted to his sharply critical mode as he tried to illustrate historical anti-Semitism with Der Prozeß (1948), but he struggled afterwards, sojourning to Italy to make some poorly received comedies. Returning again to Germany, he tackled the chaotic waning days of the war with The Last Ten Days (1955), with a script co-written by Erich Maria Remarque anticipating Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) in portraying Hitler in the Bunker, and It Happened on July 20th (1955), a depiction of the July Plot assassination attempt. Finally advancing Parkinson’s Disease impacted his ability to continue directing, and many felt he had long since lost his specific creative fire.

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Watching The Shanghai Drama, a product of Pabst’s virtually forgotten late ‘30s output, in the light of what was behind and ahead for Pabst is then a jolting and salutary experience. The Shanghai Drama engages the moment of its making, Pabst’s sense of socio-political context blended with his customary fascination with characters emerged in seedy locales and battling to retain any trace of their spirit and identity against forces of social and psychological evil. The Shanghai Drama, adapted from a novel by Oscar Paul Gilbert, has some echoes of Andre Malraux’s famous novel Man’s Fate in describing the fractious political and civic state of China in the 1930s and the European expatriates and emissaries crammed into a cosmopolitan toehold. The material also sees Pabst negotiating with the style of highly fatalistic drama popular in France in the late ‘30s in the poetic realist style, a style he likely influenced, including films like Pepe Le Moko (1936), to which The Shanghai Drama has some similarities as a portrait of desperation in exile. In other respects it resembles a rather common kind of “exotic” melodrama of its time Hollywood was making often, fare like Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich as well as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), B genre movies like Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937), and even Casablanca (1942), in revolving around criminals, exiles, and sordid nightlife. Like many such movies Pabst’s depicts the “White Russian” population that accumulated in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution and formed a much-mythologised bloc of transplanted Europeans before World War II. The emphasis on the protective instincts of a mother likewise closely anticipates the kinds of maternal melodramas Joan Crawford would become synonymous with.

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Nonetheless Pabst’s acidic intelligence and artistry permeate the film and transform it into something close to unique. The film opens with a number of teenage girls, daughters of the colonial ruling class, graduating from their private school in Hong Kong. The school is an islet of transplanted Englishness complete with phony Elizabethan architecture, clinging vine, and militaristic regimentation as the girls forming up to listen to the headmistress’ (Gabrielle Dorziat) address, before they’re dismissed and erupt in proper adolescent glee. Vera Blonski (Elina Labourdette) is one of the girls, overjoyed at the thought of being reunited with her mother in Hong Kong, evoking the heroine of Diary of a Lost Girl in her aura of doomed and coddled naiveté about to be rudely despoiled by the big bad world. One kind of asylum for young women is supplanted by another: the Olympic, a Shanghai nightclub run by “Big Bill” (Dorville), who runs his gaggle of dancers with a ruthlessly exploitative hand knowing full well he’s the only source of legitimate employment for many of the young White Russian women in Shanghai. “Big Bill looks like a convict,” notes the robust and dedicated journalist André Franchon (Raymond Rouleau), visiting the club with a friend, but “these poor dancers look like they’re the ones on a chain gang.” Pabst pauses to note the grossly ritualised humiliation and cold-blooded nature of Bill’s regime, avoiding all hint of bawdiness as he presents Bill smacking his dancers’ backsides, leering over one young recruit, and sacking another for talking back, an act both know is tantamount to utter degradation if not death.

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The central character is privileged by comparison: Kay Murphy (Christiane Mardayne) is the headline performer at the Olympic. Her real name is Maria Blonski, a White Russian and Vera’s mother. Kay sits in rigid and cold-eyed remove from her circumstances whilst feted by her audience and hosted by local plutocrats, muttering her signature incantation of disenchantment: “Once I could have been an artist. Instead I’m only a star.” Pabst seems to be touring his own experience of filmmaking, evoking his own lot as an exile and ruing encounters with abusive producers and actors happy to sell out their talent for success. Kay lives with her aged governess Niania (Suzanne Desprès) and the thought of Vera’s imminent return and the possibility of leaving Shanghai. But Kay soon finds the past catching up with her, as her husband Ivan (Louis Jouvet) suddenly reappears. Ivan, scarred from a deadly encounter he feels where her attempt to rid herself of him, represents the Black Dragon, a conspiratorial cabal operating on both a political and criminal level trying to achieve total dominance over the Chinese government, and other countries too by implication. The Black Dragon have one immediate, specific irritant they want to silence, the nationalist activist Cheng (Linh-Nam) who rails against both foreign exploitation and domestic cliques hindering his country’s development, and has gained a great following, with sufficient power and appeal to unite the many factions in Chinese life. Ivan has been assigned to force Kay into helping deliver Cheng into the Black Dragon’s hands.

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One aspect of The Shanghai Drama that makes it feel far more modern than a lot of English-language films like it from the time is the absence of any Caucasian actors playing the Asian roles. Portions of the film were partly shot in Vietnam, or French Indochina as it was then, and this provides verisimilitude in the sense of place as well as casting, in the scenes depicting Cheng’s political agitation in the streets, although the film was mostly filmed on a French soundstage. Alexandre Arnoux and Léo Lania’s script works in some humour to alleviate the darkness of the plot: “Bastard!” Franchon calls Big Bill, and when Bill answers to the insult, Franchon notes, “Ah, I see, that’s your family name.” A dash of risqué humour as a sailor is asked for his ID by a military policeman but accidentally hands over a fondly kept snapshot of a topless woman. The Shanghai Drama plays as a spiritual continuation to several of Pabst’s earlier films, offering Kay as something like the older, life-wrung person Louise Brooks’ characters might have become, weathering loss of home and the moral quicksand of surviving in the wilderness. The underworld governed by its own eccentric laws of The 3 Penny Opera is now entangled with the motifs of cooperation and people power found in White Hell of Piz Palü and Kameradschaft.

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Pabst pushes many of these retained elements into new ground in considering them in immediate relation to one-another, explicitly linking forms of abuse and oppression on an individual level with the political. The finale echoes the ending of Pandora’s Box but unifying two characters from that film this time into the single, tragic figure. The Black Dragon seem at first like close relatives of the romanticised underworld figures in The 3 Penny Opera, but quickly come to more closely resemble in turn one of the covertly powerful factions found in Fritz Lang’s films like Spione (1928) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Indeed, Pabst goes further than Lang usually dared in not only presenting his cabal as manipulators but international political operators too, embodiments of gangster capitalism and reactionary politics, carefully and remorselessly plotting methods to extend their power, even going so far as to spark war to ensure the success of their plans. Ivan proves to be one of their most dedicated agents, and through him has also bound Kay to them, in making common illiberal purpose.

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Pabst initially presents the Black Dragon potentates, including their cold-blooded and perfectly maleovolent mastermind Lee Pang (Valéry Inkijinoff) and their most recently elevated member Madame Tsé (Foun-Sen), who just happens to be Cheng’s sister, amidst the splendours of an estate garden. The romantic Chinoiserie lustre of roses and tranquil lily-crammed ponds contrasts the machinations and politicking. One old mandarin recommends to Tsé she help neutralise her brother and clips a rose flower from its stem to illustrate his point. “He’s the wave of the future, and we’d like to wipe out that future.” After Ivan’s return Kay finds herself imprisoned by Bill in the nightclub, as Bill is also subordinate to the Black Dragon, forcing her to stick around until she can play her part in the cabal’s plot to kill Cheng, and unable to go to the docks and meet Vera off her ship. Franchon, who has struck up a friendship with Kay and knows she was expecting to meet someone, heads to the harbour and encounters the confused and fretful Vera who knows nothing about her mother’s circumstances in Hong Kong. Franchon doesn’t connect them until Vera recognises a song he whistles, overheard at the Olympic, as one of her mother’s favourites. Franchon takes Vera to Kay’s apartment. Meanwhile Cheng comes to the Olympic on invitation with some of his political comrades, only to find themselves trapped in a most genteel way, whilst Kay is assigned to draw Cheng upstairs where the Black Dragon bosses await.

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Pabst sharpens his political parable to a point in the build-up the attempt to kill Cheng. The Black Dragon’s chief interrogator and executioner lays out the tools of the torturer’s trade in a folding satchel, a selection of glistening instruments for visiting pain, but selects for Cheng a hypodermic needle to give a lethal injection to make his death look natural. He invites in a pathetic coolie and offers him a silver dollar to allow him to perform an experiment on him. The coolie beams in rhapsodic pleasure at the gleaming coin in his hand, the symbol of all earthly wealth as far as he’s concerned, as the executioner gives him the injection, and the coolie promptly twists up in agonising death. Pabst here manages to reduce his understanding of both economic and political exploitation to one, singular, grotesque vignette, and underlines his portrait of the Black Dragon as a not-so-subtle reflection of fascism in its outlook. Later, faced with Cheng’s intransigence and the potential unification of the country behind his effective leadership, the Black Dragon decide to try and provoke a war between China and another country – unnamed, but clearly supposed to be Japan – through false flag operations. “War is not a method, it’s an end. I don’t believe the people want war,” Tsé protests, to another gang boss’s riposte, “It isn’t the people who want war, it’s countries. All they need is a pretext to start a war.” The Black Dragon have their own prisons where they imprison people who have crossed them, and start picking up political opponents, torturing and executing them.

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Pabst reiterates the parity of gender and political subjugation as Kay finds herself brutally forced to remain at the Olympic by Big Bill, who works for the Black Dragon and refuses to believe her appeals about her daughter’s arrival: Pabst dissolves from Kay’s face with her look of desolate and impotent rage to Vera’s young, forlorn visage as she surveys the dock for her mother. The central sequence of the Black Dragon’s attempt to kill Cheng sports an increasingly, ironically nightmarish tone as Cheng sits amidst the brightness and gaiety of the Olympic but he and his companions become aware they’re trapped and will only stay alive as long as they remain exactly where they are. His comrades volunteer one by one to head and risk assassination to try and bring help, only to be stalked and slain by killers in the street, until Cheng is left alone. Cheng begs Kay for aid in escaping the club over the rooftops, and she leads him up to the seedy, shadowy attic, right into the hands of the Black Dragon honchos and their executioner, awaiting him with pinched, relishing smiles. Cheng and his enemies swap tense and sardonic courtesies as Cheng realises there is no hope for escape. But Franchon manages to save the day when some military police enter the club. Aware of what’s happening, Franchon stirs a fight between sailors and civilians. The resulting riot and crackdown forces the Black Dragon to release Cheng, who calmly departs with Franchon. Kay, branded by Cheng as a dangerous woman, returns to her home and finds Vera waiting for her there, but her daughter senses the self-loathing within Kay, and hugs her photo more urgently than her actual mother.

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Pabst takes swipes at the institution supposed to hold power to account, the press, as Franchon works under an editor, MacTavish (André Alerme), whose cynicism towards the idea of political progress in China – and by extension anywhere else – puts the young French journalist at loggerheads with him constantly. MacTavish is glad to accept stories fed to him by Tsé painting Cheng as a dangerous radical and sacks Franchon for refusing to toe his political line, and blusters when Franchon brings him news of war breaking out with the complaint that war isn’t really war until it’s properly declared, likening it to deciding an election before people have voted, to which Franchon ripostes you can if someone’s stuffing the ballet box. This declaration leaves MacTavish utterly speechless, and Pabst acerbically performs a slow dissolve from MacTavish’s beggared face to shots of tanks and soldiers mobilising. “The foreign press mustn’t be allowed to criticise our victory,” Lee Pang instructs his underlings as the organisation make its move to crush Cheng. By contrast, Pabst offers up Cheng as the embodiment of political heroism, first seen giving speeches to an excited crowd, and the depiction of his political movement carries overtones of the recent Front Populaire movement that was reshaping French political life in the years before the war.

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Pabst contrasts the larger political drama with the paltry humans who are victims of such machinations, with Kay the archetype of the stateless person who tries everything in her power to escape and keep her daughter safe but finds herself trapped thanks to Ivan throwing in with the Black Dragon, and eventually reaches a snapping point when Ivan threatens to induct Vera into working as an agent for the organisation’s ends too. Pabst digs into the lot of the political exile, balanced between points of nostalgia that can be more merciless than comforting, and sharklike survivalism. The past is literally another country, the lost Russia evinced by the keepsakes Niania shows Vera like a mythic fantasy, narrating her parents’ story as if it was a fairy tale only to admit soon enough it certainly isn’t one. Kay’s blank, almost mesmerised affect in the early scenes suggests a lampoon-cum-tribute by Pabst of Marlene Dietrich’s brand of ironclad nightlife survivors – Pabst had originally intended to cast Dietrich in Pandora’s Box but dropped her in favour of Brooks, a choice Dietrich later mocked him for – before Vera’s imminent return rouses her hope again. This is immediately dashed by Ivan’s reappearance as close to literally back from the dead as possible, wielding his own personal brand of astringent disillusion. When Ivan visits Kay in her apartment, holding the fake American passport she’s tried to purchase to get herself and Vera out of the country, he plays the unremitting voice of Fate, cold and merciless and immune to all appeals of paternal feeling.

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Ivan and Kay almost become two halves Pabst’s arguing personality in this regard, one trying to hang on to a sense of courage and purpose in facing up to a rootless lot, the other ruthlessly enforcing his concept of cold truth and obeisance to larger forces as embodied by the Black Dragon. Pabst and his screenwriters give Ivan the lion’s share of memorably scathing lines as he spots a picture of himself when he was a young Tsarist officer, a picture she was showing Vera moments before: “My morals were elegant, now my clothes are.” “We grew up together,” Kay says, to his reply: “We decayed together.” After listening to Vera trying to chart a life for herself away from her parents through desperate alternatives, Ivan mocks her affectation of worldly grit, “Sad songs are a poor memory when times are hard.” A peculiar vignette with a near-mystical sense of poetic import comes as Ivan holds his photo up to compare it with his middle-aged face, as a breeze penetrates the room and sets the chandelier to tinkling, light reflecting off the glasswork and casting a star-like pattern on the wall that slowly fades out: a last, totemic gasp of their lingering memories of youth and freedom. Ivan seems to recognise this as a final epiphany and takes a breath before ripping his photo in half and getting back to business, provoking Kay with his cold intent until she pulls out a gun shoots him dead rather than let him suborn Vera. “Why?” Ivan demands in his death throes as Kay bends over him: “Why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?”

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The Shanghai Drama betrays some uncertainty in tone and style that suggests the movie Pabst finished up making might have been some distance from what he was supposed to make. The film pauses repeatedly for Kay’s song numbers – Mardayn, like Pabst an Austrian, was best known as a singer – and doesn’t entirely reconcile familial melodrama with political thriller until Ivan’s fateful scene. There’s something just a tad trite about Kay’s idealised sense of Vera. Despite having contributions to the cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, one of the most talented and influential film technicians of his time, the film is generally more neutrally lit and distanced in framing in comparison to Pabst’s Expressionist heyday, and great visual touches, whilst plentiful, are also fragmentary. Pabst chases a spare, borderline abstract feel to the set decoration and misé-en-scène, as if drawing on artists like Edward Hopper for a breath of the dreamlike in the otherwise solid. Ingenious and arresting visuals keep arriving at the same pace as the unexpected jolts of baleful political meaning. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Pabst kept a rigorous plan for what he would do on set and shot as little film as necessary to prevent studio interference as much as possible. His close-ups of his actors often aim for an impression of sculptural intensity, particularly of Mardayn with her translucent eyes and adamant jaw, perfect for playing a character at once haughty and wistful, Jouvet with grotesque V-shaped scar like the mark of Cain on his brow, the face around it honed by hard experience to a mask of bleak tidings, and Inkijinoff rubbing a glass ball along his serpentine cheek in savouring its texture against his face whilst ordering men executed and plotting world domination.

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Big Bill’s demands to see a young would-dancer’s legs sees both Bill and prey framed together in mirrors, viewer and viewed mutually encaged. One of Kay’s song numbers sees her wearing a flaring headdress that glows when backlit, and Kay stalks towards the retreating camera, framed by jazz musicians, as if taking on the role of a warbling Vestal priestess or lamenting world-spirit, whilst Pabst pens a rough draft for effects common in 1980s music videos. Kay finds Ivan lurking in the shadowy reaches of the Olympic’s attic, as if that space has become the septic id squatting upon the gaudy pseudo-civilised nightclub, containing its particular devil. Many of Pabst’s images retain the quality of silent cinema in their attempts to present pictures charged with carefully crafted symbolic intensity, as when the Black Dragon honchos settle around a circular table with champagne glasses in their hands only to place the glasses on the table where they rest in strange symmetry, figures of power suddenly rendered abstract and impersonal, deliberate nonentities in a world filled with nobodies trying to somebodies. Ivan after being shot by Kay collapses amidst the white drapes at the window, forming instant shrouds, the dislodged and silhouetted hanging frames at once resembling a sarcastically lowered crucifix and the X motifs Howard Hawks used in Scarface (1932) to similarly mark out the pathetically exterminated. When Kay pulls the false passport out from his jacket, she finds it penetrated by two bullet holes with Ivan’s blood seeming to seep from them.

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Kay’s killing of Ivan gives the Black Dragon an excuse to imprison her and Vera, tossing them into a basement prison with the rest of their captives, and Franchon finishes up with them after he tries to confront and intimidate Lee Pang with the threat of press attention only to find him unafraid. Lee Pang maintains the same devilish cool as Cheng begins to assemble a huge crowd to lay siege to the Black Dragon headquarters, promising the first real shots will drive them away. Pabst finally counters the dark and suffocating depiction of omnipresent evil in the rest of the film with images of people from all walks of Chinese life, from street vendors and labourers to society women marching abreast, converging into a mass and becoming Pabst’s one and only answer to the spectre of criminal authority, an irresistible movement. Confronting Black Dragon heavies who wait for the crowd with guns and shoot down at them, Cheng cries for them to join him, and the appearance of a flight of enemy airplanes over the city gives provides the perfect common cause to point to, to the point where even his sister Tsé, fronting the Black Dragon goons, advances to Cheng and embraces him. Even as such a tide of humanistic power rises, Kay gives in to utter defeatism as she, Vera, and Franchon sit in the prison: “What does it matter if I die here or somewhere else?…Shanghai holds me in its claws.”

