1950s, Western

Shane (1953)


Director: George Stevens
Screenwriter: A.B. Guthrie Jr

By Roderick Heath

The word ‘iconic’ is certainly overused, but if any film deserves the appellation it would be George Stevens’ Shane, a film that became an instant reference point for a specific branch of modern cinematic storytelling. If Seven Samurai (1954) laid down the essential blueprint for genre films about a diverse team of heroes banding together to fight an enemy, Shane did the same for any movie about a solitary hero with a violent past trying and failing to find a new life, eventually forced to pull the guns out again in the name of a righteous new cause. Plenty of movies had dealt with similar themes before, of course, but Shane set out to distil the theme on a level of perfect representation, mythologising a genre and placing it in a vital dialectic with its audience, presenting the very idea of cinema heroism in a mythic cartouche, enclosed by elemental moral drama. Perhaps Shane is self-conscious almost to fault, one reason why its reputation in some quarters has declined in recent years, but it’s hard to get away from how exactly Stevens read both the audience of the 1950s and the imagination of other filmmakers. A grand sprawl of screen heroes from The Man With No Name to John Rambo to Robocop and Wolverine and beyond have Shane in their genes, even if so many of them discarded the original meaning of the character.

Stevens’ emergence as a maker of serious, thoughtful, often epic films in the 1950s stood in stark contrast to his reputation as a great comedy filmmaker in the 1930s and ‘40s. Stevens, a California native born in 1904, had dabbled in photography since he was 10 years old, and his expertise by the time he hit his late teens quickly landed him working as an assistant cameraman for the independent impresario Hal Roach. Stevens helped make comedian Stan Laurel a movie star by applying his photographic ken to make Laurel’s eyes register on film, as their light blue hue was hard to pick up on standard film at the time. This proved the key to Stevens’ career, as he subsequently shot dozens of Laurel and Hardy shorts, as well as writing gags for them. Finally breaking with Roach as he was itching make more substantial films, Stevens got his first shot at directing a feature at Universal, with The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble (1933), but it was Alice Adams (1935), starring Katharine Hepburn, which made his name. He followed it with the much-love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle Swing Time (1936) and other musical-comedies, and ventured into historical adventure film with 1939’s Gunga Din, a costly production that still proved a major hit. 

Stevens ran into trouble on Penny Serenade (1941) and Woman of the Year (1942), both of which were subjected to heavy interference and reshoots, but had further success with The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More The Merrier (1943). The Talk of the Town, whilst still a comedy, offered commentary on mob rule and the meaning of justice, signalling Stevens was already turning more serious-minded at a time when he was planning to join the war effort and was becoming fervently anti-Nazi. Stevens joined the US Army Signal Corps and was sent to Europe to shoot documentary footage. Stevens’ camera was turned on important events like D-Day and the meeting of US and Soviet forces at the Elbe River, but the experience that permanently marked Stevens was participating in the liberation of Dachau, capturing vital primary evidence of the Holocaust used at the Nuremberg Trials. When he returned from the war and resumed his Hollywood career, his first movie was the comedy-drama I Remember Mama (1948), whilst resisting the reactionary movement gripping Hollywood during the Red Scare. He had a major success with an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, retitled A Place In The Sun (1951), winning him the first of two Oscars for directing, with his second coming for 1956’s Giant. Stevens’ cinematic technique evolved along with his ambitions, sharing something of William Wyler’s penchant for carefully unfolding scenes and strenuously developed dramatic rhythm.

Shane, the film Stevens made in between his two Oscar-winners, is still likely his most famous work but gained no such distinction as Westerns were still considered a bit beneath Oscars. Stevens in making Shane had similar motivations to Fred Zinneman in making the previous year’s High Noon: Zinneman had lost family in the Holocaust, and both films present potent allegories about drawing a line in the sand against evil, purposefully reconstructing the traditional Western hero into metaphors for individual, masculine quality in relation to society at large. And yet Shane articulates a subtly different ethos to High Noon. Stevens’ disgust with war and bloodshed was articulated through a film profoundly uneasy about the mythos of the gunslinger even as it seems to hone that mythos to a perfect form. Shane was based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, a former journalist and student of both American history and Greco-Roman mythology, fusing the two interests when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his favourite writer as a boy, Zane Grey. Schaefer had a long career as a Western novelist after Shane made his reputation, also providing the source material for the films Tribute to a Bad Man (1957) and Monte Walsh (1970) before becoming an impassioned conservationist, and he later sourly noted that Shane was a story about defending civilisation when he felt increasingly opposed to it. Whilst he liked the film of Shane, he didn’t like the star it chose, Alan Ladd, a notoriously short and spare actor, where Schaefer had imagined a type with an aura of incipient darkness and violence about him, citing George Raft. 

It’s not that hard to see Schaefer’s point, but Ladd nonetheless becomes inseparable from the role within the opening scene. Ladd’s Shane is first glimpsed under the title card declaring his name at the very start, alone and on horseback, riding down through mountain forest and descending towards the plain below. Stevens’ mythmaking approach is evinced in his establishing evocations of the location where most of the film plays out, underneath the soaring, jagged, snow and cloud-bedecked Grand Teton Mountains, the plain a fertile, muddy region lingering under the spiritual reaches of the peaks. This setting becomes a natural amphitheatre for the drama about to unfold, as young Joey (Brandon deWilde), son of farming couple Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur), stalks a deer with an unloaded rifle. He spies Shane riding across the plain, momentarily framed by the deer’s antlers as the animal lifts its head in curiosity. That shot betrays both Stevens’ newly exacting visual method, and also a ghostly echo of his old comic felicity, except the visual joke is servicing an already-accruing air of legend around Shane. When seen up close, Shane proves armed with Ladd’s charismatic smile and wavy blonde hair, a particularly American, lightly weathered version of a knight errant out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, appearing like a guardian angel sent to the Starretts at the outset of great tribulation. Clint Eastwood, evidently a major fan of Shane, would invert this mystique for his High Plains Drifter (1973) where the lone intruder proves to be a demonic punisher, and then twist it back to a darker, harder but once more heroic take for Pale Rider (1984). 

Shane’s image is further enhanced by his clothing, clad in light-brown buckskins that at once evoke the white knight but also his status as an emanation of the Western landscape, a figure from the frontier age, already brushing anachronism compared to the flannel-wearing Joe Starrett, who represents the oncoming age of settlement and stolid values. Shane’s hat is also light, although not white, lest things get too Roy Rogers. His pistol hangs from a holster on his hip linked to a black belt with silver decorations, his livery mythic but also like a stain girdling his clothes. He spins about, ready to draw in a flash when he hears Joey cocking the unloaded rifle, but also displays precise self-control, only fingering the handle of the gun. Starrett greets Shane with casual decency as he offers him a drink of water, whilst Marian watches warily from a window in their cabin. A number of men on horseback come towards the farm, and Starrett’s manner changes, taking the gun of Joey and holding it Shane and telling him to leave. Shane, bewildered, asks Starrett to lower the gun and then he’ll go: “I’d like it to be my idea.” Starrett does so and Shane rides away, only to return and listen to the confrontation between the farmer and the riders, who prove to be cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and a gang of heavies in his employ. Ryker has been intimidating Starrett and the other farmers in the area, who have claimed land under a new law, because they’re blocking his cattle’s access to water, and now that’s he’s landed a large contract to supply meat he tells Starrett he means to drive all the farmers out. 

Ryker is rattled when Shane reappears and declares himself “a friend of Starrett’s,” and he and his gang ride off. Starrett, grateful for Shane’s support, sheepishly reveals the rifle wasn’t loaded, and invites Shane to dinner. During the meal Shane is again startled by an unexpected noise and reaches for his gun, which Joey has been gawking at in fascination, with startling reflexive speed: Joey retreats against the wall in alarm. Starrett declares the only way he’ll ever leave his claim is in a pine box, but also laments not having anyone to help do the work on the farm after his last hand was roughed up by Rykers’ men. Shane, to pay the family back for their hospitality, takes up the task that Starrett was labouring at when he arrived, trying to laboriously chop out an insistent tree stump near the house. Starrett comes to aid him and the two men cement their fast friendship on the job, Stevens turning hard work into an essential ritual with montage as the rhythmic axe strokes gouge through the wood. Finally, at dusk, the two men finally snap the stump free of its roots: “Sometimes nothin’ll do but your own sweat and muscle,” Starrett comments after refusing to uses horses to perform the last, most arduous task. 

Shane sleeps out the night in the stable, and the next day agrees to take a wagon out to fetch some wire for Starrett from Grafton’s, a combination of store and saloon and the centre of commerce in the area: Shane makes a point of going to town without wearing his gun. Shane passes through two more rituals that knit him into the life of the homesteaders: he buys some working ordinary clothes from Grafton’s, and gets a quick lesson in the travails of the farmers when he’s bullied by one of Rykers’ men, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), who mocks Shane for ordering soda pop –actually for Joey – and tosses a glass of liquor over him. Shane stoically takes the treatment, and his apparent placidity is reported by Frank ‘Stonewall’ Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr) with disdain when he joins a meeting of several farmers in Starrett’s cabin: Shane’s apparent cowardice reflects badly on them all, and Shane bows out of the meeting. The farmers argue about how to respond to Ryker’s coercion, with Starrett plainly their natural leader, able to articulate his passion for his land and only matched in his steadfastness by Torrey, who, as a former Confederate still shot through with fighting spirit, is a figure of some fun amongst the farmers. The farmers eventually elect to next go to town together for safety and mutual assurance.