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As Cheng’s mob invades the Black Dragon headquarters, the prisoners are freed. Pabst pauses for another of his eye-catching flourishes as he suggests Lee Pang’s death either by suicide or execution by the patriots with the evil overlord hiding his face behind a slowly unfurling Chinese fan before a gunshot is heard. As the prisoners are swept out of the dungeon by their rescuers, even Kay is beaming with the delirium of the delivered, but one of Lee Pang’s assassins, under orders to kill her in any case, still tracks her in the crowd and stabs her in the back. Kay, eyes wide and brilliant in pain and mortification and soon blank in death, is still carried along by the cheek-by-jowl crowd, just another casualty of history carried along by its irresistible impulse, her passing unnoticed either by those jammed about her or Vera and Franchon ahead. An incredible moment that stands easily with Pabst’s best work and a vignette Hitchcock or Lang would’ve been proud of. The coda offers an uneasy sense of at least Vera and Franchon grasping a happy ending as they sit on the deck of a French destroyer with other refugees being taken aboard by Western nations. Pabst notably refuses to give any sense of reassurance on the larger scale, fading out on authentic shots of Shanghai afire and being bombed. Even if it’s intermittent in its best touches and ideas compared to Pabst’s towering silent classics, The Shanghai Drama nonetheless stands as a film deserving far more attention, a desperate and occasionally ferocious attempt by a great director to declare devotion in both his art and his political faiths before fate crashed upon him, and everyone else.

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1930s, Action-Adventure, Historical, Romance

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Screenwriters: Seton I. Miller, Norman Reilly Raine

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

It’s been said that old Hollywood conquered the world in large part because it contained the world in small, a provincial place ruled by some very parochial ways but where people from around the globe, driven by their strange talents and the tides of history, congregated to manufacture the fantasy life of billions. Few films embody that success so perfectly as The Adventures of Robin Hood. The most famous of action heroes, Errol Flynn, alongside his most beloved on-screen partner Olivia de Havilland, in a splashy production from the usually budget-cautious Warner Bros., The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t just fail to age, but seems utterly outside the flow of time, exemplifying a way of making movies and pleasing an audience rooted in a specific moment, but managing to inhabit a rarefied realm, becoming its own myth. The Adventures of Robin Hood was originally intended as a vehicle for James Cagney, and a semi-remake of the 1922 film that had starred the first great screen swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks , even carrying over co-star Alan Hale reprising his role as Little John. Cagney’s quarrels with studio boss Jack Warner delayed the film. Captain Blood (1935) established Flynn in the meantime as Fairbanks’ heir, and De Havilland as his ideal leading lady.

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William Keighley, a respected theatre director who had come to Hollywood with talkies and made some excellent, streetwise thrillers with Cagney like “G” Men (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936), started the film. But Keighley soon fell behind schedule and turned in such lacklustre action footage Warner quickly replaced him with Michael Curtiz, who had directed both Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Flynn and De Havilland. It’s hard to imagine three more different people than Curtiz, Flynn, and De Havilland in terms of temperament and background, and yet they were all people who had come a long way from where their lives had started, collaborating on a film about a culture-specific hero who nonetheless finds echoes and avatars the world over, and it almost seemed they born to play the parts they did in making The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn, the Hobart-born public school brat turned fortune-hunter who slinked back to Sydney after adventuring around New Guinea, was trying to settle down when he suddenly found himself thrust into an acting career playing Fletcher Christian in Charles Chauvel’s In The Wake of the Bounty (1933) because he seemed to embody the role, swiftly catapulting him in Hollywood’s direction.

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De Havilland, progeny of a posh yet unstable family, cousin to aviation pioneers and born in Tokyo, but fated to grow up in southern California, the shore she, her mother, and sister washed up on. Like her Maid Marian she rebelled against a despotic guardian and followed her own path, catching eyes in amateur theatre productions despite wanting to be a teacher, and within a year found herself starring in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Curtiz, born Manó Kaminer in Budapest in 1886, was the son of a Jewish carpenter and an opera singer, who as a young man roamed around Europe as an actor and circus artiste, picked up languages and talents in a wayward manner, and grew into a man famous for his extraordinary energy and bravura, eventually ploughing it all into cinema. He became an Olympic fencer and directed Hungary’s first feature film all in the same year. Curtiz, wounded on the Russian front during his World War I service, went back to filmmaking and was already a hardened filmmaking veteran when his Biblical epic The Moon of Israel (1924) caught Jack Warner’s eye, and quickly became a pillar of Hollywood film.

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Much of The Adventures of Robin Hood’s richness stems from the way it manages to walk a very fine line, offering a highly stylised vision of medieval England, with colossal sets and visual textures that mimic medieval tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and Victorian-era illustrators like Howard Pyle and Arthur Rackham, in attempting to entirely conform to a certain storybook ideal of ye olden days. But this is counterbalanced by coherent undercurrents of darkness and urgency, even a strange kind of realism, flowing under the glossy Technicolor. Amidst a sprawl of movies released in the last two years of the 1930s, The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the world around it, worried as it is about dictatorial coups and contending with the clash between official order and the rage of the dispossessed. As a film it speaks to the experience of the Depression and rising Fascism, whilst also affecting to deliver the viewer from all such cares in a florid dream of a legendary past. Robin as a hero is offered as a scarcely concealed guerrilla warrior and social radical, speaking out loud what was merely subtextual in Warners’ ‘30s gangster movies in presenting a hero for the economically oppressed and socially betrayed in thieving and offending the powerful, loaned a fig leaf of acceptability by the way he fights in the name of a just but displaced order rather than to supplant it.

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Early scenes immediately establish the drama in those essential terms. The opening depicts a town crier announcing that King Richard the Lionheart has been taken captive by Leopold of Austria, who demands a huge ransom for the King’s release. Prince John (Claude Raines), Richard’s brother, uses his captivity as an opportunity to start working towards snatching his throne, relying on his strong support from men like Nottingham potentate Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love), the county’s High Sheriff (Melville Cooper), and other barons, and enrich himself and his cronies by pretending to collect the ransom. Much the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin) is offered as the emblematic everyman, homely, modest, and desperate, as he shoots dead a deer on the fringes of Sherwood Forest for food despite the royal edict banning anyone but the king from hunting them. Caught in the act by Sir Guy and his squad of knightly goons, Much protests the impossibility of making a living with all the restrictions on the peasantry, particularly given the pervasive social divide between the ruling Norman elite and the Saxon populace.

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Much is saved from a quick hanging by the intervention of Sir Robin of Locksley (Flynn), hunting with his friend Will of Gamwell (Patric Knowles). Robin is a Saxon nobleman, and rather than see Much executed for his crime, instead tells Sir Guy that he killed the deer and wards off his own hanging with the threat of his formidable skill with a longbow: “Are there no exceptions?” Robin queries as he aims his shaft at Sir Guy’s face. At a grand banquet in Nottingham Castle, Sir Guy plays host to Prince John and royal ward Lady Marian Fitzwalter (De Havilland). The assembly of smug-ugly Norman nobles discuss the increasing resistance to taxation, and John reveals he’s removed Richard’s regent and is taking over the reins of government. The banquet is interrupted as Robin appears with the dead deer draped over his shoulders, swatting guards with the carcass and parading into the banquet hall to dump his gift of venison on the table before John and his allies. John, at once amused and goaded by Robin’s calculated show of insolence, readily plays along in offering Robin a chair and food and listening to Robin’s boastful declaration of intent to start fermenting resistance to John’s regime.

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This sequence plays as Robin’s true introduction, defying the Norman elite in all its pomp and happily playing the rogue, prodding his foes to make their play of violence before he retaliates with his immense gifts for fighting. The classical motif of the unwelcome visitor interrupting a feast, often Death incarnate as in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, is given a radical new twist as the visitor is rather the embodiment of insurrection and class war. Robin instantly becomes the idealised rebel and a fantasy projection figure, the man we all wish we could be in standing up to bullies of every stripe, so confident in his abilities and justifications that he can place himself in the very eye of all worldly might and still find his advantage. Prince John’s signal for a guard to hurl a spear into the back of Robin’s chair is the official declaration of war. Robin immediatley makes his foes regret missing as he uses every weapon at his disposal, from banquet tables to his slashing sword and bow, able to climb to a high gallery in a few deft gymnastic moves and rain death down upon opponents whilst everyone churns about in panicked confusion. The filmmaking and Flynn’s athleticism conspire to make it seem actually possible that one man can create such a furore, the action laced with symbolic immediacy: Robin literally upturns the tables and social mores and wallops his opponents with them, before gaining high ground to fire his stinging judgements.

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Robin battles his way out and reaches Will, waiting with horses in the castle courtyard, and the two men dash off into the nocturnal Sherwood Forest with Guy’s men in pursuit, where they give the hunters the slip. This sequence, nominally a very straightforward bit of action staging repeated in dozens of Westerns and swashbucklers, nonetheless exemplifies the peculiar mystique of the film. Robin and Will’s flight takes them through shadowy forest aisles scored by slanting beams of moonlight and shimmering streams, frenetic motion countered with evocations of nature as embracing, near-mystic in its affinity with the fleeing freedom fighters and a plunge into a dreamlike realm fitting for folk heroes. Much of the rest of the film unfolds as a series of set-piece vignettes depicting Robin forming his band of Merry Men and battling the Normans. Transferred intact from folkloric tales are Robin’s encounters with Little John (Alan Hale), as each man refuses to give way to the other on a log crossing a river, and Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette), both of which see Robin and the other man testing each-other’s character and fighting skill before making friends and alliances. Robin loses his fight with Little John, who proves more adept with staff fighting than Robin, but prevails over Tuck, whose fencing skills are infamous.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood repeats elements that worked in Captain Blood, whilst offering a simpler plotline and sustaining a more successfully balanced tone, taking the recourse into raw mythology as a good excuse to locate the primary ingredients for a great action-adventure movie. One particular recurring but also augmented idea was again offering Rathbone as dark mirror to the straight-arrow Flynn hero, a figure who looks enough like Robin to be a relative, is his rival in love as well as quarry, and something akin to what Robin would be if he lacked any degree of social conscience or ethical fibre, or indeed perhaps if Robin had simply been born on the agreeable side of a social divide. Sir Guy is promoted to foregrounded villain to contrast both Prince John’s effete egomania and the hapless chicken-hawk postures of the Sheriff, giving Robin a truly equal and dangerous foe and helping to flesh out the way the film emphasises the social conflict not simply as one of rich and poor but one arranged along ethnic lines. “He’s a Norman of course,” Marian acknowledges as Prince John presses her to see the good reasons behind marrying Sir Guy, illustrating this hegemony as an internecine phenomenon, even as Robin relentlessly sets about illustrating that such an elite cannot long survive the determined cooperation of the Saxon citizenry, a body that can easily be read as any oppressed faction conceivable.

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Writers like Walter Scott and Nathan Pyle, who imbued much of the shape upon the folkloric template that now stands as familiar, nonetheless didn’t emphasise the notion of Robin as a specific kind of rebel against a particular historical regime: it was The Adventures of Robin Hood that made this seem canonical. Robin in his earliest ballads and tales had been defined as a yeoman – a sort of middle-class in medieval English society – but he later became an expelled nobleman. The process of remaking Robin in this fashion might well have reflected the way the character stirred anxiety over the idea of class warfare, but it opened up interesting political ramifications in turn, making Robin the exemplar of how social order is supposed to work, those entrusted with power and responsibility using it for the benefit of the people rather than exploiting them as illustrated by most of the other noble characters. A key early montage, showing word going out amongst the commoners to meet Robin in Sherwood and him swearing his followers to a creed and purpose, evokes folk memories of Alfred the Great rallying his people in the wilderness for a resurgence, and a host of other historical likenesses. Like many Hollywood films depicting English history in the ‘30s and ‘40s, there is at once a jaunty appeal to a romanticised sense of that history but also a definite nudge towards making the hero seem a proto-American – Flynn’s odd mutt of an accent allowed him to inhabit a blurred identity in that regard, his clipped phrasing suggesting good breeding but his yawing tones hinting at new world shores.

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The romance of Robin and Marian depends upon the inherent sexual tension in the situation of the lady of the castle falling for the upright yet officially degraded and morally tarnished protagonist, a ready-made metaphor for a presumption about male-female relations once considered axiomatic. Marian’s initial detestation of Robin, clearly already stricken through with electric erotic awareness, manifests as she haughtily contends with his daring and impudence, and also carries political meaning, particularly in their famous exchange: “Why, you speak treason!” “Fluently.” The introduction of Marian into the Robin Hood folklore came relatively late in the day and might have stemmed from attempts to mate the gritty, parochial English tales with a French pastoral tradition and chivalric romances, Marian a figure associated with May Day and natural rejuvenation just as Robin himself embodied the dichotomous freedom and danger of the forest. Marian was initially a shepherdess and possibly a prostitute who nonetheless swiftly ascended the social ladder to become a figure from the upper aristocracy. Perfect for Flynn and De Havilland who seemed to inhabit by natural selection the roles of freewheeling male and well-bred lady who represent the possibility of social reconciliation, through transcending class barriers and gendered courtesies.

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In immediate terms for the film, this means that De Havilland’s Marian is predestined to melt daintily yet passionately as her love for Robin grows, a love that requires a singular transformative event to finally gain true expression. This comes when Robin and his men ambush a convoy ferrying plunder to another district, led by Sir Guy and the Sheriff, and including Marian and her aged but spirited nurse Bess (the eternal Una O’Connor). The Merry Men expertly manage to surprise their foes and take the nobles captive, obliging them to watch as the guerrilla warriors feast and celebrate and stow away the recovered fortune for Richard’s ransom. Robin takes Marian into the forest and introduces her to people sheltering with him, a pathetic mass of survivors of torture and deprivation, forcing Marian to see the reality of Prince John’s regime and the inevitable result of a social divide. Marian falling for Robin then is also explicitly an act of political awakening. Jack Warner was anything but a progressive hero, but the style of movie he fostered at Warner Bros. in seeking out an audience to appeal to became a consistent brand, with realistic scenarios and characters in their gangster movies and rugged thrillers and working class melodramas. Despite its historically remote lustre, The Adventures of Robin Hood and some of Flynn’s other swashbuckler vehicles would, wields the same sense of struggle by a victimised or degraded group fighting for their rights and defying power.

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Prince John accidentally knocking over a wine goblet in the second scene sees red dripping on the floor in mimicry of the blood he’s about to spill, segueing into a brief montage of scenes depicting the tyranny descending as merchants and farmers are plundered and punishment applied to anyone who resists. This flourish is repeated later in the film to more intense effect as the Norman knights double down in their ruthless assaults on the citizenry, sadistic goons unleashed to amuse themselves with a level of brutality that’s surprising when considered aside from the rest of the film as one man is hung up by his thumbs, others lynched from trees, another chained and humiliated and forced to watch his daughter being raped by a squire. There’s a needling potency to the film’s evocation of the period it portrays, despite the storybook colours and high spirits, as generally a place of horror and exploitation. Except, of course, that in this second montage of cruelty and suffering, Robin is on the warpath. Normans are cut down mid-chortle by Robin’s assassinating arrows, with a wonderful little detail when the knight molesting a tavern owner’s daughter takes an arrow in his back, the zip of the shaft extinguishing a candle’s flame. One of Robin’s arrows even skewers his own arrest warrant as Sir Guy moves to sign it in his council chambers, warning the Normans no place is safe from his infinite cunning and freakishly great aim. In these scenes Robin is transformed into something more than human through not showing him aiming or firing his shots, bolts coming even where it seems impossible, man swiftly becoming myth.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood’s script was the work of two of the canniest screenwriters of the day, Seton I. Miller, who had written several of Keighley’s films and would revisit this kind of swashbuckler material in a more overtly campy and metaphorically erotic vein with Henry King’s The Black Swan (1942), and Norman Reilly Raine, who had penned The Life of Emila Zola (1937) and would later write King’s marvellous A Bell for Adano (1945). By comparison to many modern films where smart-aleck dialogue comes on as an end itself, the twists of wit in Seton and Raine’s script help drive on the troika of plot, character, and atmosphere, like Prince John’s enquiry to Robin, after he spits out a hunk of roast duck, “Have you no stomach for honest meat?”, to Robin’s retort, “For honest meat, yes, but no stomach for traitors.” The Adventures of Robin Hood is the kind of film more recent takes on the mythology try explicitly to offer negative-image revisions of, aiming instead for a darkly textured and authentic lustre, seen in works like Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), and Otto Bathurst’s Robin Hood (2018). Certainly aspects of The Adventures of Robin Hood, like Will’s brilliant red robe and lute-strumming and the bawling matey laughter of the Merry Men, have a touch of camp that can make a modern audience snort in sarcasm.

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And yet most revisionist takes stumble when it comes to apprehending a deeper, less obvious level of realism, missing the way Keighley and Curtiz expertly present the social background of the mythology and depict their version’s dimensions as parable. Scott’s version was ambitious in trying to refashion Robin into a plebeian figure and use him to describe the birth of democratic feeling, although the lumpy story got in the way. By contrast, Curtiz and Keighley’s film sees the historical detail and its interrelationship with folklore unfold smoothly, and connects with the scale of the production to give the film its monumental quality. The montages of beastly Norman depredations laid down a template for portraying tyranny that would be easily repurposed in films made during the oncoming war, and indeed there’s also a strong similarity to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, made the same year, a film that likewise reaches back into the dim past and a legend-encrusted hero battling monstrous opponents with implications about the looming moment, albeit with a more explicitly propagandistic purpose. Robin himself is presented completely against the grain of the contemporary pattern in his lack or neurotic or antiheroic traits. Instead the film constantly underlines how Robin and his comrades’ laughing opposition is their most authentic weapon. Robin’s refusal to let his foes intimidate him, to let them use the power of fear over him, and by extension those he protects, robs from them the pompous certainty that they embody and bestow harsh reality.

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Flynn’s Robin is the essential movie hero, able to seem big-hearted even when engaging in warfare, blessed with endless physical vigour and spryness of mind to match. Flynn embodied, thanks to his life experience, a peculiar blend of formative forces and traits, a life-greedy, knockabout man of action with gentlemanly bearing, a persona his films depended upon. Flynn didn’t receive much validation as an actor until near the end of his career, and he aggravated some on set through his breezy approach. But the way he holds the screen, with his precise sense of gestural effect and ability to vary his personality through degrees from satirical jester to awakened killer, reflects a naturally intelligent and expressive performer. Robin’s promise to Prince John in the banquet hall to “organise a revolt – extract a death for a death,” commences a precisely balanced campaign of resistance, measured and fair, even as he’s obliged to fight by different rules that allow his enemies to paint him as a mere brigand. Robin’s calculated risk-taking at both the banquet and later an archery tournament he knows full well has been staged to capture him reflects his consciousness that it’s precisely his acts of defiance, his willingness to take such chances, that fuel his following, the only way he can provoke an equally superhuman sense of empowerment in ordinary people. In the same way the character exists for the audience in the real world as a figure of emulation, so he also exists within the film.

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Goodness is specifically demarcated throughout the film by humour. Robin sometimes comes close to an all-action Groucho Marx in his general, breezy contempt for authority and social niceties and ready line in barbed quips, whilst the japes and teasing and boisterous laughter that permeate the interactions of the Merry Men, presenting an idealised version of masculine camaraderie, contrasting the coldly malicious undertones to Norman sarcasms and the outright enjoyment many take in dishing out brutality. The ambush on Sir Guy’s treasure convoy is the central sequence of the movie and a glorious piece of filmmaking that both illustrates Robin and his band’s method and captures their metaphorical appeal too. The guerrillas are filmed shimmying up the twisting branches of the forest trees and confirming to the bowers as if transformed into woodland creatures, before raining down on their startled opponents, the entire forest suddenly alive with manpower charging in to overpower the Normans, the editing carefully diagramming the assault as one coming from all vantages. One irresistible shot has the Merry Men charging at the camera and bounding over it (with the aid of a hidden trampoline), possessed of athletic vigour and gallant wit to the point of becoming an unstoppable natural force.

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The sequence reaches its climax as Sir Guy and the Sheriff realise they’re entirely surrounded and outmatched, at which point they hear Robin’s highy entertained laugh. The bandit chief is glimpsed high in a tree, swinging down upon a vine to land on a rock and declare, “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!”, the embodiment of rascal charm and daredevil prowess, mocking his foes with dynamic showmanship and ironic hospitality. All of this is wrapped in mischievous energy and a faintly sarcastic heroic tenor by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s scoring. The band’s triumph in capturing the convoy allows them an opportunity for a mighty, convulsive feast where the captured Normans are forced to don peasant rags and a bandit proclaims immortally, “To the tables everybody and stuff yourselves!” Flashes of bawdy comedy come as Much flirts with Bess despite admitting to never having had a sweetheart, to which Bess crows she’s “had the bands five times myself,” and Much answers Bess’s suggestion he says the same things to every woman who tickles his fancy with, “I’ve never tickled a woman’s fancy before.”

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Korngold’s music is regarded as one of the best scores ever featured in a movie. Certainly it’s one of the most influential, with just about every big orchestral score for a blockbuster today owing something to its example. Korngold was a musical prodigy who had impressed Gustav Mahler with a cantata he wrote at the age of twelve. Despite his serious musical reputation for his operas and orchestrations for other composers, Korngold is easily most famous today for his film scores, first coming to Hollywood to create an adapted version of Felix Mendelsohn’s score for Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his work followed on the heels of fellow Mahler acolyte Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) in expanding Hollywood’s understanding of how a sound film score could work, woven deeply into the rhythmic structure rather than simply punctuating scenes. Korngold then agreed to score Captain Blood and laid down the template for his floridly emotional and evocative soundtracks to a string of swashbucklers, music that worked in part through the complete resistance to any modernist impulses. Although his work for The Sea Hawk (1940) is arguably a more textured and painterly effort, his scoring here is the more perfectly attuned to the visuals. The banks of pealing trumpets and surging strings paint the emotional extremes of heroic warfare and intimate romancing, with a remarkable level of orchestrated detail apparent, reaching a particularly high pitch of bombastic greatness during the build-up to the climax as Prince John’s coronation procession enters Nottingham Castle, the surging strains capturing both the gilded grandeur and the undercurrent of peril.

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Most importantly, Korngold’s music helps to unify the film’s episodic structure, dragging it from one set-piece to the next as each section of the movie presents a small drama that contributes to the overall story whilst taking care to illustrate a vital aspect of the folklore. Robin’s choosing of his path segues into the process of assembling allies, before the attack on the convoy sees the Merry Men at a zenith. Robin’s capture at the archery tournament is a moment where his daring and brilliance prove self-defeating, but also crystallises Marian’s ardour and obliges her to pick a side. The last act kicks off when King Richard (Ian Hunter) and his retinue turn up dressed as monks in a Sherwood tavern, having escaped captivity, presenting hope for an end to the tyranny but also providing his brother with a chance to have Richard assassinated and take the throne without hindrance. The archery tournament is another great scene that revolves around the game of concealment and revelation Robin and his enemies feel almost honour-bound to play with each-other: the notion of suckering Robin in with the possibility of the reward of a golden arrow granted by Marian comes not from Sir Guy but the cannier if craven Sheriff. Robin, posing as a tinker with a disguise so amusingly paltry it suggests he might have inspired Superman’s bifocals, enters the tournament despite his companions’ worries.

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The editing by Ralph Dawson blends with Korngold’s music in making the tournament, a montage-like sequence, build nonetheless with ingenious dramatic cadence to a crescendo, with Curtiz throwing in canted camera angles and radical shifts in perspective, a mobile camera surveying the archers and rhythmic cuts, to create a scene that still feels remarkably fluid and modern whilst unfolding in manner you scarcely notice. Robin sets the seal on his legend when, faced with a seemingly unbeatably good shot from his final opponent with his arrow dead centre on the target, takes aim and splits the arrow with his own. But Robin is unable to slip the net this time as he’s caught and thrust before the triumphant Prince John, Sir Guy, and the Sheriff, with Sir Guy dealing out a slap to Robin’s face, but the Sheriff, trying the same gesture, gets Robin’s boot in the belly. Sentenced to death, Robin is flung into a dungeon, but Marian, who knows Bess has been seeing Much, obtains the password to meet with Robin’s lieutenants in their favourite tavern and, after assuring them through making a vow at Tuck’s insistence that she’s utterly in earnest, suggests a way for them to save Robin’s life. This involves a daring assault on Robin’s hanging, giving Robin a chance to jump onto a horse and flee with his friends for the great main gate to Nottingham, where upon Robin expertly foils pursuit by sabotaging the city gate’s portcullis with improvised gymnastics, realised thanks to some show-stopping stuntwork.

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Robin climbs the ivy – not a euphemism – to Marian’s chamber in the castle to thank her, allowing Flynn and De Havilland to realise their chemistry even in playing by most decorous rules, the perfect gallant and the ideal lady nonetheless dedicating themselves not only to an illicit and illegal love but also to continued political mischief. De Havilland would go on to win two Oscars and prove herself one of the smartest actors of her era, but her roles opposite Flynn as the genteel damsel were the bedrock of her career, partly because they seemed to suit her so perfectly. De Havilland in real life was the proper young lady whose own strength of character kept taking people by surprise, most fatefully when she battled Warner over her contract and established a precedent that emancipated many stars like her. Marian resembles her in being underestimated for her looks and breeding but keeps proving her very real moral fibre, to the point of being arrested after overhearing Prince John and his cohort plotting Richard’s assassination and trying to get warning out. As with her role as Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939), De Havilland’s lady fair parts depended her capacity to play characters who could seem cloying or icy or witless if handled badly, but De Havilland was able to present as inherently decent. Although a long way from any sort of action heroine, De Havilland’s Marian nonetheless provides her own kind of valour, eventually finding herself in the same position as Robin a few reels earlier where she is tried by Prince John and his cadre and sentenced to death, unleashing a fearless tirade at the usurper and his cronies with a show of steely character that justifies and exemplifies the ideal of nobility, and comprehending the Prince’s intention to have her executed with baleful comment on the depths of his arrogance.

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Despite the run of success director and star had together in their collaboration, which would continue with films like Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Sea Hawk, Curtiz and Flynn disliked each-other intensely, and some of the films’ energy seems to stem from the volatile relationship between the pair. Flynn was probably one of the few men in Hollywood who could match Curtiz’s relentless energy even as they turned it to different ends, the hard-living Flynn versus the work-loving Curtiz, and there was also the little matter of Flynn being married to Curtiz’s ex-wife. On screen at least, Flynn readily became the projection of Curtiz’s bravura and romantic impulses. Something of Keighley’s imprint is still apparent on the film: the portrayal of Prince John as an entitled and vainglorious but sardonic and formidable figure, rather than a skulking fiend, has some similarity to Monty Woolley’s overbearing critic in Keighley’s later The Man Who Came To Dinner (1941), and the almost holistic sense of social structure echoes Keighley’s anatomisation of such in Bullets or Ballots (Miller had also written that). The long, surveying camera tracking shots in the early banquet scene suggest something more like Keighley’s sense of theatrical integrity than Curtiz’s carefully composed mise-en-scene.

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Nonetheless I find it very hard not to see The Adventures of Robin Hood as ultimately a Curtiz film. Curtiz was the ideal studio-era director, a strong stylist who knew how to run a movie set, who could readily contour his talents into the production system and tackle a wide swathe of genres. Curtiz regarded his assignments from on high less as vexing chores than as challenges to his professional and aesthetic touch, his workaholic drive so reliable Warners set up a special unit just for him to use. But patterns still emerge from his oeuvre. There are inevitable connections despite Curtiz’s late arrival on the film with his other swashbucklers and with Casablanca and its follow-up Passage to Marseilles (1944), most particularly in the preoccupation with heroes in exile contending with political tyranny applied on a victimised population. Curtiz would often return to the theme of an artist, or an analogous fixated figure, driven on by his gruelling commitment through varying shades of heroism and antiheroism. Curtiz worked through this preoccupation in his horror film Murders in the Wax Museum (1933) and dramas like Four Daughters (1938) and Young Man with a Horn (1950), remaking both George M. Cohan and Cole Porter in his own image for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Night and Day (1946), and mediated it through such rovers and warrior-poet characters as Robin, Rick Blaine, The Breaking Point’s (1950) Harry Morgan or The Egyptian’s (1954) Sinuhe, men who experience extremes of their societies and their own natures to soul-cracking degrees, degrees only a creation like Robin can traverse without injury. Such characters are driven to achieve a certain perfection in their personal arts and crafts, which indeed Robin exemplifies this by feeling obligated to perform at peak despite the danger involved because that is what he is.

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Curtiz’s trademark style provided a variation on the German Expressionism that had infused cinema in the 1920s, a style he appropriated as a light veneer of style rather than an obsessively suggestive texture. Curtiz’s version offered clean and spacious realms and minimalist sets but with declining stages of décor and performance within his frames, and careful use of light and shadow offering a dimension beyond the literal. Most famous is his recurring flourish of shadows playing upon walls, as in the finale here where Robin and Sir Guy fence, dancing across a chamber in Nottingham Castle, their very corporeal exertions suddenly transformed into something abstract and legendary, and achieving an effect close to animation. The Adventures of Robin Hood proved Curtiz’s first colour film, but was readily able to make his touch work in the new medium. Indeed, The Adventures of Robin Hood marked a radical expansion of what colour could achieve, with cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito and the Technicolor overseers W. Howard Greene and Natalie Kalmus making use of all eleven Technicolor cameras built up to that point. There’s some anticipation of the hyperbolic colour effects found in Gone With The Wind in a shot like where Saxons are being hung from a tree at dusk, Expressionist technique in the foreground and fauvist hues in the distance. But the colour textures are generally diffused to give the storybook-like visuals an extra veneer of faded charm.

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The precision of the casting down through the layers of the film as another of its multivalent joys, backing up the strength of the leads with actors who nail down the iconographic personas of their roles with quick, deft strokes, from Rains’ leonine smarm to Rathbone’s angular aggression and hood-eyed sexual menace, Palette’s gruff vigour and O’Connor’s cawing pluck, Hunter’s majestic largesse and Hale’s vivacity: the film makes space for them all and more, keen to the give and take of energy this kind of storytelling needs. Much’s ride at Bess’s desperate request to warn King Richard, after Marian is taken prisoner and Prince John sends an assassin after his brother, builds to a terrific fight scene whilst still sustaining the fairy tale lustre, as Much ambushes the killer as he crosses a stream, lethally slashing blades and splashing water glistening with steely texture in the Technicolor amidst dappled summery surrounded. This inverts the comedic tone of Robin’s battles with Little John and Friar Tuck, the struggle in the water pointedly taken up by one of Robin’s acolytes and this time played for history-changing stakes. The outcome is left on a cliffhanger as a dissolve leaves the fighter locked in a death match. Soon Will comes across the wounded but victorious Much and takes him back to Robin, who is already paying unwitting host to Richard as the King, in maintaining his monkish guise, has been robbed and then offered shelter by Robin.

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The colour pays off most memorably here as Richard unveils his royal livery in all its blazing splendour of red, gold, and white under the black cassock, stirring Robin and the Merry Men to kneel in awe and homage. Korngold’s scoring also helps make this moment emotionally and aesthetically moving, as the withheld promise of order and justice is suddenly personified and announced like dawn – putting aside all knowledge about the historical Richard, of course. This revelation is the key to the climax as Richard and Robin lead their forces in disguise as monks under the neatly compelled Bishop of the Black Canons (what a name!) and manage to interrupt Prince John’s coronation. Robin and Sir Guy split apart from the great battle that consumes the banquet hall for their duel. The frenetic swordplay of the many warriors is punctuated by comic relief as Much, trying to be useful despite his wounds, hiding in a nook and trying to swat Normans with a mace, asides that keep the tone from becoming swaying too far in either pole of goofy or dour. Robin and Sir Guy’s battle contrasts the wild melee in the hall by instead becoming a deadly dance, moving through cavernous halls, up and down staircases and around vast curving barbicans, space that scarcely makes more sense than anything in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), albeit a dreamscape inhabited not by ghouls but doppelganger incarnations of good and evil.

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The climax depends not just on Flynn and Rathbone’s skill and daring, but on their capacity to act in motion, particularly Flynn’s ability to depict Robin indulging himself to a degree even whilst fighting tooth and nail with Sir Guy, even going so far as to waste a chance to spear him and giving Sir Guy his sword back after he loses it so as not to spoil the match, in large part because his aim is not to slay Sir Guy but to find and free Marian. That is until Sir Guy violates the unspoken rules by trying to keep Robin pressed against a wall, whilst pulling out a dagger and trying to stab him with it. The underhanded move plainly offends Robin by the way his eyes flash in anger and spasmodic alarm, aware the game as it’s been played is at an end and big boy rules now apply: Robin slays Sir Guy within a few seconds. Curtiz repeats a trick from Captain Blood to more succinct and iconic effect as the surrendered weapons of the defeated John partisans are piled up, and Richard holds court with the riff-raff who had saved his throne, granting Robin Marian’s hand and making him a Baron. A happy ending is also deliverance from social duty, as Robin performs a last sleight of hand as he and Marian slip from the congratulatory pile-on and offer their gratitude from the gate before scurrying off to private, connubial bliss, the shutting of the castle doors closing the movie. Likewise, The Adventures of Robin Hood bows out supremely justified.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Western

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

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Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo

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Director: Sergio Leone
Screenwriters: Agenore Incrucci, Mickey Knox, Sergio Leone, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone 1928-2020

A grand panorama of dusty hills and parched riverbeds under a desiccating sun, a vast amphitheatre fit for primal drama burned clean of life, a place palpable yet dreamlike. A face suddenly and rudely thrusts itself into view, ill-shaven, dripping sweat, nostrils and eyes and nervily twitching cheeks, utterly corporeal and void of apparent sentience beyond fixated and predatory intent, deadly serious in affect and yet mysteriously comical, welded to the earth like infestation but immediately invested with the same evocation of startled awe as the landscape. In John Ford’s heroic landscapes the rock forms stand in silent regard of the dwarfed figures, demanding humans grow to their size; get real, says Sergio Leone, only a face gives meaning to the dirt. A bounty hunter, Elam (Al Mulock). An objective: a ramshackle outpost of civilised pretence out here on the edge of reality, stray dogs nosing the scraps, two riders on the approach to join the man in his quest for some sort of reckoning, be it justice official or not, and beginning a slow, dead-eyed march towards the buildings. They pause on the threshold by a disfigured ‘Wanted’ sign, and ready for a gunfight, before plunging within. Shots erupt, and another man comes crashing out through the window, a Tex Avery animation given human form: Eli Wallach’s Tuco, a shred of his interrupted lunch still between his teeth and a pistol in hand, fleeing with his enemies left holed and sprawled. Humanity in all its base reality existing upon a disinterested sphere, engaged in little myths of life and death, enacted largely by characters often too dumb to realise they’re only collateral damage in someone else’s legend. Sergio Leone’s aesthetic in a nutshell, charged with sickly humour and invocations of cosmic absurdity.

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It really wasn’t that long ago when the Italian-made Western was still largely considered an absurd and comical wing of pop culture. Whilst Leone’s films quickly gained cult status, champions, and emulators, they were still often touched always with a reputation for silliness connected with a specific, verboten trait: foreignness, daring to infiltrate the clean-cut expanses of the traditional Western, with its mighty Aryan heroes reforming the prairies, with insidious baroque and lips that refused to quite curl in time with dialogue. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) didn’t invent the “Spaghetti Western” but it did forge an endlessly imitated style, suddenly remaking minor TV star Clint Eastwood’s career and transforming the director, who had only directed one film previous in the well-made if conventional peplum The Colossus of Rhodes (1962) into an international figure. Leone’s fourth feature film as solo director, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly has journeyed from an emblem for disreputable pleasure in cinema to become regarded as one of the great works of the form. Ennio Morricone’s score long since shed even the film as a chrysalis, to become instantly evocative and self-explanatory. Who knows how many times I heard the famous title tune as a kid long before seeing the movie, and I knew almost from the first what images and situations to associate it with, coming as it always did with lampoons of gunfights and mockeries of Leone’s visual syntax with huge looming faces and expansive backgrounds.

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The story of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’s journey says much about trends in pop culture and film aesthetics. Now, if one were to take a random poll of both the general swathe of film lovers and critics to identify what might represent for them the living nerve of film, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly often ranks high alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a handful of other works. As films they have obvious differences, but also unavoidable similarities. Both channel the ancient Homeric tradition into a modern pop culture artefact and dispense with many customary dramatic values. Both sustain long, stark, wordless sequences meditating upon acts of violence and seeking, managing to seem at once atavistic and futuristic. Both distil epic reaches of experience and space down to a singular system of images, utilising the expanse of the screen frame to the utmost, moving past the limits of fallible language and instead becoming ideograms. Both were released when cinema was already shrinking to meet the aesthetic and compositional needs of TV screens, and yet such works let themselves loose on the vastest scale, and still provoke real filmmakers to try and match their spectacle.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly rounded off what’s come to be known as “Dollars” or “Man With No Name” trilogy after A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More (1966), the films Leone and Eastwood made together in which the American actor played three similar wandering, mercenary heroes. These were conflated into a single archetypal figure for advertising, taking inspiration from the way The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly concludes with the film’s iteration, known only as Blondie, eventually donning the signature poncho Eastwood’s characters had worn in the previous two films. Those characters with their mix-and-match garb summarises the synthesis within Leone’s approach, exalting the Western hero and yet offering him not simply as supergringo but a figure birthed by the blurred world between North and Latin American cultures, a pancultural creature, hinting at the way the Leone gunfighter was simply one incarnation for a figure encompassing every culture in every land, echoing back to Gilgamesh and Achilles. Of course, Leone had with A Fistful of Dollars quite happily filched from Akira Kurosawa who in turn had mimicked John Ford and so on and so on back to Homer, an internationalist chain of emulation and homage.