Stevens’ visual language constantly depicts Shane as a fringe figure in this scene, glimpsed sitting on the floor as if not allowed to sit at the grown-ups table, and after retreating outside appearing at the window of a room with Joey and Marian in it, lit from within, rendered a shadowy and slightly eerie figure, even as Marian suggests she understands his motives for avoiding a fight and offers the implicit belonging of the house interior. “Don’t get to liking Shane too much,” Marian tells Joey, knowing well Joey is already fixating on Shane as the embodiment of everything his young boy’s brain needs and desires, an image of omnicompetent heroism, much more than his tough but mudbound and terminally responsible father. Meanwhile Marian is both wary of Shane but also plainly intrigued by him, entirely understandably; after all, he looks like a movie star. Stevens might get just a little too insistent as he shows Marian literally serving up apple pie as the original and archetypal American matriarch, a status emphasised early in the film as she looks out from within the Starrett cabin at the approaching Shane whilst young and old Joe Starrett are ranged without, even as the choice of casting Arthur sees her old sense of chirpy humour and sly sexiness glinting through the silt of domestic nurturing and mundanity. 

Most genre storytelling depends on a degree of good faith in assuming a discrepancy between what such storytelling portrays and real life, utilising heightened metaphors that occur all the time in fiction but which if actually happened in the world we live would seem bizarre and perverse. This was true as far back as when The Odyssey presented its hyperbolic survey of battling monsters and slaying ruffians as a reflection of more banal but no less agonising travails in keeping house and home, as it is now when young moviegoers find parental figures in movie heroes. It’s true of romantic melodrama, which finds ways of heightening the very familiar travails of love, and is particularly true of genres like the Western and other action films, which enact on a mythic level very ordinary human problems and processes: few of us have ever marched down a street at high noon for a gunfight, but most of us have gathered together the guts for some moment in life that damn well felt like it. I remember as a boy watching James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) with a friend in the movie theatre – Cameron’s film being another inescapably indebted to Shane. During the climactic scene of the Terminator destroying itself, my friend wept hot tears. At the time I was bewildered, but later I realised that the Terminator, having evolved into a perfectly selfless and protective father figure, was a dream figure in such contrast to my friend’s own petty, abusive father. 

On the other hand, only fools and psychopaths try to live their lives like a gunslinger in the contemporary world, and there’s an age when kids are growing up when parents are especially watchful of what lessons children learn from what they see and hear and read, to make sure they understand this essential disparity. Shane draws much of its power from dramatizing this problem of art and life rather than merely agreeing to convention, by presenting Shane as the intrusion of the movies into life. On the one hand Shane ever more heavily towards the mythic in its visual and plot cues, with Shane as seen and remembered by Joey a figure out an almost Jungian unconsciousness, emblazoned with virtuous traits and superhuman talents, the mystically refined version of his father: a version seen more from his father or mother’s viewpoints might have quite a different cast. At the same time Stevens applies realistic interrogation of the meaning of violence and the nature of those who, regardless of their reasons, wield violence. Shane is explicitly conceived a hero but also a terrifying person, made clear early in the film with his repeated reaching for his gun, even the mere manifestation of such quick and anxious impulses a violation of the usual pace of things on the Starrett farm. As Shane tells Ryker in the climactic scene, he knows his day is ending, but unlike the feudal lord-playing Ryker, he knows it. This wasn’t entirely original territory for the Western. John Ford for instance had with My Darling Clementine (1946) mused with the force of parable on the tide of settlement and civilisation urging along the swashbuckling heroes and villains of the frontier. Henry King’s artful The Gunfighter (1949) portrayed a famous fast draw whose life has been ruined by his prowess, reaching the end of the line almost maliciously grateful to pass his infamy off onto a deserving inheritor.

Shane nonetheless took this a step further in considering its relationship with the viewer watching it, particularly kids who went off to the movies to cheer on heroes like the Lone Ranger. Joey, from the moment he sees Shane, knows he’s the embodiment of all the things he urgently wants as a boy – a source of excitement, a yardstick of ultimate ability, a fearless protector. Joey delivers a barrage of questions at his father as Starrett chops woods, like kids all through history, pondering whether his father can shoot better than Shane or whip him in a fight, in a manner pretty much the same as wondering if Superman can outrun The Flash. These questions prove eventually pertinent to the drama of Shane, which also presents its title character as an historical prototype for a different, nascent kind of hero, belonging to a genre branching off from the Western and often today seen as having supplanted it: the superhero, as Shane is depicted as consciously removing his uniform and adopting a kind of secret identity, suppressing his true, world-shaking abilities for the sake fitting in with others, much like Superman, and much like Superman, as per Quentin Tarantino’s dictum, for Shane the alter ego is the false self, the peaceable farmhand, an impression of normality that can’t be sustained. Shane’s choice of remaining pacifist when Calloway bullies him and Torrey accuses him of cowardice is comparable to moments in films like Superman II (1980) and Black Panther (2017) where the superhero is robbed of their powers and must face the roundelay of humiliation and coercion that ordinary life.

The massed farmers’ trip to town provides a fulcrum of both story and behaviour, as this time, whilst newfound friends shop, Shane again visits the saloon. Calloway again starts bullying him, but this time Shane buys two whiskey, tosses them in his face, and punches him so hard Calloway goes crashing through into the neighbouring store. Joey watches all the action whilst munching on striped candy with wide-eyed fascination. When Ryker and all his men gang up on Shane, he’s able to fight them off only so long, and finally they have him at bay with Ryker punching him. This finally drives Starrett to grab a pickaxe handle and wade into the action, walloping Ryker and his brother Morgan (John Dierkes), and the brawl becomes more even. Again, any number of Westerns had sported a saloon fight before Shane, but Stevens’ specific choices distinguish it, presenting the explosion of violence as more a statement of character than a mere jot of colourful action. Shane’s choice of weapons, fists, confirms he’s a tough man even without his pistols, his choice of going it alone that he has guts, but his choice of mixing up this time is also calculated, a show of solidarity, showing the farmers that the Rykers can be stood up to. A pissed-off Starrett is proven an effective force in his own right, and the cementing of Starrett and Shane’s friendship is signalled in one of the great fleeting moments in cinema, as they fight back to back and swap grins as they realise they’re winning and, more importantly, they each have a genuine friend. 

The staging is worth noting too: most other such fights in movie saloons take place in large expanses of space, but Stevens emphasises the cramped, crude, unfanciful state of Grafton’s by often filming the action from behind stanchions and railings. Shane turns the lack of space to his advantage in preventing the Ryker heavies from using their numbers too readily. All with Joey and Marian looking on with awe and delight. Finally Grafton (Paul McVey) himself demands the fight stop and tells Shane and Ryker to back out of the saloon, assuring them that they’re won. The brawl confirms to Joey that Shane is every inch the hero he hoped, and leaves Marian rattled on some profound level as she begs her husband to hold her as they all settle down for the night. The fight also proves not an effective pushback against Ryker but a goad that makes the cattleman up the ante. He hires a gunman, Jack Wilson, who enters the film at a slow canter on a horse: that choice was apparently the result of the actor playing Wilson not being very good on a horse. The actor, Jack Palance, had made his name as Marlon Brando’s understudy in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and was billed here as Walter Jack Palance. His lack of confidence on a horse nonetheless played to his advantage, immediately giving the impression that Wilson doesn’t need to move fast for anyone.

Palance’s Wilson moves through the rest of the film like some man-sized and bipedal lizard, swathed in black-on-white clothes, dark eyes flicking about as he halts at the doors of Grafton’s and looks within, his lips seemingly perpetually locked in a faint smirk. Stevens, in an unusual touch for the time, breaks up the single shot of Wilson’s entrance into the saloon with a dissolve, resuming study of his almost insolently patient stride as he moves up close to the camera: Wilson bends cinematic as well as human time around him by sheer force of intimidation, his presence ghostly as Shane’s inevitable nemesis and representative of evil. As if sensing the changed mood of the valley, Shane meanwhile gives in to Joey’s cajoling and starts giving him a lesson in the basics of gunslinging technique and shooting, noting ruefully that most gunfighters have their own little tricks and modifications of the basic rules of thumb, whilst Shane himself comments that if you’re good you only need one gun. Finally, he gives a display of his ability, Joey’s eyes almost bulging out of their sockets as he beholds Shane’s amazing speed and precision, the blasts of his pistol a cannonade shaking the mountains, his Olympian promise finally confirmed.

Marian, watching on unnoticed for much of the lesson, regards the scene with a palpable mixture of admiration and delight in Shane playing the mentor and also deep unease at the dark magic he’s teaching her son. She calls an end to it when he does finally shoot, and confesses to Shane she thinks the valley would be better off without a single gun in it. “A gun is a tool, no better and no worse than any other tool,” Shane comments, “A gun is as good or bad as the man using it.” Which today sounds way too much like standard-issue gun-nut apologia, but in terms of Shane’s character and the entrance of Wilson, an essential, Manichaean opposition, is immediately illustrated, whilst Marian’s point is also, more subtly borne out: good and bad men may square off at any time and place, but when said good and bad men do it with guns, one or both will end up dead. At Grafton’s the storekeeper argues with Ryker, who notes that up until now he’s avoided gunfighting in accordance with the new laws, but Wilson’s presence confirms that’s now at an end. Ryker’s actual desire, which Wilson is all too happy to make tactical reality, is to perform a few acts of targeted terrorism and assassination to scare the homesteaders off. Wilson finds an ideal target in Torrey, who angrily berates Ryker when he stops for a drink at Grafton’s and declares he won’t be driven off. 