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Far from rendering his movie a hodgepodge, however, it’s this aspect of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the sense of happening everywhere and nowhere facilitated rather than hampered by a finicky sense of period detail and tactile immediacy, that’s helped it achieve the renown it has. By this point Leone had a production team, including Morricone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, entirely attuned to his thinking. Leone began developing the film with his screenwriting partner on For A Few Dollars More, Luciano Vincenzoni, although Vincenzoni and he were beginning to quarrel. Leone also hired comedy writers Agenore Incrucci and Furio Scarpelli to work on the project , although Leone and others later reported they contributed little. Actor Mickey Knox wrote dialogue for the English-language version. The opening credits channel some of the pop-art derived flavour of the James Bond films, with an added dimension of historical pastiche and artistic perversion. Stills from the film are glimpsed through gritty haze to make them look like vintage photos, then painted over in hallucinatory, comic book-like colours. The second member of the title trio is Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad,” known only as Angel Eyes, the knowing counterpart to Eastwood’s “Good” Blondie, who Angel Eyes describes as the “blonde-haired angel” looking after Tuco. Both are most accomplished in making angels, and Angel Eyes name in the Italian dub, “Sentenza,” carries with it the hint of harsh judgement from on high.

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Angel Eyes’ first appearance comes as he arrives at a hacienda, invested with such mysterious intensity and tensile presence he obliges fear, deference, and hospitality without needing to speak. Angel Eyes has come to kill Stevens (Antonio Casas), a Confederate deserter who’s retreated to live quietly with his Mexican wife and son. Stevens goes through the forms of hosting with Angel Eyes as if trying to mollify death itself, resulting in a long, pregnant delay as Stevens doles out food and the two men sit eating in silence. Stevens finally takes a more direct approach and tries to offer Angel Eyes something like a bribe in putting him on to a fortune in gold stolen by his compatriot Jackson, a robbery both Stevens and the man who’s paid Angel Eyes for his death, Baker, were involved in. Angel Eyes calmly accepts Stevens’ counteroffer to assassinate Baker and takes payment before confirming to Stevens he always completes a job he’s hired for, necessitating he kill Stevens anyway, as well as gunning down his son when the lad tries to intervene with a shotgun. Angel Eyes returns to Baker and reports the job completed, before then doing what Stevens paid him for and killing Baker too.

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The pitch-black sardonicism apparent here presents Angel Eyes as a killer who adheres to a certain, discrete code of ethics even as he deals out death, even honouring a deal with Blondie later despite knowing it could backfire on him, although he makes sure only to allow himself to be cornered by such ethics unless he sees a way to make them work for him and clear a path. Leone would revise the sequence at Stevens’ hacienda in a more conspicuously operatic fashion for Frank’s attack on the family in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), complete with the same brutal punch-line of gunning down a kid, and with a similar depiction of the villain as very willing to exterminate anyone but not doing so unless specifically motivated. Ancient myth is invoked in Stevens’ act of hospitality, the violation of which by Angel Eyes is a crime so deadly in such myth the abuser may find themselves cursed by eternal forces. The sound of the earthenware and wooden spoons and lips smacking in consuming food is lingered over with a sense of import in such transitory acts, Angel Eyes charged with relished good-humour in challenging Stevens to find new ways to expand his portion of life by a few more seconds.

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Leone’s attention to the space of Stevens’ home, the open sprawl of rooms and arching doorways, sees Angel Eyes as a silhouetted intruder upon first entrance, a state to which he returns as he walks back out only now with two corpses lying behind him in rude geometry, the statistical stability of which disintegrates as Stevens’ wife finds the bodies and the camera reels in impersonating her dizziness before fainting away in horror. As a sequence this has resonance far beyond mere plot, recreating as it does the feeling of inevitable visitation by Death invested with a dimension of parable, and also connection with many a continental European film about World War II, like Rome, Open City (1945) and Come and See (1985). Films where the war isn’t a vast spectacle of armies jaunting about but a clammy, nightmarish experience of ordinary people constantly awaiting the knock of fate on the door, indicted by some small offence or twist of luck and left naked before power, the call of the Gestapo whisking citizens away to cells or aboard trains bound for concentration camps.

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Leone avoided World War II as a subject up until the movie about the siege of Leningrad he died whilst planning. And yet the war and the way it utterly severed present from past for people of his generation and invested Leone’s sense of landscape as a theatre of carnage becomes unavoidable in thinking about his work, reaching an apogee with the wholesale slaughter of rebels and downfall of tyrants depicted in Duck You Sucker (1971). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, set in the midst of the American Civil War, had its partial genesis in Leone’s desire to portray war as pointless and grotesque regardless of token causes, a note of humanistic cynicism reflected by many of his characters including Tuco and the hotelier Pardue (Jesús Guzmán) who mutters insults about occupying Confederate soldiers before hollering “Hooray for Dixie!” for public display, like Leone’s own take on the dirty old man from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The land in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly swaps the grand but neutral moral amphitheatre of most Westerns for a sense of the entire world given up to chaotic forces as the Civil War is waged across its length and breadth. Most importantly, Leone’s characters live their lives in a state of war, at once titanic in their independence and rodent-like in their survival craft.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly revolves around the twists of fate that will eventually draw Angel Eyes, Blondie, and Tuco together in the course of hunting down the stolen treasure, threading a path between the clashing Union and Confederate Armies, their own, private, modestly scaled dance of death contrasted by great slaughter and chaos. During Tuco’s attempt to punish Blondie for deserting and robbing him by leading him through desert to suffer and die, they encounter a carriage where everyone on board has been killed by Angel Eyes, save the mortally wounded Jackson, who expires leaving Tuco and Blondie each with part of the key to finding the hidden treasure. Tuco takes Blondie to recover in a monastery headed by his brother, Father Pablo Ramírez (Luigi Pistilli). Angel Eyes disguises himself as a Union sergeant in a prisoner of war camp, and when Blondie and Tuco are brought in as captives, having donned Confederate uniforms for the same ends, he has Tuco beaten until he coughs up his part of the secret. Angel Eyes, deciding he won’t achieve the same with Blondie, instead forces him to join his criminal gang and they set off, whilst Tuco is left to the mercies of the law. Tuco manages to escape, and he and Blondie join up again, wiping out Angel Eyes’ gang in the midst of a town under bombardment. Finally they work to blow up a bridge being fought over by the two factions in order to remove the last obstacle before their destination, which proves to be Sad Hill, a military cemetery where the gold is hidden in one of the hundreds of graves.

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Leone saw the possibility in a dark inversion of Van Cleef’s previous performance for him in For A Few Dollars More, where he played the gentlemanly hero and prototypical Leone romantic-nostalgic, Colonel Mortimer. Angel Eyes is like an alternative universe version of Mortimer, corrupted and deadly, shorn of his idealistic reflexes and given up purely to anarchic purpose, much the same as Blondie offers a slightly less ambiguous take on A Fistful of Dollars’ Joe and For A Few Dollars More’s Monco. Leone wasn’t the first Italian genre filmmaker to offer up pseudo-sequels closer to variations on a theme: the horror maestro Riccardo Freda had made Il Spettro (1963) as a nominal follow-up to his The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock (1962) with characters sporting the same names but revised in nature for the sake of a new storyline. Van Cleef, with vocal cords that sound crusted with quartz shards, plays Angel Eyes with an aspect of brutal humour, a hyena grin never far from his lips, as if he’s standing slightly apart from the narrative, author to the weirdness and sadism and regarding it with amused interest in how all the pathetic creatures he torments will make their stand and how long it will take them to break: the villain as artist. The only person he doesn’t try his luck with this way is Blondie, sensing well he comes from another realm.

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Blondie’s introduction as “the Good” doesn’t present him in a solitary vignette as the other two are, but revolves specifically around his initial partnership with Tuco, which sees them constantly tempting fate in repeating a profitable game. Blondie sells Tuco to the law to collect bounty money, and then uses his sublimely good shooting to interrupt the necktie parties the lawmen throw for Tuco, rescuing him and heading on to the next town to do it all over again. Blondie is immediately defined by the way he stands between life and death for Tuco, so good with a gun he can actually use it to save life rather than just take it, mordantly invested in Tuco’s survival but soon driven by his partner’s bitching and intransigent resentment, as well the imminent probability of him losing his worth, to break up the act. Blondie robs Tuco at gunpoint and leaves him facing a long and thirsty trek back to civilisation. Blondie’s abandoning of Tuco has an aspect of calculated punishment: like Angel Eyes/Sentenza, he delivers punitive judgements, but his seem more like goads, challenging Tuco to find a way of living without his guardian. Tuco’s response is to stumble into the nearest town and, in an ingenious vignette, visit a gun seller, disassembling his stock of revolvers and piecing together a single, perfect instrument for killing.

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This scene, as well as deftly illustrating Tuco’s professional smarts as a man who knows a gun to its finest spring and pivot – “Every gun makes its own tune,” Blondie notes later – also encompasses Leone’s method in picking and choosing aspects of the Western and other narrative forms he likes and spurning the leftovers, creating an unholy chimera that’s also a smoothly functioning device for delivering mayhem. The sequence also mimics in more comic fashion Angel Eyes’ intrusion upon Stevens as cues are given wordlessly and the turn of the meeting’s meaning from hosting to criminality is likewise cued by unspoken realisations. Tuco loads and tests his new weapon and then easily bests the storekeeper in a game of power, the authority seller wields over buyer in the mystique of the petit-bourgeoisie not just reversed but actively and exactingly avenged as Tuco shoves the shop’s open/closed sign in the shopkeeper’s mouth. Tuco is the first of Leone’s Caliban-like creatures, not quite of the human world but rather representing it in all its srambling cunning and frustrated need, certainly not inhabiting spheres of archangels and lord demons like Blondie and Angel Eyes. The Ugly would be move to the narrative centre in Duck You Sucker and Once Upon A Time In America (1984). Tuco might also be the most thoroughgoing anarchist in a movie, save perhaps Harpo Marx, and prefiguring Rod Steiger’s Tuco variant Juan in Duck You Sucker, who robs, strips, and rapes the bourgeoisie.

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The tension between Tuco’s rambling alternations of nervous bonhomie and blazing spite and Blondie’s taciturn demeanour is the engine of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Tuco drives Blondie into the desert in revenge, taunting his former partner from horseback with relished water as Blondie is burned terribly by the sun and collapses in dehydration, and Blondie seems doomed when the carriage pulled by stampeding horses heaves into view. Tuco manages to halt the vehicle and finds it carries a load of corpses, save one man with an eye-patch who is close to death: Jackson, using the name Bill Carson, proves willing to give up the secret to his treasure with his dying breath simply for water. The marvellous breath of the dreamlike in this sequence hinges on the way Leone follows Blondie and Tuco through the desert in a relatively conventional system of dissolves with oddball details added for effect, Morricone’s giddy music accompanying the sight of Tuco protecting himself from the sun with a lady’s pink parasol, whilst his friend becomes a walking rump roast. When the carriage appears, curtains fly like shrouds for the crew of the dead on this ghost ship in the desert, a vision that might have been conjured by Boecklin or De Chirico in painting mysterious dreamscapes and emblems, even as it serves a straightforward plot purpose. The underlying comedy in Blondie and Tuco’s relationship surfaces again as Tuco makes a play at convincing Blondie he’s dying once he gets him to the monastery. Tuco plays the anguished pal and mourner, to get him to cough up Jackson’s last revelation, only for Blondie to toss a cup of water in his face and set their game back in motion. But soon Blondie is moved enough by witnessing Tuco fighting with his priest brother to offer a small sign of fraternity in offering Tuco his cigar, a gesture that despite their occasional attempts to kill each-other shows Blondie and Tuco are well aware each is the closest thing either has to a brother, as eternal citizens of the wilderness.

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A greater part of the affection, bordering on relieved joy The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, often stirs resides in the near-complete avoidance of overt moralism and few traditional niceties of dramatic stakes. Leone spurns swerves into romance or other discursions that might soften or detract from the elemental nature of the characters and their quest, offering instead a chain of blackly comic gags dressed up in action movie garb involving the incongruity of the characters’ travails and the general arbitrariness of the world. Many of the vignettes revolve around gamesmanship both enacted between the characters to see who is the most accomplished warrior, and the director and the audience, presenting variations on familiar Western movie scenes and melodrama cliffhangers and finding brazen ways out. This is at its most overt perhaps when Tuco seems to have Blondie at bay in a hotel, forcing him to enact his own hanging, only for a stray Union shell to crash into the building and shatter the structure, delivering Blondie as if protected from on high. The one aspect of traditional character shading lies in the brief portrait of Tuco’s uneasy relationship with his brother Pablo, a relationship that nonetheless scorns the usual portrayal of the saintly priest stirring pious feeling in his bandit brother’s heart as in so many old-school gangster movies. Tuco instead fiercely turns on Pablo and decries his posturing and affectations of superiority, condemning affectations of virtue and superiority that refuse to consider how the world makes people what they are, as Tuco reminds Pablo they only had two choices as boys to escape the grinding poverty of rural Mexico, through the church or banditry, and Pablo didn’t have the balls for the latter profession.

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Despite the official amorality, the film works as a burlesque-cum-appropriation for the morality play, as inherited from medieval theatre. Tuco is the emblematic man in Leone’s thinking, a creature out of Rabelais, crude, cruel, reactive, scrambling, debased, clever in a low sort of way, but also capable of flashes of mad passion, vision, and pride that elevate him above the animal. He exists suspended between the Manichaean extremes of Blondie and Angel Eyes, Blondie acting as his guardian angel and Angel Eyes his tormenting demon, a status underlined in the final fight where he seems to add a new edge of danger and unpredictability to the ritual gunfight, even if he turns out to have been rendered impotent by Blondie. When Tuco first enters the monastery, Leone wryly frames him peeking out from under Jackson’s appropriated eye patch with a painting of Christ on the cross in the same frame, and Blondie himself is correlated with Jesus as he lurks behind a carved statue whilst listening to Tuco and Pablo have it out. Easy to take such touches as curlicues on Leone’s pervasive baroque, of course, more sarcastic commentary on the notion of religious parable than example, which doesn’t necessarily discount the constant, ironic nudging of symbolism throughout. The characters literally follow a trail leading to a graveyard, a great orchard of death where they must duel to see which of these mighty individualists must join most soon the community of fallen.

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But the evocation of spiritual pain in Tuco is specific and needling, the anger he unleashes on Blondie in part a rage against God, The Fates, nations, systems, what have you, for making him such a wretched and spasmodic creature, the pure flare of his hate and hunger the closest things to reasons for living. And so Tuco must wander from confrontation to confrontation, game to game, rage to rage. Leone considered the three characters to be a schismatic exploration of himself, Blondie as the methodical and conscientious portion, Angel Eyes as the most coldly professional and venal, and Tuco as the reactive, very human part. Or, superego, id, and ego. Tuco’s first attempt to corner and kill Blondie after emerging from the wilderness comes as he chases him to the hotel, having hired killers go in the front door to give Blondie a target whilst he comes in the window, a viciously amusing piece of tactical legerdemain worthy of his foes. Blondie’s lucky escape demands Tuco track him across the countryside, plucking his signature cigars from his campsites, testing to see how hot they are (a motif pinched from Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, 1930). Eventually he comes upon Blondie in the middle of reforging their old partnership with a new bandit. Tuco, with malevolent deliberation, refuses to allow Blondie to save his new partner: “Sorry Shorty,” Blondie murmurs in regret as the wretch writhes in the noose. Such is life.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is about greed of course, but greed is almost treated as a transcendental value alongside revenge and love in Leone’s universe, aware of its most corrosive aspect but also ruefully attuned to the way it provides basic motive not simply to current and liminal goals in the characters but to the entire life function. The hunt for money is emblematic of the hunt for so many other things, the need for stature, place, security, power, sex, the very things these characters lack. In this regard The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly might even be described as a revision of one of its strongest inspirations, John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), insofar as where Huston allowed just so much sentiment as to present ways its protagonists could find such recourses without money, Leone refuses that much concession: the choice is either to engage in the ruthless sport of acquiring capital or to remain so much human dogshit. Tuco celebrates having something Blondie needs, water, during the ordeal in the desert, a figuration Leone offers as motivating human society at its most basic and ugly: it’s not enough to have, but to have when someone else does not. The spectacle of the war initially has little meaning to the protagonists beyond complication: the story of three men trying alternately to enrich and save themselves amidst utterly trying circumstances that represent the normal world merely raised to a slightly more zany and trying pitch.

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Behaving in accord with such a presumption, Blondie despite his angelic associations is just as immersed in the squalor of the world and its problems as Tuco, accepting the extremes of life and death with stoic demeanour and lightning draw. His relative decency is glimpsed in his sidelong gestures of mercy – sparing rather than killing Tuco when he know well what strife it might entail, offering up a drink to a wounded warrior, spreading his coat over another and giving him a puff of his cigar. Blondie is offered as a neo-Spartan, laconic in speech, refined in arts of war, confident in battle, not a heroic blank and hardly superhuman. Many a filmmaker good and bad has tried offering up their own “Man with No Name” variant over the years and most often fail, usually misapprehending how Eastwood’s characters like Blondie present the ultimate iteration on the strong-and-silent type: Leone discovered and depended on Eastwood’s capacity to embody rather than simply play, to be the still centre of the whirlwind. That’s what lends weight to the way he registers events large and small, alarming and shocking, with minute intensifications of his habitual scowl like registrations on a Richter scale, describing the inner landscape of a man who’s seen everything twice and knows the way of the world, and has settled for merely affecting outcomes in the small pocket of it around him, offering succour when he can even as he readily expects the world to start shooting lead at his head a few seconds later.

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Angel Eyes’ evil is marked out by his ruthless employment of expedience and brutality as both the best tool for obtaining swift results and a source of energy in itself, sadistic power granting godlike pleasures. Angel Eyes pummels Jackson’s prostitute girlfriend Maria (Rada Rassimov) as he tries to make her give up his whereabouts, shoves a pillow over Baker’s face to muffle the blasts of his gun, and directs the abuse of prisoners in the prisoner of war camp. Leone heavily hints that decency in the world can only accumulate in the world in the way Blondie parses it out, although bad can metastasize far more quickly than even Angel Eyes can commit it. Maria is first glimpsed being tossed from a carriage after being mauled by some men, and although she’s only a momentary player in the film, Leone grants her one of his most dramatic camera gestures. He zeroes in on her face to register her offence as she berates one lot of bastards, before encountering the even more menacing monstrosity that is Angel Eyes in the shadows of her lodgings. Angel Eyes’ regime in the POW camp is sustained by taking advantage of the crippling illness of the actual camp commander, Captain Harper (Antonio Molino Rojo), but he finds ready helpmates in the bored, mean, greedy underlings in the camp to torture prisoners into handing over secreted valuables, skills turned on Tuco as Angel Eyes seeks his part of the secret. The sounds of torment are masked by a guard forcing an orchestra formed by the prisoners to play a languorous ballad, “The Story of a Soldier.”