Wilson first arrives early on the Fourth of July, his charged first meeting with his new employers and the tense Grafton contrasting the knockabout rowdiness of the men celebrating outside with horse racing and bareback riding. The homesteaders meanwhile gather at one farmhouse for more genteel celebration, and the day proves to also be the anniversary of the Starretts’ marriage. Starrett happily lets Shane dance with Marian, but becomes downcast in watching their well-matched movements: Shane is a self-projection figure for Starrett as much as he’s a hero figure for Joey and a romantic fantasy for Marian, inhabiting the version of himself he wants to be with Marian. The confluence of Independence Day and the Starretts’ marriage identifies them as the essential Americans, but Wilson himself is also therefore as quintessentially American. Torrey brings the farmers news of the newcomer, and Shane confirms that he’s heard of Wilson and his prowess as a gunman. The shadow of menace pervades the celebration even as nothing happens yet. Wilson waits until Torrey next comes to town with his friend and fellow farmer Swede (Douglas Spencer), this time wearing a gun to show his lack of fear. Wilson baits him into drawing: Torrey reaches for his gun but is astounded to see Wilson whip his out far faster, catching him with barrel half-raised. Wilson grins in delight and shoots Torrey dead. 

Shane’s style contains multitudes. The build-up to Torrey’s killing, emphasizing the squelchy, muddy ground around the roughhewn structures, with a thunderstorm rumbling on the horizon, lays down the basis for 1970s “mud and blood” Westerns, the aesthetic mooted here powerfully informing the likes of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980): the Altman film would make the debt more obvious in quoting Torrey’s killing when Keith Carradine’s young cowpoke is similarly murdered. Sam Peckinpah credited this scene as also setting the scene for more realistic and bloody violence in the genre, as Stevens broke the old Production Code rule about a gun and its victim not being in the same shot, and in the cold, unremitting nature of the scene, with Torrey collapsing in the muck, immediately dead. Wilson draws Torrey into conversation from the wooden sidewalk whilst Torrey remains with feet in the mud, so mesmerised despite his big talk that he even walks backwards as Wilson struts along, before insulting the memory of ‘Stonewall’ Torrey’s namesake, finally making the anointed victim jerk out his gun. Cook had long cornered the market for playing overcompensating men, and Torrey fits him to a tee, the actor suggesting the simmering fear and alienation of the former Rebel (Shane being made a time when such movies often depicted Confederates as figures of ornery pathos as historical losers, a notion we ironically have no time for today) who puts up with being razzed by his fellow farmers in part because of big front. He is at once both an essential representation of the ordinary farmers, with more tenacity than sense, a big-talking and pugnacious fool who gets himself killed stupidly, and also just a normal man who finds himself the target of a pure sadist because some other man wants to make money and restore his realm.

The shock of death ripples through the locality, and most of the “sodbusters” as Morgan derisively calls them, want to leave after Swede brings his body around to each farm in testimony and warning. Still, when the farmers gather to bury Torrey in a solemn ceremony on the cemetery hill above the town, Starrett makes a plea for sticking things out, and when one of the homesteaders’ just-vacated house is set on fire by Ryker’s men, they rush reflexively to save the house, and all agree to help rebuild it. Stevens’ attentive visual exposition sees him briefly noting Calloway’s face as he and the other Ryker men watch from the town below, Calloway’s dark and troubled expression suggesting he’s sickened by the murder and also has been positively influenced by Shane’s rectitude. Cinematographer Loyal Griggs’ remarkable work here captured him an Oscar. Stevens’ carefully ritualistic filming of the funeral and careful use of the landscape to imbue it with spiritual import suggests, like his slow-burn violent scenes, Stevens had learnt something from Ford, although Ford might have been clucking his tongue a little with the funeral scene in The Searchers (1956), where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is itching to shatter the composition and get back on the hunt: Ethan himself in Ford’s film has Shane-like characteristics but also as a character pointedly despoils them. 

This points perhaps to the way Stevens’ exacting artistry throughout Shane can be seen as both a great strength and a liability. He laboured hard to create a beautiful and thematically intelligible work, but the glossy Technicolor idealisation of both the location shooting and the studio work, and of the actors’ faces, fights to a certain extent with his grittier impulses, apparent in Stevens’ carefully wrought historical detail and realism of setting and costuming, save the Manichaean clothing of Shane and Wilson, and the more textured and foreboding imagery Griggs captures, particularly in Torrey’s death and at the very end. If Shane has sunk in some modern critical estimation compared to the seething human drama and neurotic antiheroes of Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller, or the terse, tough contemplations of Budd Boetticher, as well as Ford and Howard Hawks in the annals of 1950s Westerns, and their general avoidance of the kind of simple good-vs-evil battle Stevens depicts, it’s for this. Shane enters the lives of the Starretts in a manner not all that different from the antiheroine of Luis Bunuel’s Susana (1951), provoking them all to displays of unruly need and accidentally assaulting the underpinnings of the kind of settled, conventional prosperity the Starretts, despite their relatively rough current circumstances, are plainly destined to spawn progeny into. The concluding passages of the plot indeed hinge entirely on Shane heading out to battle specifically to protect the family and keep them intact. The exchange between Shane and Calloway in their first saloon encounter – “You speaking to me?” “I don’t see nobody else standing there.” – would be lifted and freely quoted by Robert De Niro for Taxi Driver (1976), in partial homage and partial despoiling of the macho ritual.

On the other hand, Shane is far from flat in obeying its myth-making and allegorical urges. Ryker, visiting Starrett to try one last time to urge him to leave and making conciliatory gestures to buy his farm and run his cattle, expresses his viewpoint with surprising passion and authority, rendering him more than just a plot device. His frustration at having once been master of all he surveyed after taking all the risks of establishing the region and being pinched and cut down to size by Johnny-come-latelys, his memories of dead companions and old, niggling wounds, all emerge with intriguing depth, even it doesn’t alter Ryker’s implacable purpose and willing to unleash Wilson, and Ryker continues to mouth self-justifications to the end. Whilst Ryker’s argument goes nowhere, Shane and Wilson lay eyes on each-other for the first time, each man sizing the other up and knowing exactly where this situation is going to end. Stevens’ attentiveness to detail often still carries hints of the old humourist, as in that gag with the antlers at the outset, and later touches, like noting a young girl at the July 4 dance hoisting her skirt up over her head in delight, or Morgan, shot by Shane, mimicking the posture of stuffed and mounted owl with splayed wings just below his vantage in Grafton’s store. 

Torrey’s death and the burned homestead finally drive Starrett to what he feels is an inevitable confrontation with Ryker, which is exactly what the rancher now wants and expects, knowing Starrett must die to finally dislodge the other farmers. Calloway, overhearing this, goes to the Starrett farm and tells Shane Starrett is being set up for death: the two men shake hands, and Calloway flees. Marian’s pleas to her husband that the farm isn’t worth anyone’s life inevitably collides with the basic proposition that, well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Starrett however finds the door blocked by Shane, wearing his buckskins, hat, and guns once more. Shane coolly states his intention to stop Starrett, and the two men start brawling: initially Stevens keeps the viewpoint inside the cabin with Marian and Joey as they spring from window to window, catching glimpses of the two men amidst whorls of dust and swinging limbs, before they dash out and watch the furious tussle as it literally stirs the farm to chaos with animals frightened and struggling to escape whilst Marian screams unnoticed. The scene mirrors the episode with the tree stump, and the stump itself lies as a silent witness to the fight, with Starrett pinioning Shane against it. Starrett does indeed as Joey once asked prove every bit Shane’s physical equal, forcing Shane to knock his friend out with the butt of his gun. This shocks and briefly earns Joey’s anger, but that’s already forgotten by the time Shane runs out, having taken leave of Marian in a vignette charged with undercurrents even as it plays out with perfect formality.

The music score by the usually great Victor Young often sounds a little overbearing during Shane, particularly in the awkwardly florid patches after the saloon fight scene, whereas the absence of music from the scene of Torrey’s death is part of what makes it so strong: the familiar codes of adornment for Hollywood cinema hadn’t quite caught up with what Stevens was doing with his visual rhythms. But Young certainly gets it together as Shane rides down to the town and his scoring goes for grand, percussive effect as Shane makes his fateful ride and Ryker and his men silently and sullenly prepare for their planned assassination: the thudding music is matched to the trot of Shane’s horse, moving at a steady, remorseless pace down through the hills, the jagged mountains above now dark sentinels. Stevens cuts to fast-moving tracking shots of Joey and his dog chasing after him in an urgent effort to catch up, to gain the testament of Shane. Stevens’ shots close in on three trees just outside the town until they become the archway greeting Shane’s appearance at the place of battle. Joey’s pursuit takes him through the graveyard, Stevens dissolving slowly to Shane on the last leg of his journey to suggest death hanging over him. 

Shane finds Starrett sitting calmly at a table at one extreme of the saloon and with Wilson quietly drinking coffee at the other, and Morgan is hiding above with a rifle. The most interesting aspect of this as far as climactic gunfights go is the determinedly modest scale of it, retreating once again within the cramped confines of Grafton’s, which only amplifies the intensity of Shane’s level glare at the boding, grinning Wilson, finally declaring his unswerving intent as he straightens from his posture leaning against the bar to one matching Wilson’s, giving him the taunt Torrey would have – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar,” that signals game on, much to Wilson’s immense pleasure. Wilson draws first, but Shane of course is faster, his gun out and blasting Wilson away in the blink of an eye with a thunderous cannonade. Shane then pivots and shoots Ryker as he tries to pull his gun but only succeeds in shooting the lampshade over his head. Shane surveys the dead, and, in a gesture that cementing his aura (and an eternal reference point for filmmakers), spins his pistol on his finger and slots it back in the holster, his gunslinging no mere violent labour but the work of an artist, placing his signature on the finished masterpiece. 

But Shane fails to notice Morgan, and Joey’s warning shout doesn’t stop Shane being hit by Morgan’s bullet before Shane plugs him. Wounded but seemingly alright, Shane takes his leave of Joey, explaining as gently as he can why he can’t return to the farm and pick up as if he didn’t just kill three men, and also passes on fateful advice to Joey to take care of his parents, anticipating the fateful moment when Joey becomes the carer. Cue one of the most famous scenes in cinema as Joey continues to cry for Shane to come back as he rides off, his path taking up through the cemetery and under the mountains and soaring clouds. A scene rightly exalted and endlessly mimicked for the beauty and conscision of Stevens’ images and sounds, and the eerie, almost primal longing expressed through them, the boy crying out for his hero even as he passes over the horizon into legend, someone to be remembered as the incarnation of an ideal. The old argument about whether or not Shane dies misses the very point of what Shane achieves with his last gesture. So long as he can stay upright in his saddle and keep moving on until he exits Joey’s sight, and that of the movie audience, he can’t ever die.

2010s, Drama, Israeli cinema

Footnote (2011)


Hearat Shulayim

Director / Screenwriter: Joseph Cedar

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Editor’s note: for all you readers who have come to Film Freedonia since its inception, you might not be aware that for many years I used to co-author the review site Ferdy on Films with my great friend Marilyn Ferdinand, of Chicago. Now, in what will hopefully be the first of many, I proudly present this contribution by Marilyn to Film Freedonia – RH

Arguably, there is no religion as rulebound at Judaism. With a several millennia head start on other major religions and philosophies, Jewish scholars and rabbis were able to develop a truly vast body of religious law that proscribes and prescribes for every aspect of human life as derived from close readings of the Torah. The central codification text, the Talmud, even has two versions (the earlier Jerusalem [Palestine] Talmud and the later Babylonian version), and, according to Wikipedia, a modern printing of the entire text comprises 2,711 double-sided pages. As you can imagine, debates over the many and varied interpretations of the Talmud over the centuries have kept the academy very busy churning out additional texts.

It is into the scholarly world of Talmudic esoterica and rivalries in modern-day Israel that director/screenwriter Joseph Cedar plunges us. More than that, however, Cedar makes flesh the adage “old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill” in its various manifestations.

The film opens at an award ceremony. Uriel Shkolnik (a chunky-looking Lior Ashkenazi), a best-selling author and in-demand speaker and professor, is called to the dais to be honored for his work in bringing Talmudic studies out of the library stacks and into the lives of everyday Jews. His wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), son Josh (Daniel Markovich), mother Yehudit (Aliza Rosen), and especially his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), watch him intently as he starts his acceptance speech. After an ice-breaking joke, Uriel softens with a story about Eliezer, a Talmudic scholar, who told him to fill in the word “teacher” as his occupation when a young Uriel brought a questionnaire home from school. This experience elevated the role of teachers in Uriel’s eyes, and he proudly claims the same job description for himself. The speech earns Uriel a standing ovation and thunderous applause from everyone, including the normally stone-faced Eliezer, who appears to have been moved by his son’s tribute.

A narrator (Dan Kaner) breaks in to tell us Eliezer’s backstory, one of painstaking research over more than 30 years to provide an accurate and definitive version of one part of the Talmud, only to have his colleague, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), discover an original document of the same section and publish it right before Eliezer is about to issue his research. Eliezer is thus trapped in the backwaters of academia.

In truth, Eliezer considers himself a philologist, not a teacher, and the emotion he displayed at Uriel’s award ceremony was probably rage, a condition now so endemic to his existential state that he no longer is able to feel anything else. This rage is compounded when he is denied reentry into the hall where the celebrants are chatting and smiling by a security guard who sees he is not wearing the colored wristband needed for admission. His churlish act to end the evening is to walk home instead of riding with his family in their car.

With the sting of the previous day still upon him, Eliezer becomes offended when he is not detained by the security guard at the university where he is a daily visitor, believing them to underestimate his capacity for evil. He rehearses his class lecture on homeoteleuton—the skipping of words during transcription that causes text corruption—only to deliver it to a single student who wasn’t able to get into the class he wanted. When Eliezer returns home, he immediately repairs to his dark study, dons a large pair of yellow noise-cancelling headphones, and gets to work examining more text for inconsistencies. His avoidance of life has struck his long-suffering wife mute and earned him the “diagnosis” of autistic from his exasperated daughter-in-law.

With the cast of characters now introduced and the scene set, Cedar springs his trap. On his way to work one day, Eliezer gets a call on his cellphone informing him that he has won the Israel Prize in the Talmudic Studies category, the highest cultural honor in the nation and one that has eluded him for the 20 years that his son has submitted his name for consideration. Hardly daring to crack the door of his fortressed emotions, Eliezer eventually gives into a bit of celebratory behavior with his coworkers. Alas, a mistake has been made. The honor was meant for Shkolnik the Younger.

Cedar, an American Jew who studied philosophy and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before attending New York University’s film school, knows this hothouse world from the inside, where enmities are easily made and never forgotten and small moments of triumph are clung to like a leafy outcropping in a titanic flood. He suggests the overabundance of meetings academics attend—the more one is invited to, the higher one’s status—by filming the Israel Prize committee meeting at which Uriel must be told of the mistake in a file room that is too small. The constant jumbling of chairs and positions is hilarious, but the close quarters raise the emotional temperature between Uriel and Grossman, the latter of whom has held a ruinous grudge against Eliezer for decades.

Eliezer takes pride in being mentioned in a footnote in a definitive book by a giant in his field. When Uriel confronts Grossman about the latter’s shoddy treatment of Eliezer, Grossman shoots back that that precious footnote was an act of pity, not true acknowledgement. Uriel’s plea that the committee consider his father’s award an act of compassion (perhaps even contrition) is met with a cold assertion about maintaining the integrity of the honor.

This argument forms the crux of Cedar’s critique not only of scholarship, but also of a country that has been sliding off the rails for some time in its internecine fractures and unyielding attitudes. Were he to listen to the committee’s rationale for rescinding his award, Eliezer would likely agree with it. For him, the precise and original meanings of Judaic law are all-important, and he sees his win as a return to higher standards. However, his son appears to adhere to an even earlier law, the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Of course, Uriel can afford to be generous because he is successful, and Cedar hints that he is neither as honorable as a son nor as a father as his defense in the file room might lead one to believe. He finds a way to betray his father in an ingenious, though possibly unconscious, way, and sends his mother into a deep depression by revealing that her sacrifices for Eliezer’s career were for naught.

Nonetheless, the ultimate victory goes to Eliezer. As he awaits his turn to take the stage at an event that is being televised across the region, he betrays his disappointment, but not his resolve. He is a master philologist—that much we have seen—and will grab his place in the sun.

1960s, Action-Adventure, War

The Guns of Navarone (1961)


Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

The Guns of Navarone began life as a story penned by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, a former Royal Navy officer and World War II veteran. MacLean debuted as a writer with H.M.S. Ulysses, a gritty and nightmarish portrait of a doomed warship attached to one of the infamous Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the war, based on some personal experiences. The success of his debut inspired MacLean to write another war story, but this time in a more adventurous and commercial mode. His story this time was loosely inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Dodecanese campaign, but also perhaps drew on memories of movies made during the war like Secret Mission (1942), Desperate Journey (1942), and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), slightly matured Boy’s Own tales about stranded warriors, secret agents and commandos eluding evil Nazis and destroying secret bases. The Guns of Navarone proved another bestseller when it was published in 1957, cementing MacLean as a preeminent popular writer of gamy thrillers until his death in 1987, with many movies good and bad adapted from his works. Enter Carl Foreman, screenwriter and film entrepreneur who had found fame writing High Noon (1952) just before being blacklisted and co-wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Michael Wilson uncredited, only to see the Oscar they sould have received for it given to the author of the source novel, Pierre Boulle, despite him not speaking English.  