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Leone pulls off one of his most singular sequences here working in concert with Morricone, the syrupy emotionalism of the song, which seems a burlesque on something like “The Green Leave of Summer” from The Alamo (1960) and other faux-folk pop songs used as leitmotifs in Westerns, offered with a taste of ash in the mouth in the way the stirred wistfulness is entirely earnest but can only work when offered in counterpoint with intimate brutality and perfect cynicism. “More feeling,” insists the guard conducting the orchestra, as the musicians play with tears streaming down their faces in full awareness what use their talents and sentiments are being put to, whilst Angel Eyes’ preferred heavy Corporate Wallace (Mario Brega) threatens to squeeze Tuco’s eyes to pulp. It’s as affecting and disturbing a counterpoint of emotional textures as any in cinema, and the crux of Leone’s cinema both literally – it comes halfway through the middle film of his oeuvre – and metaphorically, his essential theme of longing for some other realm, the past, an idyll, in alternation with the ruthless present, the inescapable brute fact, distilled to its essence. Leone’s quick success and capacity to work on an international scale spared him having to labour in many other genres unlike compadres like Mario Bava and Sergio Corbucci. But flourishes here and there in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly represent the closest he ever got to making a horror movie in Bava’s fashion, in the way Angel Eyes attacks people in their darkened rooms, the clashing primary colours in some night shots, and the gothic décor hovering around Pablo’s monastery. Whereas Bava’s most fitting tip of the hat back at Leone would be not one of his own, rather half-hearted Westerns, but the Viking saga Knives of the Avenger (1966).

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The blankness of the central trio’s names, noms de guerre won through being reduced to avatars for prodigious capacities that ironically grant them more specificity, more identity, than more familiar names, contrasting the names heard elsewhere that tend to actually be pseudonyms or attached to enigmas, to the point where they seem almost totemic, linked to mysteries and cosmic forces. Bill Carson. Arch Stanton. Names attached to faceless men, dead men, ciphers. Part of the mystique the film weaves around itself results from the way it deftly avoids showing key events. The actual robbery of the cashbox is legend, and the coincidence that draws Blondie and Tuco into the drama is the direct result of Angel Eyes’ actions but is presented as an act bordering on divine provenance. Tuco’s savagaing at Angel Eyes’and Wallace’s hands comes in part for stepping into the shoes of “Bill Carson.” Representatives of authority have a similar aspect of insubstantiality: Harper, the commander of the POW camp, and Captain Clinton (Aldo Giuffrè) who commands the Union side of the forces battling over the bridge, both finish up flat on their backs, trying desperately to impose something like morality and sanity upon situations that instead obey a logic stemming purely from the basest precinct of human experience. Blondie and Tuco’s shootout with Angel Eyes’ gang of hired guns comes in a town left as a ruined and deserted shell by warfare. As if to literalise the threat of a random and hostile universe, Leone has artillery shells explode around the ghost town sending up clouds of dust, as the two factions stalk each-other in the gloom, providing both obscurity and cover and the threat of instant annihilation, a sneak preview of the nuclear age for the roaming, pistol-packing Dons Quixote. For the moment the gunslingers are in their element, shooting down snipers and taking out goons left and right, Blondie and Tuco a perfectly lethal combination even if Tuco does pause to cross himself after taking out enemies.

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As potent as the trio are in terms of their specific talents, they’re still absurd figures closer in many ways to the knockabout victim-heroes of silent film comedy like Chaplin and Keaton, and the beloved Italian comic Toto, actors who often played men trying to hold down a tenuous place in the universe and satisfy primitive needs whilst straining to retain a sense of themselves as dignified men, dealing with conspiracies of chance and unruly objects, with roots in the Commedia dell’Arte as well as their highfalutin’ modernist counterparts in the Theatre of the Absurd. Given that the film’s working title was The Two Magnificent Tramps, the connection doesn’t feel far off Chaplin or Samuel Beckett. However limited the input of Age and Scarpellito, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly still often feel like it has one foot planted in a slapstick tradition about hapless people trying to do a job of work despite all ridiculous obstacles. The characters must negotiate trials and challenges with all their wits in a manner that resembles slapstick comedy’s exacting sense of cause and effect, as when Tuco, chained to the hulking brute Wallace, has to come up with a means of escape, a ruse that begins with asking to piss off the side of the troop train they’re riding, begging for a little privacy. Tuco jumps off the train, taking Wallace with him, beating his torturer to death against a rock and then arranging the handcuff chain over a rail so another passing train can sever it. Smart. But: “God’s not on our side because he hates idiots also,” Blondie mutters when he and Tuco are caught in Confederate uniform by Union troops, because Tuco mistakes them from a distance for Rebs as their blue suits are caked in dust. Later Blondie takes pot shots at Tuco as he tries to break away from him and get to Sad Hill first, firing a cannon at him with the same laidback, reality-rewriting precision Bugs Bunny might have tormented Elmer Fudd with.

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Leone repeatedly distils visual humour and narrative velocity from the way his framing reflects the tunnel-visioned obsession of the characters. Variations on this motif include Tuco and Blondie riding headlong into a Union camp, in the climax when the men are so preoccupied the don’t notice Angel Eyes sneaking up on them, and the mordant punch-line where Tuco finally cradles the retrieved gold in joy only to look up and see a noose Blondie has readied for him. The best-known and greatest variation on this game of concealment and revelation comes when Elam, missing an arm from the opening battle with Tuco, finally catches up with his foe as Tuco is acting on a chance for a bath in a war-shattered and deserted city, sinking into a metal tub amidst foaming soap bubbles. Elam’s long, relishing preamble to shooting Tuco in the tub is cut short as Tuco’s pistol erupts under the soap bubbles. Of course Tuco even bathes with his gun; of course Elam would underestimate him again. “If you’re going to shoot, shoot – don’t talk,” Tuco advises the twisted corpse of his would-be killer, a unit of curt black humour that’s both iconic in and of itself – look how Die Hard (1988) offers a variation on it – in lampooning that old movie cliché of the overly-talkative villain, and also a flash of foreshadowing humour in relation to the finale. There the three antagonists are arrested in a long, uncertain pause before the gunfight as the odds of combat and the traits of character are weighed and winnowed, both shooting and talking impossible until some infinitesimal tipping point is reached.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is absent the tragic-nostalgic fantasias that provide the ethereal backbone for most of Leone’s other films, where the key characters subsist in the present but truly live in their memories of lost loves, friends, and kin. Characters like Duck You Sucker’s Sean who floats in dreamy reminiscences of the long-lost ménage-a-trois he lived in with his best friend and their shared girl, or Once Upon A Time In America’s Noodles, whose reminiscences are at once treasure troves of bygone delight and grimly and inescapably connected with his awareness of his despicable actions and self-delusion. Leone understood a great truth about such tendencies, that the darker and more nettled the truths abutting such fantasias are, the more intense the pining for innocence and the full leaf of summery possibility, an awareness that also underpins the fulsome and ardent yet mysteriously ironic texture of Morricone’s scoring for Leone. Once Upon A Time In The West hinges upon another such double-edged memory as it reveals antihero Harmonica’s spur to revenge as a moment from his childhood touched with immense horror and strange beauty. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly only hints at such a dimension in Tuco’s fraternal love and anger, which he covers for Blondie’s benefit by boasting of knowing there’s always a place where he’ll be welcomed with a bowl of soup.

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Otherwise, Leone shifts his elegiac quality with its aura of gnawing loss and tragicomic meditation onto the more immediate spectacle of the war, most obviously in the “Story of a Soldier” scene, which hinges on the way the musicians seem to be yearning for their own lost pasts and offering a salving echo of it for Tuco as he’s tortured. The trio’s adventures constantly bring them into contact with surveys of grinding suffering and human waste. The monastery is crammed with wounded. Angel Eyes does business with a veteran who’s lost both his legs and ambulates around on his hands. A Confederate army is swept out of one town and chases Union troops from another. A Confederate spy is glimpsed tied to the cowcatcher on a locomotive. The ultimate symbol of war’s futility is the bridge, which Clinton encourages Blondie and Tuco to destroy to release the two opposing armies from their vain arm-wrestle. They’re the only ones who can do this on the level of both plot, not being soldiers and so not beholden to orders to keep the bridge intact, and the symbolic, as renegades from another age of history who haven’t yet surrendered their sovereignty to authority and regimentation. Whilst still precise in the historical detail, Leone makes the battle seem like a premonition of World War I with forces ensconced in hivelike trenches, girded by great firepower, charging out to fight and die in lunatic melees. Leone’s obsessive sense of detail helped create a concrete sense of his recreated Old West milieu – is there any other filmmaker who has made the sun seem so hot, sweat so pungent, dust and wood and metal so alive? – even as he nudged that milieu towards the edges of the surreal. That edge is most apparent when Tuco and Blondie succeed in blowing up the bridge and the encamped forces immediately vanish like so much battlefield smoke, ghosts released from the place they haunt.

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Leone had Morricone write his score from the screenplay so he could build his sequences around the music, and played it on set to help define the rhythm and style of the movie. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is then utterly inseparable from Morricone’s music, standing with Prokofiev’s work on Alexander Nevsky (1938) and a handful of other scores as one of the great achievements in uniting the two arts. The opening title tune sports choruses alternating coyote-like shrieks and grumbling chants, plaintive whistling from the bowels of the Earth, flutes fluttering in deep space, sardonic harmonica punctuations, lashes of spacefaring electronica, and lines from an electric guitar that spin and dart like an epee blade. This last aspect, a flourish of anachronism, nonetheless seems perfectly attuned to the film’s period fantasia, a touch of rock’n’roll influence just as alien and verboten as the idea of Italians making Westerns and yet instantly creating its own continent of influence. So familiar is the score it’s easy to forget just radical and strange it was in cinema at the time, with Morricone deploying his experimental training to forge sonic textures that risk inanity yet accumulate truly epic power. It almost goes without saying that as nonchalantly as directors might insert Leone’s pieces into their own movies now, nothing even remotely as innovative and ostentatious would get commissioned today.

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Crescendo of both film and score comes when Blondie and Tuco, having finally destroyed the bridge and gained the land beyond, gaze out upon Sad Hill Cemetery. Tuco becomes increasingly frantic in running around the circles of graves, the presence of fortune at once tantalisingly close and maddeningly veiled. Morricone unleashes his immortal “Ecstasy of Gold” as Tuco’s frenzy grows, music surging to heights of perverse grandeur as Delli Colli’s camera spins ever more dizzily, the zoom lensing longer and longer collapsing space and motion into visual delirium, the landscape seeded with the dead promising bounty as if in ridicule of the living. Thundering drums, clanging bells, an operatic voice reaching high thrusting notes, and none it seems too much. The game, of course, has reached its final stage, but the end can only be gained when one more grave is filled, as Angel Eyes appears like a great dark bird and Blondie decides the stakes of the last throw of dice, promising to write the name of the grave containing the gold on a stone, to be the prize for the man who emerges from the inevitable shootout. The three men retreat to points around the dial of a circular plaza at the heart of the cemetery.

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Leone was both repeating himself here, having already offered a gunfight in a circle designed to evoke a bullfighting arena at end of For A Few Dollars More, but also consciously outdoing himself, reaching for the definitive iteration. The idea of a gunfight evoking a bullfight was inspired by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), which in turn borrowed the way the besiegers at the Alamo supposedly regaled the besieged with bullfighting music. Leone presents the notion this time with total embrace of the mythic, a duel in the centre of a great graveyard, sun raw overhead, the great dream of life and death played out in a zone where the black wood of the grave markers could be the wings of ravens to carry a soul off to the netherworld and the blazing sun the pitiless promise of another day above ground, scourging skin and soul free of all sin. Morricone’s music again intensifies the informing spirit to the nth degree as his vast and sonorous banks of trumpets accompany Leone’s close-up shots of the gunmen as they shift attention from target to target. Fateful mental calculus unfolds behind squinting, flicking, parsing eyes whilst bodies remain rigid and poised. When the moment of truth arrives it comes in a blink, both Blondie and Tuco firing at Angel Eyes but only one man’s bullets hitting, as Blondie has long since pilfered Tuco’s bullets.

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Even the awesome drama of the shootout is then riddled with deception, illusion, and an edge of the ridiculous, though the threat from Angel Eyes was no fake, indeed too real to even allow the possibility of another factor. Blondie offers sardonic punctuation, firing shots that flick Angel Eyes’ gun and hat into the grave with him, a gesture that somehow splits the difference between a show of a victor’s disdain for the failed contender, and a last gesture of respect for the felled foe, sending off to Valhalla with his sword and armour. “There’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie declares, summarising the entire matter for Tuco’s education in the ultimate inversion of the desert scene, “Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.” The ultimate joke sees Blondie granting Tuco his share of the treasure, but forcing him to earn it once again through the existential trial that was the crux of their old partnership: a man, balanced between sky and earth, life and death, hoping the aim is true. Of course, Blondie pulls off his best shot yet. Tuco’s last cry of profane protest is drowned out by Morricone’s coyote yowls and the roll call of types recurs, each now in his appropriate place. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly might not even be Leone’s greatest film – Once Upon A Time In The West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon A Time In America all have equally good claims to the title, certainly richer in terms of their human drama and each taking his stylistics further by degrees. But it remains Leone’s most singular moment of connection with his audience, with the iconography he created only to eventually feel caged by, and with the unique power of his art form.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi, Television

Star Trek: The Cage / Where No Man Has Gone Before / The Man Trap (TV, 1964-66)

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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Directors: Robert Butler / James Goldstone / Marc Daniels
Screenwriters: Gene Roddenberry / Samuel A. Peeples / George Clayton Johnson

By Roderick Heath

As a boy in Texas in the 1920s and ‘30s, Gene Roddenberry was a voracious fan of the sci-fi and pulp storytelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, stirring the desire to become a writer. After stints as a US Army pilot during World War II and a civilian pilot for Pan Am after, his third crash convinced him to try another profession. He joined the police whilst also pursuing his writing ambitions, blending the two when he landed a job as technical advisor and then writer on the TV show Mr. District Attorney. Roddenberry soon found himself in demand, eventually quitting the cops in 1956 as his career stepped into high gear working on shows including the popular Western series Have Gun – Will Travel, defined by roving heroes and self-contained episodic storylines, and showed equal talent for wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Some of the quirks of personality and fortune that would define Roddenberry’s professional legacy were already manifesting, particularly frustration in constantly developing and pitching series ideas no-one wanted to produce, and getting sacked from the show Riverboat before even a single episode was made, because of Roddenberry’s fierce objection to the producers’ wish to not feature any black actors on the show despite being set on the Mississippi in the 1860s. On shows he ran or tried to make happen in the early 1960s, Roddenberry met many actors he would later reemploy, including Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and DeForest Kelley.

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Since the mid-‘50s Roddenberry kicked around variations on the idea of a contained ensemble drama set aboard modes of transport, including an ocean liner and an airship, adding increasingly fantastical elements and the idea of a multi-ethnic ensemble. Taking inspiration from models including the 1956 film Forbidden Planet as well as Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series and the spacefaring stories of A.E. Van Vogt, Roddenberry merged his various concepts into the one concept, revolving around the exploratory adventures of a starship. He added the idea of a lead character based on C.S. Forester’s omnicompetent naval hero Horatio Hornblower. The name of the starship, Enterprise, allowed Roddenberry to reference both the early swashbuckling days of the US Navy and the awesome modern aircraft carrier that represented Cold War America’s military and technical might. He called the proposed series Star Trek. Roddenberry gained the support of Lucille Ball, a close friend whose Desilu production company urgently needed a successful show, and took it to various network chieftains, pitching it as “Wagon Train in space” to make it seem more familiar. NBC decided to back a pilot, selecting one of Roddenberry’s scripts, “The Menagerie.”

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Rechristened “The Cage,” the pilot was shot in late 1964, and sported Roddenberry’s lover and future wife Majel Barrett as the starship’s first officer Number One, and Nimoy as a vaguely satanic-looking alien officer named Spock. Jeffrey Hunter, former acting protégé of John Ford whose career had ironically been stymied after playing Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1963), was selected to play the Captain, Christopher Pike. “The Cage” failed to win over executives and test audiences, but unlike so many of Roddenberry’s projects NBC clearly saw potential as they agreed to produce a second pilot, albeit infamously telling Roddenberry to “get rid of the alien with the pointy ears,” and swapping out Hunter’s intense and thoughtful captain for someone with a little more swagger and bravura. For the second pilot the network chose a script Roddenberry had developed with Samuel A. Peeples, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and this time paved the way for the show’s eventual premiere in 1966. Oddly, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would be the episode screened third: the first broadcast episode proved instead to be “The Man Trap,” written by George Clayton Johnson. The show had many similarities to Irwin Allen’s series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and had a rival in Allen’s next production Lost In Space, which had a more juvenile tone but a similar basis in a spacefaring team encountering character often existing in the blurred zone between sci-fi and outright fantasy. Much like its major rival in TV sci-fi annals, Doctor Who, the show suffered through initial low ratings to surge as a surprising cult hit for the first two years of its three-season run, although the real key to its persistence in pop culture proved to be its popularity in syndication in the 1970s.

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“The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” therefore all present inception points for the series and varying stages of drafting for its eventual, settled template. “The Man Trap” was probably selected to screen first because of its relatively straightforward monster-on-the-loose plot, and also because it sported Kelley as the ship’s Chief Surgeon, Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, not yet cast on “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and so orientated viewers to the essential line-up more quickly. “The Cage” was eventually, cleverly repurposed for the show on the two-part storyline with the title of “The Menagerie” restored. “The Cage”’s negative was hacked up for use on the show, and the complete version was thought lost. Roddenberry pieced together the full episode combining the colour footage used in “The Menagerie” and a black-and-white workprint, the form in which I, and others, first saw it on video, before a pristine colour print was later recovered. One irony of this is that I think I’ve seen “The Cage” more than any other Star Trek episode, and it stands very close to being my favourite iteration of the entire property, only rivalled by certain episodes of the various series and movie entries like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). “The Cage” stands somewhere between the divergent tones of the original series and its eventual successor Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-93), but also exists in its own peculiar pocket, a place of surreal delights. The re-emergence of the pilot even did much to set the scene for the reboot represented by The Next Generation, a hint this universe could sustain different modes and resonances.

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Many familiar aspects of the show were already in place for “The Cage,” including the Enterprise, the presence of Spock and the general infrastructure of the series’ fictional lore and tech like beaming and phasers, the boldly colourful designs and cinematography, and Alexander Courage’s inimitable theme music. The differences however suggest a whole different version of the show existing in a ghostly parallel dimension to the familiar one. Spock, whilst already invested with his familiar look (although it would be toned down afterwards), isn’t the nerveless rationalist of renown but a rather more youthfully impassioned and demonstrative crewman; the trait of chilly intellectual armour is instead imbued upon Barrett’s Number One. McCoy isn’t yet present, nor is Nichols’ Uhura, James Doohan’s Mr Scott, or George Takei’s Sulu. Indeed, one particularly interesting aspect of “The Cage” is that its emphasis is more on gender diversity than racial, with Pike caught between the diverse potential love interests of Number One, and the younger, more callow Yeoman J.M. Colt (Laurel Goodwin), who would be supplanted in the show proper by Grace Lee Whitney’s rather sexier Yeoman Rand. Roddenberry had also left the door open in his scripts to making Spock and the Chief Surgeon female, although eventually in addition to Nimoy John Hoyt was cast as the doctor, Phillip Boyce.