Foreman began leveraging his epic Hollywood comeback by signing a production deal with Columbia Pictures as the blacklist was breaking down, and was given the book by an enthusiastic studio executive. Foreman was uneasy at first knowing it would be a hard movie to make, but he eventually pulled it off in grand fashion and made damn sure the movie was emblazoned as “Carl Foreman’s Production of The Guns of Navarone” in the credits and on posters. In adapting the novel, Foreman reshaped the material into something more ambitious and not so dissimilar to The Bridge on the River Kwai, introducing notes of ambivalence about war and greater depth to the characters as well as an emphasis on moral quandary that finally ends with a spectacular act of sabotage. Foreman also wanted to direct the movie, but Columbia refused, so he hired the great Alexander Mackendrick, of Ealing comedies and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) fame, who was on board with Foreman’s desire to make something more substantial out of MacLean’s material. But Mackendrick was fated to suffer repeated agonies in Hollywood, and a week before filming Mackendrick was fired with the evergreen “creative differences” excuse. On star Gregory Peck’s suggestion, Foreman then hurriedly hired J. Lee Thompson. Thompson was a rising star of British film with an array of recent, admired, superbly made films including the proto-feminist drama Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), the nuanced thriller Tiger Bay (1959) and blending war stories with adventure in North West Frontier (1958) and Ice Cold In Alex (1960).  

The Guns of Navarone proved Thompson’s Hollywood debut and gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a highpoint of a long and violently uneven career. Foreman for his part bankrolled the success into his own, more overtly antiwar survey The Victors (1963), which fell afoul of studio interference. Viewed from today, The Guns of Navarone seems chiefly notable as a movie that mediated the evolution of the relatively straitlaced and realistic war movie popular through the 1950s towards the birth of the modern blockbuster action movie. The Guns of Navarone anticipated and perhaps helped leverage the following year’s debut of James Bond in Dr. No, and later presented an obvious template for Star Wars (1977), with its select band of specialist heroes setting out to assault a seemingly impregnable enemy base and destroy a deadly war machine, as well offering a specific blend of cliffhanger action sequences kneaded into a larger story building to a pyrotechnic climax. But what distinguishes The Guns of Navarone from the myriad films its influence is stamped on is that more elevated element Foreman wanted to explore. In that regard Thompson was an ideal collaborator for Foreman, as he was extremely good at balancing action with tight, tense interpersonal stories. The sort of thing more recent Hollywood event movies dismiss as a tedious chore Foreman and Thompson took very seriously and essential to such storytelling, and the result defies the idea that a potent adventure film can’t also be thoughtful.

The opening moments of The Guns of Navarone promise a hell of a ride, whilst also presenting itself as a work of contemporary mythologising, “the legend of Navarone” that perhaps excuses some embellishing and larger-than-life details. Dimitri Tiomkin’s grand score, perhaps the best of his career, surges over a pre-credits prologue whilst the Scottish actor James Robertson Justice, who within the film proper plays the M-like spymaster Jensen, provides narration. Jensen explicitly describes the events as akin to the ancient myths of heroes and monsters born of the Greek islands, a modern echo of Achilles and Odysseus and Hercules, whilst the camera explores the ruins of classical temples overlooking Aegean-washed islands. The legend as he describes it begins when Hitler, trying to bully neutral Turkey into repeating history and joining the war on his side, orders a small garrison of 2000 British soldiers who have been holding out on the Aegean island of Kheros to be obliterated in a show of purposefully absurd force. The British decide to send in a flotilla to rescue them, but face one deadly roadblock: the Germans have installed two, colossal 15-inch naval guns in an old citadel on the neighbouring island of Navarone, controlling the only open strait to Kheros.  

With the clock ticking down fast and all other efforts failing, including a disastrous bombing raid that costs many airmen their lives, Jensen pulls together an infiltration team to land on Navarone and find a way to sabotage the guns. Jensen selects Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) to lead the team, assigning him demolitions expert Corporal Miller (David Niven) whose job it will be to destroy the guns, with partisan Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), and Chief Petty Officer Brown (Stanley Baker) along for added deadly force. To get them to Navarone and help scale the seemingly impassable cliff face on the island’s southern coast, the only unpatrolled landing point, Jensen flies in Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a former, renowned mountaineer who’s been leading partisan operations in Crete. Mallory arrives at Jensen’s HQ in North Africa just as one of the Lancaster bombers sent on the raid crash-lands. Mallory, surveying photos of the cliff, feels it’s a virtually impossible task, but still agrees to do his bit and asks for Andreas Stavro (Anthony Quinn), his uneasy ally on Crete and a ranking Colonel in the Greek army, to be brought out to help him, only for Jensen to assure him they’ve already done so. Jensen, Mallory, and Franklin listen to the crews of the failed air raid, including their truculent Australian squadron leader Barnsby (Richard Harris, in a memorable, even star-making cameo) who punctuates his tirade against the planners of the raid with saying “ruddy” every other word. Jensen admits to Mallory that he’s the one who put them up to the raid, knowing it was pointless but still had to be tried.  

What war costs on both the most personal level and on the macrocosmic chart of human endeavour is a constant motif of The Guns of Navarone even as it sets up an officially heroic, thrill-a-minute story. Jensen muses with his adjutant Cohn (Bryan Forbes) on the grim necessity of someone in his job sending men off to die, fully expecting Franklin’s team to also be lost, the ships sent to rescue the men on Kheros to be sunk, and the garrison wiped out, whilst still being committed to try everything to prevent such ends. Jensen muses on the quality of the unexpected in such situations, the surprising, rarefied quality of the human that ironically requires such straits to emerge: “Slap in the middle of absolute insanity, people pull out the most extraordinary resources. Ingenuity. Courage. Self-sacrifice.” “With every one of us a genius, how can we fail?” Mallory frames it more ironically as he considers the team with all their particular talents, knowing well what a shit-show they’re heading into, in a war that generally seems inimical to individual identity and ability. Mallory finds Andreas waiting in his hotel room, a peculiar tension persisting between them despite being comrades who’ve been fighting alongside each-other for months. Later it emerges that Mallory gave a safe conduct to a German patrol to get their wounded taken care of after a skirmish on Crete, only for the Germans, desperate to kill Stavro as one of their most ferocious enemies, to shoot their wounded, go to Andreas’ house, and blow it up along with his wife and children. Andreas blames Mallory’s “stupid Anglo-Saxon decency” for his family’s death and has told Mallory he will kill him when the war is won.  

Mallory also encounters Miller, who has a line in forced joviality and has long refused officer rank despite his many famous missions, through his deep scepticism for authority and the kind of moral calculus men like Jensen indulge. Spyros was born on Navarone and knows the island, but emigrated to America where he learned deadly arts as a petty hoodlum. Brown meanwhile specialises in killing at close quarters with a knife and has antifascist credentials going back to the Spanish Civil War, where he gained his colourful nickname “The Butcher of Barcelona”. “I’ve been killing Germans since 1937,” Brown tells Mallory, “There’s no end to them.” Trouble is Brown is suffering burnout from such Sisyphean labours, and can’t bring himself to kill anymore: “You shoot a man at two hundred yards he’s just a moving target. You kill him with a knife, you’re close enough to smell him.” Mallory also describes Franklin to Andreas as a man “who still needs to prove to himself he’s a hero.” Whatever attitude problems and neuroses are lurking under the surface of the omnicompetent team are nonetheless of little consequence at first as they’re gathered on the island of Castelrosso, halfway between Cyprus and Rhodes. On Castelrosso, the team are briefly billeted with the garrison commanded by Major Baker (Allan Cuthbertson), a snootily officious British officer.

When the team are installed in a grimy room in Baker’s army post, Andreas’ survival wits are illustrated as he insists on searching for microphones. Nor is he unjustly paranoid: whilst they discuss their plans, Andreas catches them being spied on by a young man (Tutte Lemkow). Baker is fetched and he tells them the eavesdropper is the HQ laundry boy Nicolai, who supposedly doesn’t speak English and only talks to Andrea in an obscure dialect, to which Miller casually but acutely queries, “Then why was he listening?” Franklin tells Baker he wants Nicolai held incommunicado until the mission is complete, but Baker insists Nicolai be released. In response Franklin tells Spyros to shoot Nicolai and Baker too “if he gets in your way.” When the aghast Baker realises they means it, he backs down and has Nicolai locked up. This tense scene sets in motion a theme that winnows through what follows, noting the different kinds of command displayed by Baker’s empty, privileged bluster, versus Franklin’s generally easy-going manner that masks that he knows exactly when to take ruthless action and apply pressure when it comes to fulfilling his mission, even if it’s likely just to make Baker pay heed. Mallory’s different brand of cool poise and sense of impact is also sketched out. When Baker makes appeal to Mallory, he replies that he agrees with Franklin, but also doesn’t need to have Baker shot, just speedily shipped home as a private with one call to Jensen, a threat that makes a more subtle but possibly deeper impact on Baker.

The next morning the team boards an appropriately banged-up fishing boat procured for them to voyage to Navarone, per Mallory’s request, a vessel that so alarms Miller that he keeps reminding Mallory he can’t swim. On the way they’re intercepted by a German patrol boat in an unexpected area, making Franklin suspect Baker let Nicolai go anyway. The team maintain their parts as poor fishermen until the right moment when they unleash with hidden weapons, slaying all the Germans and blowing up their boat. After the fight Mallory notices when Baker flinches from stabbing a German he didn’t quite finish up and gets up with his gun, only for Spyros to blow him away. Later Baker explains how tired he is of killing and tries to avoid it when he can, only to earn Mallory’s rebuke that none of them has the right to be making a private peace, not least because it makes him untrustworthy to the rest of the team. “I do my job sir,” Brown protests, to Mallory’s retort: “Your job is to kill enemy soldiers.” Mallory’s learned that the hard way, as he explains Andreas’ threat to him and the reason for it to Franklin, as they sail at night to Navarone. As they near the island coast, a vicious storm whips up, driving the boat onto rocks. The team laboriously rescue as much of their equipment as they can before a rogue wave rolls in, dislodges the boat, and sinks it.

This tremendous piece of staging, accomplished with all the physical craft and energy required of moviemaking in those long-gone pre-CGI days, comes in a dizzy flurry of pounding white water and even in the relatively safe confines of a studio tank looks dangerous for the actors. And it’s only the start of the team’s true ordeal. The boat’s destruction forces Mallory, who had been promised a spell of leave after delivering the men, and Andreas to integrate with the team for the duration. Mallory succeeds in the agonising climb up the rock face, meticulously hammering in pitons and finding rock forms to make the ascent easier. Andreas ascends to help him, cueing a tense moment when Mallory slips and Andreas catches him holding dangling over a vast drop, awareness of a perfect opportunity for Andreas to carry out his threat, but instead helping Mallory get his grip again. Reaching the top, Mallory and Andreas are surprised by a German on patrol: they kill him, but when Mallory tries to bluff his way through a conversation on a field telephone with the German HQ, he doesn’t succeed, with soldiers dispatched. Whilst climbing the cliff, Franklin slips and breaks his leg. Whilst the others bring him aloft, Mallory, now ranking officer and so forced into command, considers the options of leaving Franklin for the Germans, carrying with them, or, as Andreas suggests, shooting him: “Better for him, better for us.” Mallory elects to bring Franklin along on an improvised stretcher, knowing they can rendezvous with local contacts at a nearby ruin and get them to look after him. As they trek into rugged, snow-clad mountains, they’re pursued by German patrols. Franklin tries to shoot himself, only to be stopped by Mallory, who tells him that Jensen has said on the radio that commandos are going to invade Navarone in two days’ time. Whilst the two men talk, Miller anxiously fingers his own pistol, ready to draw it if it appears Mallory is going to kill Franklin.

From the outset of The Guns of Navarone we’re assured every member of the team has something to contribute, some skillset that makes them invaluable, even if this assurance is picked apart as the story unfolds. As every plan is tested and found wanting by both enemy connivance, covert treachery, and bad luck, every character is bent in a direction they don’t want, improvisation is constantly required, and the real worth of all those skills is tested. In this regard the underpinnings of the story recall heist movies like The Asphalt Jungle (1949) and Rififi (1955), and indeed that’s exactly what the story is at heart. This aspect also distinguishes it from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and its Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven (1960), films that by and large invented the basic modern blueprint for action movies about a team of warriors. The Guns of Navarone feels to me like the more immediate influence on most subsequent men-on-a-mission tales, a mode that would be taken to variously strange and hyperbolic places by the likes of Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968), Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Wild Geese (1978), and both Enzo Castelleri’s Inglorious Bastards (1977) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), as well as the likes of the TV series Mission: Impossible and subsequent movie adaptations. The film’s success also encouraged MacLean himself to recycle many elements for the script of Brian G. Hutton’s more serial-like Where Eagles Dare (1968). The Guns of Navarone’s influence even echoes in the early scenes of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) and in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and pervasively in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Its impact on Star Wars was reiterated by Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016). And, of course, Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker’s Top Secret! (1984) couldn’t exist without it.

The vignette of Mallory trying to fake his way through the phone conversation with a German was the obvious inspiration for the famous scene of Han Solo doing the same in Star Wars, although the model plays it in a cagier manner, the German on the other end of the line slightly puzzled by not hearing the right code words, but not giving anything away until after the call is ended and then hitting the alarm. Whilst the climactic scenes surge with swashbuckling vigour, Thompson also does his best to keep the film grounded in realistic physicality and problem-solving wit from its heroes: nobody ever gets too clever, and when the characters take damage it’s hurt they feel. The characters are also treated with rare seriousness, in a careful set-up of dramatic stakes that don’t combust until the last third. The triangulation of Andreas’ sternly pragmatic, even ruthless sensibility, Miller’s humane and antiauthoritarian streak, and Mallory’s attempts to walk a centre path however crooked, provides a backbone of drama, amplified by less consequential but still substantial elements as Brown’s moral exhaustion and Spyros’ wild, almost berserker aspect when let loose in war, contrasting his rather boyish façade. His sister Maria (Irene Papas) proves to be their partisan contact on Navarone, catching the men unaware when they’re distracted by another female partisan, Anna (Gia Scala), who Spyros knocks out when they catch her flitting around their camp in a ruined monastery. Upon recognising her brother, Maria walks up to him with a smile of surprised delight, and then, remembering she’s angry at him for being away so long, slaps him in the face – a moment Spielberg conspicuously lifted for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Papas enters the film with her usual, leonine presence, a promissory note for a future generation of action heroines, holding the team at bay for a few moments with a machine gun before admitting they’re obviously not Germans. She cares for her friend Anna, who, as she explains to the team, was recently captured and brutalised by the Nazis – “They whipped her until the white of her bones showed” – but survived the ordeal without breaking and is now one of the partisans’ assets, although she hasn’t spoken a word since her captivity and has never shown anyone her scars. The two women join the team as they hike towards the town of Mandrakos, in the hope they can get medical aid for Franklin there. During a rest pause in an olive grove, Miller tells Mallory that Franklin’s leg has become gangrenous and needs amputation. Brown also asks Mallory to give him another chance as a fighter, as Mallory’s been relegating him to menial tasks. German soldiers roll up and start firing mortars at them, and Stukas bomb them as they flee up a canyon and find refuge in a cave. At last they manage to enter Mandrakos, Andreas, Maria, and Brown taking Franklin to a doctor, whilst the others sit quietly in a café where a wedding party is being held. But both groups are quickly captured by Germans, who zero in on them with suspicious exactitude.

Thompson’s career arc wasn’t a pretty one on the face of things, moving from being considered one of 1950s British cinema’s most exciting and truly cinematic talents to one often dismissed as downright bad by the time in the 1980s when he finished up making potboilers for the beloved/infamous Cannon Films in the 1980s. Thompson’s aura of professionalism was both a problem and a virtue when it comes to summing up his career, but his rock-solid visual force never degraded even when making Charles Bronson shoot-‘em-ups. Thompson was known for his peculiar, loose, almost improvisatory approach to filming, all leveraged on set through such force of personality that Peck called him “Mighty Mouse.” Thompson certainly made a lot of unremarkable movies during his career, as well as many that were terrific and more than a few that became worthy cult films. Thompson was particularly confident and innovative in using the widescreen frame, apparent throughout The Guns of Navarone in his constant attempts to keep the relations between the members of the team enclosed within his frames on the churn, and use of looming actions against deep focus shots. One great example of this comes when Spyros starts enthusiastically fixing a silencer to his pistol when Franklin orders him to kill Nikolai, Spyros in the foreground, Baker standing in between him and his prey with puckered anxiety, with Mallory gazing on impassively to one side: there’s painterly precision to Thompson’s images and yet they contain energy and barely stifled movement as well.

Thompson also displayed a consistent fascination with interactions with sharply diverging worldviews, whose collisions ultimately drive his best films. Tiger Bay revolved around the disparity between its child heroine’s perspective on a fugitive she falls in with and the reality of his situation. North West Frontier, nominally a straightforward imperial-era chase yarn, spared a deal of time and depth exploring its microcosmic characters and evoking the motives of its villain, a biracial Muslim desperate to prove his identity, clashing with the more officially humane but also smug personalities around him. Cape Fear (1962) was a film that anticipated both later slasher films and concerns with violence and vigilante reprisal in 1970s and ‘80s thrillers, as it portrayed a sleazy psychopath intimidating a prosperous lawyer and family man, trying to provoke him into abandoning his civilised ideals. Thompson would go on with his unexpectedly strong foray into Horror cinema proper, Eye of the Devil (1966), to a similar theme of a man sacrificing himself in a dark religious rite for the sake of fulfilling his role as lord of the manor. His perverse thriller Return From The Ashes (1965) hinged on the incomprehension of a holocaust survivor trying to resume ordinary life with the more petty brand of murderous zeal she encounters. Even oddities like his two entries in the Planet of the Apes series and the unique horror-western The White Buffalo (1977) would spend time allowing iconic representatives of warring factions in the American West to argue through their different perspectives on history and society. In The Guns of Navarone this proclivity found exactly the right material, as Thompson weaves the more serious concerns of Foreman’s script throughout, finally combusting when Mallory reveals to the team, after they’ve been forced to finally leave Franklin with the Germans, that the story he told him about the upcoming invasion was false, and he hopes the Germans will give him a dose of scopolamine to extract it from him, on the theory that it will spare Franklin  torture but also to make the Germans commit their forces in distraction. Miller is appalled nonetheless when Mallory tells him this, questioning what would happen if they skipped the scopolamine and just went with torture: “Oh, I misjudged you – you’re really rather a ruthless character aren’t you, Captain Mallory?”