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Star Trek arrived as a summation and condensation of Roddenberry’s eminently commercial yet singular artistic personality, one reason perhaps why it immediately overshadowed everything else he did: some creative people are destined, and doomed, to arrive at one vital crystallisation of their imagination. Roddenberry’s experience whilst still a very young man as a leader responsible for lives had a deep and obvious impact on his storytelling, and sometimes used the show to explore aspects of his experience, like the episode “Court Martial,” which evokes a crash Roddenberry had in during the war. Ironically, Roddenberry would be caught constantly trying to reassert his control over the property and confronted by the way the input of other creative minds would sometimes prove to understand the nature of its popularity better than he did himself, most particularly when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer rescued the film series it birthed in the 1980s. Roddenberry’s thorough steeping in the kinds of character relations and story basics familiar in TV thoroughly permeated Star Trek, in the panoply of ethnic and job title archetypes, the thematic and narrative similarities to the Westerns he’d worked on, and the basics of how the crew of the Enterprise work and live together.

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The opening images of “The Man Trap,” the very first glimpse of the Star Trek aesthetic TV audiences would actually see, envisions the planet M-113 as a desolate place scarcely trying to look like something other than a set, with Fauvist skies and soils and Ozymandian ruins. It’s a psychological environment of the kind many a Surrealist painter laboured to describe, plucked out of the collective unconscious. A place at once wild and filled with traces of vanished grandeur. This edge of stylisation, of the dreamlike and with perfervid eroticisation infusing the very texture of the universe, is one of the original show’s most specific qualities and one sadly missing from its many progeny. Aspects of the signature look had already been mooted in “The Cage” where Pike and Spock discover and ponder strange blue flowers that vibrate with alien music, although the landscape was more prosaic with a grey overcast sky and rocky forms like a stretch of the American desert. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offered visions of the remote Delta-Vega, an outpost of super-technology resembling an oil refinery grafted onto an alien shore.

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The sense of landscape was one area where the show took clear inspiration from Forbidden Planet, which offered similar vistas and the concept of the id made solid and animate. But the emphasis on rugged and far-flung environments was also clearly part of the show’s inheritance from the Western, including John Ford’s iconic use of Monument Valley, a place the show never visited, preferring the more economicaly adjacent Vasquez Rocks. Star Trek hinges upon evoking and inflating to newly fantastical scale the same sense of awed fascination with the raw bones of the American land, the scarps and mesas and jagged geometries of the western deserts, along with the same uneasy mix of celebration in freedom and wealth of space and conflict over the viability of colonialist enterprise, as drove the Western. Often this was interspersed with depictions of deceptively placid Edenic zones where the flowers are beautiful and deadly.

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Roddenberry was already beginning to play the subversive games the show would become famous for. Early in “The Cage” Pike explores his general depletion in spirit and mind from years of commanding the Enterprise with the sympathetic Boyce, who’s rather older than McCoy would be and yet less crusty and combative, instead offering a clear-eyed wisdom more like the characters in The Next Generation. Number One’s stern and heady veneer toys with the familiar figure of the eminently meltable iceberg akin to the female scientists seen in ‘50s sci-fi films like Them! (1954) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), but notably the episode doesn’t undercut her as a figure of command, as Number One has to lead the crew after Pike is kidnapped. The pilot was directed by Robert Butler, an ultra-professional TV director who would go on to an odd and sporadic feature career including making movies for Disney like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) as well the trashy action-thriller Turbulence (1997). “The Cage” sees the Enterprise, exploring unmapped regions of the galaxy, attracted by a rescue beacon to a desolate planet dubbed Talos. Believing they’re rescuing the crew of the Columbia, a spaceship that vanished years earlier, Pike leads a party down the planet, where they encounter the bedraggled survivors and their makeshift encampment.

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Pike meets the strikingly beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver) amongst their number. She leads him away from the camp on the promise of showing him something interesting, only to deliver him into the arms of a race of bulbous-skulled aliens who knock him out with a gas gun and take him down into the earth via an elevator hidden within a mesa. Pike awakens in a cell with a transparent wall, and the Talosians tell him he’s to remain part of their zoo of fascinating specimens. The Talosians have immense gifts of telepathy, able to plant completely convincing illusions in the minds of others: apart from Vina all the survivors prove to be mirages who vanish once Pike is secured. The Talosian who oversees the zoo, The Keeper (body of Meg Wyllie, voice of Malachi Throne), tries to influence Pike into taking Vina as a mate and accepting his fate to breed and produce a race of servile humans who can help the Talosians, who have become incapable of any kind of practical activity, restore their planet. Attempting to rescue Pike, Number One and Spock set up a powerful energy weapon fuelled by the Enterprise’s engines and try to blast open the Talosian gateway, but seem to fail.

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Pike is carefully characterised as a captain with a sterner, steelier exterior than his eventual successor, but also quickly reveals to Boyce his sense of guilty responsibility for losing several crewmembers on the barbarian planet Rigel 7 and his recent tendency to pensively contemplate quitting his job and pursuing less demanding and more profitable pursuits. This contradicts the one steady constant of his successor James T. Kirk’s character, his complete and unswaying dedication to his ship: Kirk’s angsts, once explored, would rather tend to revolve around the threat of losing the ship, his authority, and his friendly comrades. The episode hinges around Pike’s sense of purpose and energy being restored by having to fight for his freedom and identity. The Talosians force him to re-experience a battle he had on Rigel 7 with a hulking warrior, the Kaylar (Michael Dugan), but this time in defence of Vina, outfitted as a classical damsel in distress. Pike eventually grasps a contradiction, that base and primitive emotions like murderous rage can stymie the Talosians’ psychic powers, and fosters them in himself whilst aware this means stripping away his own civilised veneer. “The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” all share distinct fixations and story elements, particularly with psychic powers and chameleonic, reality-destabilising talents. Dualism and the dangers of deceptive appearances would become obsessive themes for the show, and a great deal of its genre-specific ingenuity would be expended in finding new angles to explore them.

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This also connects to an aspect the Star Trek franchise has long been running away from with a guilty smirk, the pleasurably dirty secret of the original show, as an artwork preoccupied by and deeply riddled with sexuality. Down to its curvy-pointy designs and title fonts, this pervasive eroticic suggestion was part of its essential texture as a drama aimed at the protean zone between the theoretical and the psychological. The way Spock was amalgamated with Number One gives a faint credence and explanation for the oft-fetishised erotic arc many viewers often felt existed between Kirk and Spock. In “The Cage” the subtext is scarcely buried, as the Talosians overtly try to appeal to Pike’s libido by reconstructing Vina in various fantasy scenarios as different kinds of woman, from lady fair to be protected, partner in an idyllic Earth marriage, and as a green-skinned dancing girl of the notoriously lusty Orion peoples, performing for Pike in his own private harem. Vina plays along with such manipulations for motives that only become clear at the episode’s end. These scenarios are all drawn from Pike’s experiences or the fantasies and potential lives he confesses to Boyce in their early conversation. Again, “The Cage” goes further and more boldly into the zone of such zones, offering a plotline that’s also in part a witty meditation on Roddenberry’s lot as a TV maker, sketching scenarios in hunting for appeal to the audience’s needs and desires, the correct balance of elements needed to persuade and enthral. “Almost like secret dreams a bored space captain might have,” one of Pike’s illusory guests in his harem notes, making explicit the idea we’re seeing common idyllic fancies made flesh.

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“The Cage” also deploys the prototypical metatextual and mythopoeic storytelling that would permeate the show, with its myriad references to classical mythology and Shakespearean drama, and the constant games with the characters’ sense of their essential natures and their perceptions of reality in a way that also allowed the actors playing the parts to explore other aspects of their talents. At its best Star Trek seemed to genuinely seek to pattern itself after classical mythology as functioning at once as rigorous storytelling with a hard and immediate sense of form and function, whilst also operating on a level of parable and symbolism, incorporating a dreamlike sense of alien worlds and bodies as charged with qualities the viewer knows and feels with a strange new lustre. This approach would, in the series’ lesser episodes, manifest in a succession of corny political parables (“The Omega Glory”) or clumsily revised myths (“Elaan of Troyius”). “The Cage” also marked the first of many allusions to Plato’s parable of the cave, in regards to the limitations of knowing reality through the senses, and the motives who those who might manipulate others through this disparity. True to the subsequent show’s fame for incorporating social critique, there’s also an implicit self-critical note for Roddenberry and television in general, in the way the Talosians’ basic aim is to make Pike sit still and consume fantasy in order to make it easier to manipulate him into doing the bidding of and fulfilling the needs of controlling masters. Seeds for darker and more explicit variations on such a theme, like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999). With the added sting that the Talosians themselves have become addled consumers of the fantasies they generate, cut off from action just as surely as their captives.

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“The Cage” reaches its climax as the Talosians forcibly beam down Number One and Yeoman Colt and present them as alternative mates so Pike can take his pick. The Keeper notes their divergent qualities and potentials like a particularly dry car salesman whilst also simply forcing Pike to recognise the way his mind has, consciously or not, always cast a sexually assessing eye over his female crewmembers, and vice versa. This move by the Talosians proves their downfall however, as the women were brought down with their phasers, and whilst these seemed to do no damage the Keeper tries to retrieve the discarded weapons. This gives Pike a chance to take him captive, and he threatens to throttle him if he doesn’t release them. The dispelling of imposed illusion allows the captives to see the actual, devastating damage their weaponry made upon the Talosian infrastructure. But Pike is also forced to see Vina in her true physical state: terribly injured when the Columbia crashed, she was rescued and repaired by the Talosians but at the time they had no understanding of what a human should look like, leaving her a twisted and haggard travesty, and only the Talosians’ abilities to conceal this gave her any chance of finding companionship. This forlorn punchline is amplified by the Talosians themselves, recognising that with the humans proving too intransigent to serve, they’ve lost their last chance to save their species. The episode does leave off with a grace note as the Talosians recreate Pike in illusory form to give Vina company.

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The revised version of the storyline seen in “The Menagerie” offered the events of “The Cage” as a flashback set 13 years in the past, with a different actor cast as the now-disfigured and paralysed Pike for the present-tense scenes. “The Menagerie” had Spock commit mutiny for the sake of honouring his old commander, taking him to Talos so he can live with Vina and believe himself restored to his unbroken self, a surprisingly clever bit of repurposing even if it dispelled much of “The Cage”’s surreal intensity. The image of Vina as the Orion dancing girl became one of show’s most iconic images, often featured in the end credits of episodes, encapsulating the show’s mystique on many levels. For the second pilot shot nearly a year after “The Cage,” Roddenberry had to find a new lead as Hunter had dropped out. Eventually, the Canadian former Stratford Festival alumnus turned minor Hollywood star William Shatner was cast as Captain James Kirk, whose middle initial, glimpsed upon a conjured tombstone, is given in the episode as R. rather than the eventual T. Far from being introduced as a low point or riven with doubts and guilt like Pike, Kirk arrives as the starship captain entering his prime, confident, quick in mind and body, the perfect man of action who’s also the rare man of intellectual poise. Other essential roles and performers were added, including singer and actress Nichols as Uhura, the communications officer, James Doohan as chief engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, and George Takei as Sulu, initially a science officer but later recast as the ship’s helmsman.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” and other early series episodes revolve most fixatedly upon Shatner as Kirk, dominating the rest of the cast. Eventually the essential relationship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would form, with Spock representing reason and McCoy instinctive humanism, and Kirk constantly trying to balance the two. This shift was informed in part by the impact made upon the showrunners by the way many female viewers surprised them by preferring Spock as the alluringly cool and thoughtful heartthrob, a conspicous contrast to the type of James Bond-inspired man’s man so common in pop culture at the time, although the potential appeal of Spock was already plainly in the show’s thoughts in the earliest episodes. A certain caricature of Kirk has emerged in popular lore as a brash and chauvinistic he-man, pushed hard by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 cinematic reboot. The caricature sadly excises Kirk’s other, more vital and nuanced traits, and even his image as a womaniser neglects the edge of frustration and pathos, even tragedy that so often attached to his romances. To be fair, Kirk as a character often suffered from the way the show would make him into whatever any given episode’s writer needed, sometimes presenting a nuanced philosopher-king and at other times a reactionary cold warrior. Eventually some of the later films, particularly when Nicholas Meyer was writing him in The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), would unify his facets successfully.

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Shatner’s presence as Kirk also represented a compromise between Roddenberry and network executives as to just what the hero of the show should be, schism written into his very being. For the time being Shatner had to impose unity upon the character, developing Kirk’s edge of almost self-mocking humour alongside his edge of hard will and imperious ego, mercurial wit of mind and body invested in his signature, wryly challenging smile, signalling his refusal to take things too seriously, a mechanism that allows him to function in situations that might crush others. Shatner matched his voluble physicality to his inimitable speaking style with its elastic, often sprinting cadences and juddering emphases, to describe the way Kirk has mastered the difficult art of making his masculine vigour and the racing motor of his intellect work in concert. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” he’s contrasted by a similar type, Gary Lockwood’s Gary Mitchell, serving as the Enterprise’s helmsman. Their eventual conflict has an aspect of doppelgangers clashing, Mitchell symbolising what might result if the side of Kirk that allows him to function as a commander, his sense of innate exceptionalism in authority, was ever encouraged to overwhelm the rest of his character. And, by extension, delivering the same lesson to the audience, all presumed to see themselves to some degree or other in Kirk.

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Despite his frequent frustration with Shatner’s Kirk, the character certainly engaged Roddenberry’s pervasive interest in what made for an ideal leader figure, a notion he must surely have been contemplating since being pushed into such a role as a young man and then serving in institutions tasked with service and discipline, making friction against the side of his personality concerned with humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. The show managed to offer reflection on the conceptual tension in the episode “The Galileo Seven” where Spock, obliged to take command when he and other crew crash land on a strange planet, finds himself bewildered when he does everything right according to his sense of logic and expedience only to find the other crew detest him for his tone-deafness to their emotions, whereas they trust Kirk implicitly. In the same way, Kirk was required to help get the audience invested however much he cut against the grain of Roddenberry’s ideals. The bulk of representatives of the Federation and Starfleet hierarchies apart from the Enterprise crew are portrayed as pompous and oblivious blowhards through the original series, shading the show’s mythologised utopian streak in a manner that might well have been informed by Roddenberry’s personal observations about rank, as well reflecting Roddenberry and team’s stormy relationship with their often aggressively bemused network bosses.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” counters Butler’s stark and dreamy approach with more forceful and flashy handling from James Goldstone, who go on to have a feature film-directing career dotted with some underregarded movies like Winning (1969) and Rollercoaster (1977), and strong guest star support from Lockwood and Sally Kellerman. The episode’s title proved so keen in describing the essence of the proposed show it was quickly incorporated into Kirk’s opening narration. Despite the crew’s nominal assignment on a five year exploratory mission to “strange new worlds” and seek out “new life and new civilizations,” the Enterprise would nonetheless often be found performing more prosaic tasks in well-travelled areas. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” does at least start with the Enterprise preparing for a daring tilt at the edges of the known, whilst also repeating “The Cage”’s gambit as the ship picks up a signal leading to the wreckage of a long-lost ship, this time the USS Valiant, and recover what proves to be an ejected flight recorder. The first moments of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offer immediate definition of Kirk and Spock’s divergent yet magnetised personalities ias they’re glimpsed playing three-dimensional chess, kicking off a running joke in the show where Kirk always beats Spock at the game despite the latter’s vast intellectual prowess, through Kirk’s illogical tactical genius. Joining them on the bridge as an alert is called are the Chief Surgeon Dr Mark Piper (Paul Fix) and shipboard Psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Dehner (Kellerman).

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Spock delves into the recovered record of the Valiant’s end and through garbled passages discerns the ship was driven beyond the galaxy’s edge. There it struck a powerful energy field that killed several crew and left one strangely affected. The Valiant’s ultimate destruction seems linked to enigmatic requests for information about ESP abilities the Captain made to the ship’s computer, before the Captain made the ship self-destruct. Deciding to trace the Valiant’s path in the hope of finding more wreckage, they encounter the same energy field at the galactic frontier. The barrier almost fries the Enterprise and Mitchell and Dehner are both struck down by shocks, seemingly correlated with the degree of latent ESP ability both have been measured in, with Mitchell the most affected, left with a bizarre silver glaze over his eyes. Taken to the sick bay and watched over by Piper, Mitchell seems otherwise unharmed and reveals rapidly growing psychic abilities, allowing him to consume the ship’s computer files at speed and revealing telekinetic power too. Eventually it becomes clear Mitchell is evolving into something very powerful and dangerous, and in a desperate attempt to keep him from taking over or destroying the ship Kirk spirits him to Delta-Vega, a planet supporting an automated lithium refinery, to maroon him. Dehner also develops the silver eyes and incredible power, and aids Mitchell in freeing himself.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” mediates the tones of “The Cage” and the settled show: Shatner-as-Kirk retains some of Pike’s restraint and pensiveness, although by the episode’s end he’s more thoroughly and specifically defined as an action hero. Where “The Cage” allowed Pike to be defined in a sardonic manner by tiger-in-a-cage intensity and thwarted strength, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” sees Kirk taking on the nascent superman in a fistfight regardless of the long odds. Spock is now firmly defined by his devotion to logic, but not yet stoic dispassion. The climax, in which Kirk battles Mitchell who’s now powerful enough to refashion pockets of reality, sees the rogue mutant conjure up a grave for Kirk complete with carved tombstone, a semi-surreal touch of a brand the show would regularly invoke, in a universe filled with incongruous sights in far-flung surrounds. The weird sexuality likewise is contoured into the direct flow of plot. Mitchell and Dehner, initially defined by gendered polarity – he’s aggressively flirtatious, she’s haughty and heady so Mitchell dismisses Dehner as a “walking freezer unit” – are soon united in new, exceptional identity, their glazed silver eyes signifying a perverse bond in their post-human state. That bond is ultimately ruptured when Kirk makes desperate appeal to Dehner as he battles Mitchell: Dehner aids him in attacking Mitchell and briefly nullifying his powers, at the cost of her own life.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” maintains a muscular, cinematic force and it’s easy to see why it, rather than “The Cage”, ultimately provided the right blueprint when it came to getting Star Trek up and running. Though not nearly as layered and intriguing, it fulfils the necessary task of presenting this particular wing of sci-fi dreaming as one defined by potent, active characters and forces representing a dialogue between stolid settlement and wild possibility, fantastical yet familiar-feeling in many basic aspects. Goldstone taps the image of the silver-eyed Mitchell for moments of creepy punctuation, as in a fade-to-black that leaves only the eyes glowing, and when he looks into a security camera and Kirk realises he is looking back at him through the camera. Mitchell was the perfect antagonist to lay down this blueprint as a normal man stricken with godlike talents, underlining the emotional meaning not only in Kirk having to kill him but in presenting vast new stages of drama through a human-sized conduit.