The obvious riposte is that all those things would happen to Franklin anyway and indeed the only way to save his life, but Mallory doesn’t take that out, instead stating it was the only way to get the job done, his way of living up Jensen and Franklin’s credo as a leader. “I just hope that before this job is over I get the chance to use you the way you used him,” Miller declares, and you just know he’ll get his wish. Thompson and Foreman also allow some hue of moral complexity to enter from the German side of things too. After the team is captured in Mandrakos, they’re interrogated by a cool, clinical officer, Muesel (Walter Gotell), who nonetheless disdains brutality. He is quickly supplanted by SS man Sessler (George Mikell), a more familiar kind of evil Nazi, who slaps Andreas when he claims to be a poor Cypriot fisherman forced into the team’s company, and provokes not just the heroes when he threatens to hit Franklin’s injured leg with his sidearm but also sparks Muesel’s angry outburst. “We’re not all like Hauptman Sessler,” Muesel comments to Mallory later, and also deftly stands up to Mallory’s threat to have him shot if he doesn’t give up information, “You would not hesitate to shoot me for any number of reasons – in any event I will not tell you.” Andreas proves the key to the team escape this seemingly impossible situation, with his fisherman act. He pretends to be violently ill and rolling around the floor when Sessler starts tormenting Franklin, angering Sessler and distracting the Germans sufficiently for the team to attack suddenly and overpower their captors. A terrific little part for Quinn that deftly conflates different kinds of improvisation: “What a performance,” Miller comments, to Andreas only waving his hand in a so-so gesture.

The team’s visit to Mandrakos also allows a slightly corny but tone-varying vignette of the men, all ill-shaven, hunched-over mystery, suddenly enjoying an idyllic moment with the townsfolk during the wedding celebrations, the island’s native culture and love of life still sustained amidst occupation. Spyros reveals a decent voice as he sings a verse of a folk song for village musicians (actually written by Tiomkin), and a small girl comes over to the team to hand them some flowers, unfortunately at the same moment Muesel leads in a detachment of Germans and levels guns at them, a moment of vaguely surreal contrast that crystallises the imminence of indiscriminate bloodshed. The team surrender, but Mandrakos suffers an ugly fate anyway, as the Germans destroy the town in reprisal for the team’s escape, an act of vandalism and contempt that eventually drives Spyros to wildly self-destructive acts. The narrative encompasses such constant knock-on effects of choices and aims even as the urgency of the mission and the moral imperative behind it aren’t forgotten, but different people have different ways of feeling their way through the murk, as Miller summarises when he angrily upbraids Mallory, “I don’t know the men in Kheros, I do know the man on Navarone.”

Spyros’ eventual death in combat in the climactic scenes provides self-satire aimed at the kind of shootout scene Foreman so memorably formulated on High Noon. Amidst the chaos unleashed by the team and their local allies as the climax unfolds, Spyros and a German officer confront each-other with glazed, fanatical facades after Spyros has killed the German’s men with a grenade and Spyros is looking for revenge for Mandrakos. The two enemies march at one another, letting spray with their machine guns until they kill each-other. “He forgot why we came here,” Andreas tells Maria when she asks him how her brother died. The scene reads as a moment of self-critique from Foreman, as if dismayed by some of the more straightforwardly reactionary readings of High Noon. Meanwhile the sort of love interest often jammed into such a story is presented only to eventually be given a ruthless twist. Andreas faces the slightly blindsiding confession by Maria that “I like you,” a marvellously oblique moment of courtship befitting two hard and worldly survivors nonetheless finding a connection. Mallory on the other hand has a passionate tryst with Anna when she sneaks out of the monastery chamber they spend the night in whilst he’s on guard duty, and she approaches him, growing teary-eyed as he communicates his angst to her after Miller’s tirade over Franklin, before they kiss. But when the presence of a traitor in the team’s midst becomes undeniable after Miller finds all his explosive detonators sabotaged just before they’re going to take their all-or-nothing assault on the citadel, Miller quickly winnows the likely culprit down to just one person – Anna.

The scene that follows is quite epic in its depiction of moral responsibility and brutally clashing viewpoints that close off all options but the worst. Miller is proven right when Andreas strips Anna to show she has no scars and she weepily confesses to having turned to collaborating because “I cannot stand pain,” and seduced Mallory because she needed to cover up her foiled attempt to sneak away. Miller argues forcibly that Anna can’t be left alive because she knows all their plans, and with relentless relish argues to Mallory that he should be the one to execute her, as the officer and gentleman who gets to make the hard decisions but leaves it to the little men to actually perform: “Why don’t you let us off for once? Come down off that cross of your, close your eyes, and pull the trigger.” Mallory, facing up to the challenge despite its ugliness, stands over Anna and pulls out his pistol: Miller moves to make a last-second intervention, but both men are forestalled when Anna is shot dead by her comrade Maria, whose execution is at once more truly fitting and even more painful. Quinn and Papas make a brilliant little moment of Andreas reaching out to comfort Maria as she’s hit by a squall of feeling after her stone-faced execution, only for him to not quite be able to meet her eyes.  Of course Quinn and Papas would be reunited a couple of years later in Zorba The Greek (1964).  

Niven and Peck are also at their best here, with Niven’s Miller given the crucial scene of theatrical bravura, first pacing through a pastiche of a detective’s drawing room exposure of a criminal, before being called upon to articulate Foreman’s scepticism with his signature spindly, hangdog charm turned to angry purpose. Mallory finally works up to a fine pitch of anger as the smoke clears, informing Miller that his free ride in terms of responsibility are at an end, waving his pistol at him and telling him to find some way of setting off his explosives: “You’re in it now up to your neck…You get me in the mood to use this thing, or by god if you don’t think of something I’ll use it on you!” A notable moment if not least for seeing Peck, who would win an Oscar a year later for playing the most equable of personalities, playing one here driven to a pitch of ferocity that is also focused enough to literally level a mountain rather than expend itself fruitlessly. At other points in the film Peck is more awkward: Mallory, who was a New Zealander in the novel, is also supposed to be fluent in Greek and German, but Peck obviously couldn’t quite manage that, but nonetheless he has just the right gravitas to play a thoughtful but grimly committed hero.

Despite all the quarrels Mallory’s gamble pays off: the commandant of the citadel garrison orders Franklin injected with scopolamine after Sessler’s had some fun torturing him, and with Franklin giving up the details in his subsequent daze, the Germans scramble the bulk of their forces out of the citadel and down to the shore, whilst Mallory and Miller drive in in a captured ambulance, almost getting crushed by tanks in the frantic activity. Meanwhile Maria and Brown head off to steal a boat to ferry them off the island whilst Andreas and Spyro set out to create havoc amongst the remaining garrison troops, gaining some help from locals who shuffle out of a tavern and start pulling tricks like using fishing nets to dismount motorcyclists. Mallory coolly kills a couple of guards overlooking the doors to the cavern where the guns are mounted, and he and Miller manage to get inside, locking the doors at the cost of setting off an alarm. Whilst the Germans outside try everything from sledgehammers to jackhammers and finally a welding torch to penetrate the doors, Miller plants several explosive devices, including one hidden under an elevator designed to be set off by the descending lift’s runner, as well as one disguised as a rat and hidden under one of the guns: when a soldier plucks it out, the device proves only to be a fizzing firecracker, burning out harmless to the soldier’s heavy breath of relief.

Of course, all discursion and complication in the film are only part of a long arc building relentlessly to a climax, which unfolds on multiple stages and finds punctuating tragic ironies in Spyros and Brown’s deaths. Brown meets his end as he again holds back from killing a German guard on the motorboat he and Maria set about stealing. When the guard begins shouting for help, Brown finally stabs him and muffles his cries, but the German retains enough life to pull the knife out of his gut and stick it in Brown, who expires on a note of desperate pathos. Miller and Mallory flee the gun cavern by sliding down ropes into the ocean and are picked up by Anna, whilst Mallory helps pluck the wounded and exhausted Andreas out of the ocean with a boathook, Andreas hesitating as he sees the deadly implement wielded at him by the man he threatened to kill, but finally grabs it and is rescued. Meanwhile a flotilla of British destroyers come sailing up the strait. Thompson saves special relish for building tension as the guns are finally glimpsed up close by the heroes, with Tiomkin’s music underlining the awe and fear of these weapons of mass destruction, Mallory and Miller dwarfed by them. After they escape, the Germans reclaim the guns and dig out all of Miller’s devices save the one in the elevator shaft, and tension mounts mischievously as Thompson keeps noting the lifts descending but stopping short of the trigger wires, whilst the guns let loose with all their hellfire and start straddling the British warships, forcing them to start manoeuvring.

George Lucas would directly pinch the moment of special relish here for Star Wars as the German commander speak the command to fire, this time certainly to hit and sink one of the destroyers, just before the lift makes contact and sets off the blast. The resulting explosion of the magazine rips the top off the mountain and the two mighty guns plunge into the ocean, whereupon the warships release whooping siren sounds and the sailors cheer the heroes riding to join them. Franklin in his hospital bed, roused by the sound of the explosion shattering the ward window glass, is gripped by tears of joy. Success breeds peace for the surviving heroes: Andreas and Miller both make their peace with Mallory, and Andreas offering his hand to Mallory to shake as he announces he’s heading back to Navarone with Maria to fight with the partisans. Even here the film doesn’t forget its diastolic quality, shifting to a mood of weary and stunned reflection, finding strange, post-apocalyptic beauty in the sight of the burning citadel of Navarone, a Pharos for the sailors seeking out their comrades. Miller and Mallory exhaustedly confess they didn’t think it could be done, viewing their titanic handiwork with the glaze of tired men, earth-shakers worthy of myth and just two more shit-kickers in the grand and impersonal business of war. Thompson interpolates ghostly images of the dead and absent members of the team over the ships passing by the burning mountain, with Tiomkin offering a gentle choral requiem on the soundtrack, and the film fades out with evocation of loss as well as triumph. A last flourish to remind that The Guns of Navarone is the quintessential wartime adventure film, and also more than that.