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Lockwood and Kellerman are valuable presences in their one-off roles, clearly a cut above the usual run of TV supporting actor of the day, and Lockwood’s presence gives it an incidental connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film that would take up aspects of Star Trek’s inquisitive reach and push it further. Spock would be the singular archetype the show invented rather than augmented for pop culture, but he’s still an evolving and relatively muted figure, perhaps partly because Roddenberry had gone out on a limb to keep him in the series. Nimoy himself was still trying to nail down his characterisation, his voice pitched about a half-octave higher than the inimitable monotonous drawl he would develop. Spock nonetheless is already serving his chief function as the character who offers piercingly unblinkered analysis to Kirk, as when he tells him in no uncertain terms he must either maroon Mitchell or kill him whilst he still can. And yet the very end of the episode sees him admit to Kirk that he too feels a sense of a pathos at Mitchell’s destruction, a first sign that Spock’s surface tension hides undercurrents running deep and fast. Part of the legend of Star Trek revolves around Shatner and Nimoy’s rivalry: supposedly no less a personage than Isaac Asimov advised Roddenberry to overcome Shatner and Nimoy’s ego duels by making their onscreen characters inseparable.

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“The Man Trap” iterates a plot the show would return to regularly, most notably in “The Devil on the Dark.” That episode would take the show’s nascent humanist spirit further in presenting the lurking monstrosity as entirely misunderstood, whereas in “The Man Trap” the alien creature is a more straightforward threat, although still voted a degree of sympathy as a forlorn survivor of a decimated species driven by its predatory needs, much like the Talosians. The theme of besiegement by an alien monster in “The Man Trap” echoes Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), and indeed restores the idea of a shapeshifting monster Nyby and Hawks excised in adapting John W. Campbell’s story. But Roddenberry and his team were trying to philosophically and practically reconcile that film’s propelling contemplation of prudently vigorous militarism in conflict with coldly inquisitive science. As he did for the two pilots and most of the first season, Courage wrote the incidental music, and his spare, sonorous, Bernard Herrmann-like scoring helps invest “The Man Trap” with eerie beauty, although Roddenberry didn’t like it, one of the first signs the show’s wellspring didn’t entirely grasp what made it good.

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Appropriate to the plucked-from-the-Id aesthetic, the monster in “The Man Trap” is a sci-fi spin on the incubus/succubus figure, a creature that takes on the appearance of former lovers and friends to entice those it meets, plundering the libidinous and needy backwaters of the heroes’ psyches for its own purposes. Again, like many episodes subsequent, “The Man Trap” establishes the common refrain of exploring the lead characters’ emotional baggage and busy yet always foiled love lives, here most particularly in the case of McCoy, who sees the creature as Nancy (Jeanne Bal), an old flame who married the archaeologist Professor Crater (Alfred Ryder). The Enterprise is performing a routine visit to check up on the couple as they document a long-dead civilisation, and Kirk, McCoy, and a redshirt crewman, Darnell (Michael Zaslow), beam down for that purpose. McCoy sees Nancy as he remembers her, whilst appearing to Kirk as grey-haired and weathered as he less sentimentally expects, and to Darnell as someone else entirely, a sex kitten he met on shore leave. When Darnell goes off with the creature, he vanishes, and his crewmates later find his body, and medical analysis reveals he’s been entirely drained of salt. Other crewmen die in the same manner, and ‘Nancy’ takes on the form of one of her victims, Green (Bruce Watson), in order to be beamed up onto the Enterprise where pickings are plentiful. Uhura sees the creature as a fellow black crewmate who almost gets hold of her.

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“The Man Trap” therefore hinges on the same conceit as “The Cage” in externalising the characters’ inner angsts and fantasy lives through the device of role-playing. The note of forlorn emotionalism is amplified as Kirk and Spock eventually uncover the truth, that the real Nancy was killed by the creature years before and the vampire has maintained a sickly symbiotic relationship with Crater. He’s kept it alive with his encampment’s stock of salt whilst it maintains Nancy’s appearance to please him. Crater’s remnant, lingering affection even for the mere semblance of Nancy is given further weight by his awareness as a scientist that the creature is the last survivor of the toppled civilisation he’s been studying, a parasitic monster that’s also pitiful. The creature stirs a similar emotion of heedless protectiveness in McCoy, one that almost prevents him from saving Kirk’s life in the climax as the creature turns on the Captain. “The Man Trap” establishes McCoy as a man so driven by his sense of humanity as a palpable thing that it can sometimes cloud his judgement, to the equal and opposite degree to which Spock would so often strike him as psychopathically detached. Crater and ‘Nancy’’s relationship reaches an inevitable end as the scientist is killed by the increasingly desperate creature, although the episode foils the potential tragic punch by having this occur off-screen.

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When Kirk tries to convince McCoy that ‘Nancy’ is using him the creature mesmerises the Captain, Spock tries to intervene, making a brutal assault on the creature which McCoy sees only as violence perpetrated on Nancy until the creature easily swats the Vulcan aside. But McCoy still can’t bring himself to gun down the creature until Kirk starts screaming as the creature begins to drain him. “The Man Trap”’s director Marc Daniels would handle many episodes of the series with concerted energy, including perhaps the most famous episode, “Space Seed,” which would sport the first appearance of Ricardo Montalban’s nefarious supervillain Khan. The most intriguing aspect of these first three efforts at defining Star Trek is observing how much room they left to manoeuvre for the series, dramatically speaking, and the first half of the show’s first season, whilst erratic in quality, offered various characters and relationships to be enlarged upon at leisure. The second screened episode, “Charlie X”, starts with a memorably odd musical sequence in which Uhura improvises a song teasing Spock, as he plucks his Vulcan lyre, for his weirdly enticing and provocative coldness.

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Part of Star Trek’s odd afterlife as a series ultimately lies in the way it never quite lived up to such promise, even though even at its silliest and campiest it was never less than highly entertaining. “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” have gravitas and a relative lack of the formulaic aspects that would both define the show in its halcyon days and ultimately retard its growth. One example of this would be the way the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate became central, resulting in most of the other characters being left sidelined beyond performing their stalwart crew functions. Famous as they rightfully are for offering multicultural role-models, figures like Uhura and Sulu nonetheless finished up largely wasted for great stretches. Meanwhile, despite the show’s seemingly limitless purview, a certain repetitiveness of theme and story set in, particularly once the show’s budget was cut and the scope reduced to battles against intruding forces on the Enterprise, and the episodic format prevented any appropriate sense of the characters evolving along with their universe. This proved the ultimate foil for the original Star Trek, one that finally helped kill it when it should have been entering its prime, but also informed the eventual revival and great success of a franchise. Today, it seems, the world has caught up with what Roddenberry originally offered. The most recent iteration of Star Trek, Discovery, has revisited “The Cage” and a series revolving around Pike, Spock, and Number One and their adventures together has been announced. Now there’s a cosmic irony even Spock might offer a smile for.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

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The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

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For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

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For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

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Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

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Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

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Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

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Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

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Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

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Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

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Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

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Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

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The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

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One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

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And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

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At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

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The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

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Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

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Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

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Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

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Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

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The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

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1930s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

Stagecoach (1939)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Dudley Nichols (Ben Hecht, uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

1939 has long been described as the greatest year in cinema, certainly for classic Hollywood. Alongside the epoch-defining success of Gone with the Wind, the highpoint of producer-centric Hollywood methods, 1939 nonetheless saw two key works from great American directors coming completely into their own after years refining their craft. One was Howard Hawks, who released Only Angels Have Wings, and the other was John Ford, who had already won a Best Director Oscar for The Informer and yet only grew greater as a filmmaker. Some movies are so famous they threaten to become invisible. Stagecoach is a cornerstone of popular culture, one that wields a pervasive influence not just on modern action cinema but filmmaking in general, the movie Orson Welles claimed to have watched forty times to teach himself essential film grammar. Stagecoach’s surprise success in its moment was perceived as opening new vistas for the Western film and finally propelled John Wayne towards major stardom, after subsisting in B Westerns since the relative failure of his first big starring vehicle, The Big Trail, nine years earlier. For director Ford, the film marked a homecoming even as he, much like the rest of his nation, was facing an immediate future of disruption. Ford, who had directed horse operas by the score in his two-reeler days and landed his first major hit with The Iron Horse (1924), had nursed his great affinity for the genre as a personal passion but hadn’t made a Western proper since the coming of sound.

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Stagecoach saw Ford establish the Western as capable of bearing great dramatic weight: despite the decade that intervened, it’s seen as defining the precepts of the ‘adult’ westerns of the 1950s. Of course, that name’s never been entirely fair to Westerns that came before Stagecoach. Genre entries like The Big Trail, Cimarron (1931), Law and Order (1932), and The Plainsman (1936) were hardly lacking a degree of thematic depth in contending with the epoch of American colonial expansion. But Stagecoach worked in part because it evoked something larger than a mere window of American history, instead seeing in the Old West a sort of bare-boned stage perfect for metaphorical drama. Another aspect of what distinguishes Stagecoach ironically is its businesslike efficiency, its rejection of inflating the story and its stakes and the driving aesthetic with any great pomp, setting up its story, depicting its characters, and delivering drama in just over an hour and a half with all Ford’s hard-won sense of cinematic drive as sufficient in and of itself. Whilst encompassing many essential aspects of the classic horse opera, Stagecoach deftly assembles familiar motifs and events in an unusual manner, subordinating action for the most part to character dynamics and social metaphors, and yet managing to never seem stagy or talky.

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Whilst Only Angels Have Wings reflected Hawks’ personality in regarding a small community defined by its distinction, bordering on cult-like, from a mundane world, Stagecoach saw Ford finally nailing down his own specific artistic personality in offering a situation just as compressed and dangerous but emphasising the essential normality of his characters, their function as representatives of society at large. Stagecoach negotiates both relevance to its moment and a brisk, folkloric portrait of history in the sense of plunging into an unknowable zone of danger. The name “Geronimo” is the last and only word from a frontier outpost, signalling to the colonial civilisation that an enemy is on the march and a dark force rumbling over the horizon, both pinning the film to a specific incident in the Old West whilst also invoking a sense of the then-current geopolitical moment, the countdown to when borders would close and communications would shut down as war erupted. Ford’s other two films of 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, retreated even more deeply into folkloric history and Americana for both solace and caution. Stagecoach was adapted by Dudley Nichols from the story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox. Ford reported the story captured his attention in part through reminding him of Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif”, and the film, despite some scholarly debate, seems to offer a fairly obvious revisionist take on De Maupassant in jamming a group of sundry citizens into a coach in a war zone with a lady of ill-repute.

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Ford had established a superlative working partnership at this point of his career with screenwriter Nichols, even though Ford purportedly had a habit of tossing Nichols’ scripts out the porthole of his yacht when they felt too heavy and therefore surely had too much dialogue. True or not, this summarises much about Ford’s method, his determination to express through imagery with literary depth, delivered in a manner the audience would absorb and delight in without ever thinking of it as some kind of force-fed art. Ford put his neck on the line to get Stagecoach made, shopping the project around studios, none of which would back him as Westerns were out of vogue and his choice of leading man in Wayne lacked box office appeal. Wayne had been subsisting mostly as a star of cheap and negligible westerns since The Big Trail. Ford eventually found support from independent producer Walter Wanger, who signed off on Ford’s demands but with a budget half what Ford wanted and obliging him to bill costar Claire Trevor over Wayne.

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The basic plot of Stagecoach is simplicity itself: sometime in the 1880s, six paying passengers and a sheriff board a stagecoach of the Overland Stage Line from Tonto, Arizona Territory, to make the journey to Lordsburg, New Mexico, even as the threat of Geronimo and his Apache raiders looms over the countryside between: along the way the stage picks up the Ringo Kid (Wayne), who gives vital aid when the stagecoach has to battle off the Apaches. The microcosm in Nichols’ script offers a parochial survey, most of whom are specifically defined by the way war – in this cast the Civil War, a conflict that always served myriad purposes for Ford – has impacted upon their lives and self-perceptions. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is the “great lady,” a remnant of the old fallen plantation class and its attendant pseudo-aristocratic airs but whose new ethos is one of perfect obedience to another ideal, so determined to reach her soldier husband on the frontier that she risks her life and that of her unborn child to do so. John Carradine’s Hatfield is the male equivalent, the former Southern gentleman turned sharklike survivor, whilst Dr Josiah ‘Doc’ Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is the boozy physician, with clear suggestions his alcoholism stems from his wartime experience.

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Added to their number are other avatars: Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is a crooked but vainglorious banker, who, upon hearing that Geronimo has cut the telegraph wires between Tonto and Lordsburg, sees the perfect opportunity to steal the Wells-Fargo payroll from his bank’s safe. Mr Peacock (Donald Meek) is a timid yet amiable representative of the petit bourgeoisie, a travelling whiskey salesman. Dallas (Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town. Buck (Andy Devine) is the coach driver, a rotund and hapless man doing his job to feed his brood and all his mooching relatives. Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) is certain in his authority and sense of responsibility but not inured or insensitive to the vagaries of life. Then there’s Ringo himself, the young but coolly self-possessed scion of the frontier, just busted out of jail with designs on paying back the murder of his father and brother on Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), the territory’s deadliest thug. Stopping twice en route, at the way-stations of Dry Fork and Apache Wells, the passengers contend with losing the cavalry escort given them by the fresh-faced but rigorous Lt Blanchard (Tim Holt) and soon find it’s no less dangerous to double back than to dash on to Lordsburg in risking Apache assault.

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Stagecoach is anchored inevitably to a very precise sense of geographical progress, a progress also tethered to ethical, communal, and personal movement. Much like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), officially a deconstruction of a movie like Stagecoach, Ford’s film contends with a basic tension between the official ideal of the Western genre, the taming and subordinating of the land to an imposed, prefabricated ideal of civilisation, and the sorts of people who feel obliged from wont or necessity to blaze the trail and ride the frontier. Such folk tend to be misfits and seekers, people beyond the pale of society but utterly attuned to the needs of a rough and ready life based around primitive needs and basic hungers. Dallas is introduced being seen off by a new-formed “Law and Order League,” the inevitable coalition of the self-righteous, who collect together once a town has reached a certain point in its development. The skill with which Ford makes plain what Dallas is and what she’s being held to account for without tripping the sensors of the Production Code says much about Ford’s nimbleness in such terms and also the subtext of his disdain: Ford is taking his pot shot at the new dogmas encaging him and other filmmakers. Boone is booted out of his lodgings for failing to pay his rent, essentially caught in the same net for his drunken disreputability, unsurprisingly as he’s the character who seems most plainly Ford’s avatar, officially boozy and laughingly cynical whilst never quite disguising streaks of florid intellectualism and an unflinching moral core.

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Stagecoach stands in perpetual dialogue with Ford’s other best-known Western, The Searchers (1956), not just as definitive movies but two distinct stations in Ford’s mature period, whilst also encompassing themes Ford would revisit with near-crazed and apocalyptic fervour in his last feature, 7 Women (1966). Stagecoach represented Ford’s determined play for creative independence and elevation for a favoured genre, and the latter a moment of creative apotheosis reached despite, and because of, a moment of crisis and confusion, the former crystallising his most profound ideals and the latter ransacking them. At the same time Stagecoach is also a revisiting, one that sees Ford revisiting the microcosmic evocation of existential battle he had previously explored in his desert-bound British Imperial war tale The Lost Patrol (1934), whilst swapping that film’s portrayal of nightmarish stasis, with soldiers entrapped by an unseen foe, for one defined by frantic mobility. The contrast in the stories has dimensions of political suggestion as well as immediate dramatic meaning: Ford’s depiction of the imperialist project devolving into one plebeian soldier fighting for his life in a desert pit gives way to the more dynamic idealisation of the West as a place for revisions and new chances.

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The key linking theme is of characters driven to such an end by their life choices and mean fate. All of the passengers of the Lordsburg coach have reasons for travelling on that invoke extremes of their characters, save Peacock, who acquiesces to the forceful personalities about him. He is counterbalanced most stridently by Gatewood, whose treachery is concealed with a layer of fine righteous bluster, and his push to keep the stagecoach moving at all costs is rooted in self-interest, leading others into hazard. With the exception perhaps of Gatewood and the straightforward Buck and Curley, all aboard the stagecoach are ambivalent in some crucial fashion. They’re perched between stations in life as well as literal ones on the stagecoach route, and all are driven to make choices of life and death. They’re all on the run, most literally with Ringo, who’s busted out of jail, and Gatewood, but the rest are fleeing something too, something foul or abandoned or lost in their past. Some are blessed with specific aims, again most particularly Ringo with his date with destiny and Gatewood with his need to slip any potential legal net, and Buck and Curley meeting their professional obligations. Others retain aims and desires that are more shark-like, moving to survive: Dallas heading on to the next cathouse, Boone to the next bottle, Hatfield to the next card game and gunfight. Journeying presents strange opportunities and epiphanies. Dallas falls for Ringo, Boone regains some measure of his professional pride and sense of agency. Hatfield boards the stage in the first place to revisit and honour a romantic past he’s otherwise been obliged to abandon by giving his protection to Lucy.

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The introductory shot of Wayne’s Ringo was calculated to be instantly iconic and it still retains an electric quality after eighty years: Ringo glimpsed in semi-silhouette against a backdrop of elemental stone crags and pillars, gun and saddle in each hand. Ford’s American answer to the friezes of the Parthenon. The camera dollies up fast to focus Wayne’s sweating brow and cocked smile, at once resolute and innocent, young and ageless, presented as a warrior born out of the earth admitted to the world of humans whilst also the idealised exemplar of that world. Sergio Leone would reiterate it more explosively in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Welles would quote it in Chimes at Midnight (1966), and just about every action movie hero earns some variation of it; Ford himself would revise it in a more complex and pensive manner with the doorway motifs in The Searchers. The legend of Ringo’s lot has preceded him, the certainty of his eventual duel with Luke Plummer a topic of general knowledge and fascination for the territory, and the possibility of running into him on the trail has made Curley join the stage because Buck’s usual shotgun rider has joined the posse out after Ringo. True to the film’s communal rather than individual focus for most of its length, Ringo is also just another character on the ride for most of the film, smiling a patient and enamoured smile at Dallas, bewildered by the scarcely noticeable rituals of exclusion – what today some would call micro-aggressions – like failing to offer her the same comforts offered Lucy maintained to excise her from polite society.

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Later Boone establishes Ringo has been in jail since he was seventeen, signalling he’s likely still a virgin, a potential roadblock to Ringo accepting Dallas when he learns about her profession. This motif echoes the depiction of the young officer’s loss of virginity with a dancer in Seas Beneath (1931), one of Ford’s most vividly realised rite-of-passage sequences. Where in that film the lover is ultimately revealed to be treacherous, Dallas is an entirely sympathetic woman, one of those many instances where Ford revisited motifs he’d touched upon before for another, closer look. Despite being a film about people thrust into countryside between communities, Stagecoach is all about social phenomena and ritual, at once oppressive and defining. Most overtly, Ford’s loathing for petty moralists and the self-righteous types burns hot as ever, whilst fuelling gestures of defiance, in Dallas and Boone marching together anointing themselves in mocking fashion as royals headed for the guillotine, in Dallas’ impudent skirt flick at two gawkers enjoying the sight of her gams as she climbs aboard the stage, and Boone thumbing his nose as the League biddies, to their mortification.

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The severing of the telegraph wires at the film’s very start, with only that totemic name as a last broadcast, has definite plot purpose – it facilitates Gatewood’s theft and obliges other important character actions – and also renders the stagecoach journey a trip into the unknown, into a space where the microcosmic society must sustain its own rules or revise them according to the moment. “Boule de Suif” made a potent impact on readers bordering on scandal when it was first published for its excoriating portrayal of social hypocrisy, with the assembly of French bourgeoisie prevailing upon the title character to sleep with a German officer during the Franco-Prussian War to expedite their journey only to then ostracise her afterwards. Dallas accords with Boule de Suif herself, and Boone and Ringo offer variants on the figure of Cornudet, the sullied liberal who remains the closest thing she has to an ally, although both prove far more robust. Ringo’s indifference to Dallas’ sexual history represents a more hopeful contrast, along with an ironically flavoured awareness that life out on the frontier demands achievement in things considered shocking back in civilised climes for just about everyone: even Lucy, the anointed flower of genteel womanhood, pushes through a certain physical and behavioural barrier in her determination to reach her husband.

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Gatewood presents a blatant if incisive caricature of a specific breed of American blowhard as relevant now as in 1939: “What this country needs is a businessman for President!” he opines whilst clutching his valise crammed with pilfered funds, and evokes the destructive impact of the financial sector during the Depression even whilst declaring, “And remember this – what’s good for the banks is good for the country!” What hisses that must have earned from a 1930s audience. Ford grants him at least one fillip of sympathy, as the last straw before his theft is being faced with spending another dinner with his gruff wife and her fellows in the Law and Order League. Ford’s comic sensibility tends to be one that divides contemporary viewers with his tendency to indulge his rollicking Oyrish slapstick, but Stagecoach is distinguished by how comedy is neatly woven into the fabric of the film and counterpointing its dramatic and emotional textures. Boone’s pilfering of Peacock’s samples whilst playing at being a solicitous friend to the salesman, as he wraps him in a scarf and wipes the tears from his face, is droll but gives way to the sight of Boone at his most pathetic, dribbling and drifting into a drunken sleep with face planted on Peacock’s sample case.

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Ford had gained his first Oscar for The Informer essentially for assimilating and redeploying German Expressionist visual flourishes, a mode he had experimented with since the late 1920s, for an impressive if perhaps heavy-handed evocation of moral murk and salvation in an overtly dreamlike world that proved, ultimately, too much at odds with Ford’s general preference for solid and authentic realms. By the time of Stagecoach Ford rendered the Expressionist influence in a more contoured manner, still very apparent in his visions of rough-and-ready frontier taverns and way-stations as spaces dominated by complex interplay of light and shadow. This is contrasted with the stark look of the exterior sequences where the sun feels inescapable, rendering the landscape in sharp alternations of brilliance and darkness and pinioning the stagecoach, adrift in space and vulnerable to eyes watching from the hills. Ford’s use of the Monument Valley locations, famous as it is in invoking the adamantine grandeur and spaciousness of the American landscape, is nonetheless also charged with ambivalence: the mesa forms offer a stony audience dwarfing the progress of the humans upon the lowlands, who eventually must do battle out on a vast salt flat that could well come out of a Salvador Dali painting, a dreamlike imagining of natural space severed from all connection to a settled and liminal world. When Blanchard and his troop have to separate from the stagecoach, Ford memorably offers a telling portrait of the smiling deserting the young officer’s face in disquiet as he waves to the vehicle, before a long shot shows the cavalry and the stagecoach literally diverging along forks in the road to diverse fates.

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Ford’s careful use of space and light as well as connecting dramatic elements betrays lessons he absorbed from D.W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. The sequence where the passengers settle around a table at Dry Fork shows Ford’s capacity to illustrate ideas and motifs in a manner that synthesises such influences, as the connection, and the distinction, of individuals and group is not just spoken but dramatized with the camera. Ford initially shoots the scene from a remove and a low angle, observing the characters in their various postures as Curley polls them over whether it’s worth risking heading on: the situation is dynamic and the characters are scattered, separate in a space, distinct in their postures. Soon enough, Ford retreats to one end of the table, the framing turned rectilinear to envision a sense of imposed order, matched to the specific action defining the characters as Lucy, Hatfield, and Gatewood consciously segregate themselves from Dallas whilst the oblivious Ringo remains with her, deepening their bond. Ford’s dislike of camera gimmicks and perspectives not shared by his characters is plain enough, but the scene where the travellers improvise a raft to float the stage across a river sees Ford mounting his camera on the stagecoach roof as it drives into the water, a shot with a woozy sense of physical immediacy unusual as Hollywood’s style had become more conservative as the ‘30s advanced.

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The stagecoach eventually arrives at Apache Wells, the last way-station before Lordsburg overseen by Mexican Chris (Chris-Pain Martin). Apache Wells, offers an island of proto-noir where the characters are marooned in an illusion of sustained civilisation even with their nerves tingling with paranoia and the sudden imminence of Lucy giving birth pushing everyone to the edge. Chris’s Apache wife Yakima (Elvira Ríos) sings with some mariachi, offering strange musical accompaniment to the drama of birth and character within, before they flee despite Chris’s faith having an Apache wife might shield him from Geronimo. Ford wrings the urgent need for Boone to rouse himself from a drunken stupor and rediscover his professional prowess for queasy comedy as he gets Ringo and Curley to fill him with coffee until his vomits: “Isn’t that drunken swine sober yet?” Hatfield demands as tensions are ratcheted high. Ford’s portrayal of Hatfield’s self-imposed mission to protect Lucy invokes a host ironies, in giving contours to Hatfield’s schismatic nature, and offering a sociological investigation of the purpose of the chivalric code in gendered terms. The duty of protection of the child-bearer also justifies infantalising, contrasted with Lucy’s own imperative sense of mission, and leading to the climax of circular logic where Hatfield must contemplate shooting Lucy to spare her the threat of being raped by the Apaches – that is, being subordinated to another tribe’s childbearing purpose.

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Ford’s sentimental streak surfaces as the men of many characters gather in delight around the child Lucy does birth, calloused exteriors easily scraped away by the presence of genuine innocence. Meanwhile Dallas, whose sexuality is theoretically open to all and therefore leaves her beyond the protective mantle of the tribe, reveals talents not just as a nurse but proves so decisive and able a personality in such a predicament she makes the other passengers see her in a new light, and sets the seal on Ringo’s ardour for her. Ford offers one of his greatest shots as Ringo watches her walk a corridor and move through a doorway out into the twilight, before following her: as Dallas shifts from a lit figure to one in silhouette in Expressionist fashion, she transitions from human to epitome, whilst passing from interior to exterior, signalling her break from the social world into the natural world where Ringo joins her. The misty, frigid, besieged courtyard of the station becomes a romantic nocturne as Dallas basks in moonlight’s benign glow and Ringo tracks her. Dallas tries to make Ringo flee and vanish into the wilds rather than risk further imprisonment or death in a gunfight with Luke Plummer, and defies Curley to help him, but Ringo’s flight is forestalled when Ringo spots Apache smoke signals and it becomes clear the stagecoach has no choice but to make the dash to Lordsburg.

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It’s often noted that the progression from Stagecoach through his Cavalry trilogy to The Searchers and finally to Cheyenne Autumn (1964) charted a clear shift in Ford’s representation of Native Americans from unadorned threats to empathetic protagonists, albeit always existing at a remove from the enveloping colonial civilisation. There’s certainly truth to this, particularly as Ford evolved and worked to expand his sense of the American mythos to include First Nations peoples and black Americans, although it also smudges Ford’s consistent and complex meditations on cultural divisions and problems of social relations, and his habit of turning his candid parochialism as an Irish-American to broader uses, forging sympathy for the Oakies of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the Cheyenne of Cheyenne Autumn through perceiving their similarities in situation and outlook to dispossessed Irish. On one level, Stagecoach isn’t much interested in this particular aspect: Geronimo and his Apaches are essentially a hostile natural force, who might as well be Berbers or Nazis or aliens or Orcs, a realm of Othering that might be taken, depending on one’s point of view, as essentially negligible or revealing about the way threats are conjured and imposed.

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But Ford’s needling portrayal for hysterical bigotry also encompasses a commentary on racism as self-fulfilling prophecy as Peacock is shocked by the presence of Yakima, perhaps informing her decision to flee. The script works in a semantic gag: “She’s savage,” Peacock cries in alarm to Chris’ satisfied reply, “Si senor, she’s a little bit savage I think.” At the outset an officer questions the veracity of a Native army scout (Chief John Big Tree) only for another to point out the scout is Cheyenne: “They hate Apaches worse than we do.” The film’s social survey is keen to such an evolving world, the fallen supremacy of the genteel white Southerns contrasted with Lucy’s marriage to a soldier in Union blue, Buck with his Mexican wife and Chris with his Apache bride, dogged, sometimes jokily and sometimes more portentously, by the consequences of such cross-cultural alliances. Hatfield’s slippery blending of ardent chivalry and discreet nostalgia with cynicism and shows of delight in violence as a man adrift in the world manifests in ambiguous hints about his character, suggestions he’s shot men in the back and the question of a cup Lucy recognises as coming from a great house she’s visited, a cup Hatfield claims to have won in a wager but with the hint he’s concealing aspects of his background or criminal acts. The battle with the Apaches offers close-ups of Hatfield captures his feral revelry in gunning down foes, a calculated act of revelation by Ford that presents him suffering an addiction as potent as Boone’s and perhaps with the same sources and definite uses, but hardly so forgivable.

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Stagecoach’s precisely cast collective of actors gained one Oscar, for Mitchell. His performance is orchestral in its sense of fluid detail and deftly makes what was even then a fairly cliché character into a multilayered fulcrum for the film’s deeper themes. Boone often contends with the world with theatrical and mock-philosophical bravura, only to be sometimes drawn to reveal his quiet and lucid intelligence, his precise feel for the cruelties of the world he’s become so adept at placing himself at a remove from, as when he warns Dallas about the likelihood of being devastatingly hurt in her flowering romance with Ringo when he really understands what she is. Trevor is great in a role that allowed her to sketch out the same portrait of fraying and persecuted will mixed with both deep self-loathing and potential for decency that would later gain her an Oscar, for Key Largo (1948). Ford regulars like Carradine and Devine are deployed as much for their physical qualities as their specific talents, Devine, short and plump and defined by his wheezing everyman pathos, Carradine bat-like in black cape, angular limbs balancing out framings like a living art deco form. Ford places Churchill beside or between the much smaller Meek, Trevor, and Platt, so Gatewood’s bullying is matched to a sense of physical imposition if not strength, a vibrating mound of pomposity.

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But of course Stagecoach did most for Wayne. Part of the film’s structural and iconographic cunning lies in the way Ringo’s potency is suggested constantly, including by his first appearance, and yet kept in the wings, never entirely rising above the ensemble until the film’s later acts, and even as his skills and particularly sense of mission become predominant, he lacks the usual distinction akin to a divine light that so many Western heroes are imbued with: nobody thinks he can win the inevitable shootout with Luke Plummer, his Winchester is only one gun amongst many in the battle with the Apaches although he’s the most gutsy and invaluable, and in the climax he has to use tactical inspiration rather than sheer prowess. Playing a man nominally about a decade younger than Wayne actually was at the time, unworldly and naïve in certain respects, Ringo nonetheless plainly considers Wayne as a far more developed figure than The Big Trail’s Breck Coleman: Wayne’s grin was still just boyish enough to pass for an ingenue, but his flintier mature persona is also in place. The way he’s already become the stuff of local legend is made plain when Buck recounts it to Curley. Beyond his introduction the impression of Ringo’s authority, and by extension Wayne’s, is conveyed by his habit of decisive declaration that have the effect, often on Gatewood, of stating curt truisms that undercut blather and disruption (“Looks to me like the army’s got its hands pretty full, mister.”). This particular motif would become the spine of Wayne’s screen persona, so often playing the figure in movies – and then with less success in real life – who beyond being a great shot or fighter is also a man blessed with raw-boned wisdom, one who’s been around the block a few times and gained hard-won awareness as well as fine-honed morality, whilst also being blessedly unconcerned with the prejudices and perceptions of others when it comes to his own judgements.

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Ford’s sense of visual and narrative concision creeps up to the edge of both self-critique and parody, particularly in the film’s most famous sequence, the stagecoach’s battle to outpace an assault by Apaches. Ford casually turns the camera from a shot of the stagecoach traversing Monument Valley, belittled and obvious, to the waiting Apache war party watching from the heights, mocking the characters’ dawning feelings of relief in surviving the trip. The climax of the sequence offers a single-shot nexus of story, method, and critique: Hatfield raises his pistol with his last shot to the cowering Lucy’s head, when a shot is heard, and the way the gun slumps out of view signals it’s Hatfield rather than Lucy who’s been killed; only then do Lucy’s eyes pop open in hearing the faint but delivering sound of a cavalry bugle in the distance and announcing it to her fellows. Ford pulls off something remarkable in this vignette, an episode of perfectly straightforward storytelling that also a unit of self-analysis about making and watching genre cinema, melodrama conjoining with a meta gag about the audience’s already well-imbued knowledge of the right time for the cavalry to show up. On top of that, a flash of the tragic and bitterly comic in Hatfield meeting his end right of the point of fulfilling the ultimate function of his brand of gentleman, killing what he set out to protect.

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The sequence in between weaves its lineage through intervening decades of action cinema, quoted in the desert chase of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), forming the template for the chase finales of George Miller’s Mad Max films and the careening mobile heists of The Fast and the Furious (2001) and its sequels, just to name some of the more overt and direct homages, on top of being recreated and ripped off for dozens upon dozens of Westerns in the film’s direct wake. Ford warns with glimpses of the massing attackers, and yet expertly makes the first actual flash of violence, as an arrow slips through a window and strikes Peacock, a shock that brutally interrupts another social ritual, as Boone proposes a toast to his fellow passengers. Stuntman Yakima Canutt augmented the spectacle and cut his name into the pillars of movie legend with his startling and much-imitated acts of physical daring, like allowing the stagecoach and its horses to ride over the top of him, and leaping along the backs of the horse team, filling for Wayne as Ringo tries to gain control of them after Buck is wounded and the reins flap wildly. Once the stagecoach is saved by the cavalry, it arrives in Lordsburg with Hatfield dead and Peacock injured but the rest all safe to resmue their lives. Nonetheless all have seen aspects of their characters pointedly revised. Most are more open and connected and willing to break rules, as Lucy farewells Dallas and Curley unleashes Ringo on the Plummers.

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By comparison with the chase, Stagecoach’s proper climax is often cited as comparatively superfluous and anticlimactic, as Ringo faces his showdown with the three Plummer brothers. Whilst it’s certainly close to a short film appended to the back of the movie, I find it one of Ford’s great achievements regardless. Ford steps back from hard-driving action to one that unfolds as a slow burn, in a vignette where the return to civilisation is associated with a rather darker, more intense threat of incipient violence and ambient cynicism: a newspaper editor gleefully tells his underling to write up a story reporting Ringo’s death before the shootout even takes place. The sequence suggests a rough draft for the OK Corral gunfight of My Darling Clementine (1946) particularly in the absence of dramatic scoring, and the two films are distinguished by sporting just about the only standard shoot-outs in Ford’s Westerns. The build-up is defined by restrained yet powerful gestures, as Boone enters the tavern where Luke is playing poker and confronts him to make sure he doesn’t take a shotgun that gives him an unfair advantage into the fight, and deftly rhyming character touches, like the way Luke pushes away his dancing girl lover as she begs him not to to fight, in alternation with Ringo contending with Dallas’ expectation he’ll push her away once they arrive at the cathouse she’s destined for.

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The alleys of Lordsburg became far more threatening than the wild landscape the stagecoach ventured through, in a manner that underlines the film’s ultimate notion that civilisation is a matter of sustained illusion that merely contains rather than curbs human nature. Gerard Carbonara’s high-riding scoring vanishes from the soundtrack, giving way to a careful use of ambient sound before scoring returns as a sonorous rumble as Ringo stalks his enemies in the street. Ford’s return to Expressionist technique in the use of shadows and silhouettes emphasises immersion in a nightmarish space, the canyons of the streets as vast and dramatic as the aisles of Monument Valley and a more deadly trap. The sequence also sarcastically echoes the earlier tryst between Ringo and Dallas at Apache Wells, romantic liaison swapped for a very different dance in the moonlight. Ringo opens fire whilst dropping to the ground, a jarring and surprising move that defies the usual quick-draw rules of the ritual gunfight, before Ford cuts away, and the gunfight is overheard from Dallas’ perspective as she cowers in dread and grief. Ford delivers more oblique storytelling that serves as a commentary on itself: Luke re-enters the tavern as if triumphant only to collapse dead on the floor, and initially implies Ringo’s return to Dallas with a tracking shot mimicking his approach, her eyes lighting up as it gets closer. The viewer immediately grasps the implication, and indeed is invited to become the hero, to experience the return to life as an act defined not merely as the escape of death but reunion with someone who cares to see it, entwining spectacle and spectator in a statement of cinematic philosophy. The epigram is delivered by Boone after he and Curley see Ringo and Dallas on their way, delivered back to the wilds, “saved from the blessings of civilisation.” Stagecoach’s ultimate statement of faith in the Western mythos sees an inch of space between truth and legend, a space where Ford’s characters could flee to. He would spend his many returns and revisions struggling to retain that faith.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, Scifi

Idaho Transfer (1973)

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Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online

By Roderick Heath

Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).

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Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).

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Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in transferring the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil to an earlier period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.

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Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.

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Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.

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Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.

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The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.

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Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.

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Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.

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Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.

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Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.

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A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.

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Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.

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The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.

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In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.

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Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.

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Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.

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Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.

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Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.

Idaho Transfer can be viewed for free on YouTube here.

 

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