1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental

Easy Rider (1969)


Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenwriters: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern

By Roderick Heath

A few years ago, I went to a revival screening of Easy Rider in a town that’s something of a magnet for alt-culture people. I sat encamped literally and figuratively between two other generations, with some aging former hippies a row behind me, reminiscing with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, and a troupe of young people – late teens, early twenties – settled a few rows down, who had clearly not seen the film before and were there to bone up in their bohemian catechisms. The film’s infamous climax still had its effect: several members of the young troupe were left blubbering and clinging to each-other. Not bad for a movie often written off with that dread phrase, “time capsule.” What’s most fascinating about Easy Rider is that it continues to evolve: every time I’ve watched it it’s felt like a different movie. With my most recent viewing it felt not just still vital but disquieting, even shocking, in how relevant it felt. In its cumulatively devastating wrestle not just with general and pervasive worries of the modern world, but with specifically American symptoms of that worry, particularly gun violence. And a more elusive, existential dagnosis, a background hum of anxiety that’s only grown louder in the last few years. The loss of the pioneer spirit, so long celebrated in the culture, now like a narcotic addiction deadly to kick, the sense of the USA as a place on the move breaking down and squelching through the mud of Vietnam. Call it Hopper’s How The West Was Lost.

Easy Rider owed much of its genesis to beloved low-budget impresario Roger Corman, who had, as the exploitation film market evolved in the 1960s and the youth audience’s tastes grew more rowdier along with the ‘60s zeitgeist, set out to please them with films about various precincts of the culture like the biker movie The Wild Angels (1966) and the LSD experimentation flick The Trip (1967). Both of those films starred Peter Fonda, son of Hollywood legend Henry and brother of fellow rising star Jane. The Trip also sported a small supporting performance from Dennis Hopper, and was written by Corman’s star discovery and acting protégé Jack Nicholson. American International Pictures, the low-rent but high-energy exploitation film studio Corman had helped make into a force, also made “hippiesploitation” films like Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1967). Those films were interesting and popular with the kinds of young folk rushing to the countercultural scene, but also held in not-so-faintly sarcastic amusement by many of them, as movies that strained to encompass an experience based around rejecting establishment entertainment factories run by old people trying to get their heads around the scene and treading fine censorship lines.  

Easy Rider proved a key moment in the changeover to a new generation of filmmakers now often called the New Hollywood, following Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) but excelling both in reaping credibility as a work of generational, artisanal authenticity. Hopper and Fonda were, despite their flirtations with mainstream stardom, leading figures in Hollywood’s rising bohemian scene and drug culture. Few expected much better of the notoriously combative and wilful Hopper, who had already torpedoed his Hollywood acting career once and was still on a comeback trail, but Fonda was seen as foiling a promising career in becoming “a bit of a dropout.” Somewhere out on the fringe of Hollywood legend Hopper and Fonda decided, after their experiences on those Corman films, to make a movie that would nail down a more immediate and personal piece of expression contending the ructions gripping America at large and the various new and old concepts of society it contained. Hopper, with his experience in photography and general livewire energy, would direct, and for a script Fonda approached Terry Southern, then a very popular and famous writer for his erotically-tinged and satirical novels and co-writing Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) with Stanley Kubrick. The film also presented a translation-cum-riposte to On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s novel which had popularised the “Beat” movement as the first post-war manifestation of a new bohemian culture, but where Kerouac and the other Beats had been charged with electric positivity Hopper confronted a national mood rapidly turning sour and balkanized. 

After failing to get Corman and AIP to back them, nervous as they were about Hopper directing a movie, Fonda obtained a roughly $400,000 budget from Columbia Pictures, but also paid for elements of the production out of his own pocket. That Fonda sought out Southern indicated the larger aim of the project, which was to create a kind of contemporary take on classic texts about wandering seekers like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Voltaire’s Candide, the latter of which Southern had already burlesqued as his novel Candy. The film’s shoot was messy and contentious, starting with writing credits: Hopper later claimed he had to write most of the movie when Fonda and Southern were taking too long, Southern said the two actors suddenly wanted credit when it was clear the movie would be a hit, and Fonda’s contributions to making the film were overshadowed by Hopper, whose difficult behaviour on set was often trying, setting the scene for his brilliant meltdown with The Last Movie (1971). Rip Torn, hired to play the supporting role of George Hanson in part thanks to his friend Southern, got into a fracas with Hopper that would prove the subject of litigation decades later, and in more immediate consequence Torn was sacked. Nicholson was swiftly hired to take over and brought onto the shoot several weeks in. The initial intent of picking up crewmembers along the route of the shoot saw Hopper constantly struggling to keep control of the set, and after Hopper got into a fistfight with a camera operator he and Fonda finally hired a professional crew. By the end of production all of the customised bikes Fonda and Hopper had rode in the film had been stolen.

Despite all that, Easy Rider proved an instant cause celebre upon release, capturing the Camera d’Or at Cannes and becoming a runaway hit with levels of profitability starkly contrasting the weak returns for many a big-budget bomb a faltering and sclerotic Hollywood was putting out at the same time, and set the big studios to eagerly producing imitations. Of course, that didn’t last, any longer than the hippie-era dream did. For all the film’s repute as a specific epochal touchstone, it would only require a few revisions and a shift of hipster lingo to seem a product of today’s independent film scene. Part of that’s because Hopper and Fonda wisely didn’t make a movie about hippies. Certainly both of their characters in the film, carefully contrived to be iconic, are harassed and repelled for their long hair and nonconformist ethos, but they are finally as alienated from the actual emissaries of the counterculture they encounter as they are from the thuggish hicks who dog the last legs of their journey. Whilst the communes and love-ins might have fallen by the wayside, the world is still full of people like the protagonists of Easy Rider

Easy Rider only drops hints about who Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America (Fonda) are and what they do: Billy declares to some cops who jail them, “We’re headliners, baby – we’ve played every fair in this part of the country!”, suggesting they’re musicians or possibly professional motorcycle stunt riders: it was made clear in Hopper’s early, much longer edit the latter is the case. In the film’s opening moments, however, they’re more exactly portrayed as entrepreneurial drug dealers, buying a wad of cocaine from a Mexican dealer named Jesus (Antonio Mendoza) in a junkyard. The two men merrily sample the goods and take it to Los Angeles, where they sell it on to a bigwig in a Rolls Royce near the airport, played, in a touch of alarming humour, by the record producer and future murderer Phil Spector, glimpsed snorting up white powder and giving the nod to his chauffeur to pay the men with a satchel full of cash: origin myth for the official fuel of the New Hollywood scene. The two sellers this time demur from sharing in the coke with their client, who pays up before sliding on leather gloves, whilst airplanes roar overhead, rendering the exchange a peculiar mime act. Hopper semi-ironically cues up the band Steppenwolf’s song “The Pusher” on the soundtrack, with its cool, clicking opening guitar lick and lyrics damning “the pusher man,” straddling the line between outlaw cool and seediness, espousal and disavowal. The two pals drive into the California desert in their battered, anonymous pick-up truck and, in the privacy of a garage where they keep their two, flashy, customised Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they prepare for their imminent journey.

Hopper’s evident influences quickly nod to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos as he lovingly surveys the choppers, gleaming chrome forms clashing with jaunty painted colours decorating the gas tanks. Wyatt carefully bundles up the cash in a tube he then secrets in his gas tank, which has the American flag painted on it. An ingenious detail that expresses the street-smarts of the heroes in protecting their hard-won fortune, whilst also doubling as a sly symbol, cash the literal fuel of escape and the septic heart of the American dream. Hopper continues to eye the choppers out in the sun, machines of personal deliverance ironically constructed through a zenith of industrial art, a perfect fusion of form and function, ambition and truth. The two men also seem to cast off their other identity, the one that did the drug deal, as Wyatt dresses up in his “Captain America” livery, knight for a new age, with Billy his hairy, buckskin-clad, more primitive companion. The nested points of pop culture reference nod to both the beloved comic book hero Captain America whilst also signalling it’s only the latest incarnation of the classic American hero, as Wyatt and Billy recall the gunslinger heroes of the Wild West and a million Westerns, heading out to backtrack through the westward colonising sprawl and catch up how things are going. As a final gesture of repudiation, Wyatt, after checking his wristwatch after being asked the time by Billy, slips the watch off, gives it one last glare, and drops it by the roadside. Beginning a motif that pervades the film, Hopper splinters time in this moment with cinema tricks – quick edits and a small but disorientating outward zoom. The two men roar off, engines fading as they burrow into the landscape.

The opening credits finally roll, with another Steppenwolf song blaring, this time, with more totemic impact: “Born To Be Wild” accompanies the two riders as they own the road and incarnate a generational fantasy, a unit of sound and vision easily quotable in other movies and TV commercials over the next few decades. The high of pure open road freedom lasts exactly as long as the credits, at the end of which the riders try to get a room at a remote hotel for the night but find the owner ignores them, turning on the No Vacancy sign. The two men camp out, and the nominal goal of their expedition emerges: the two men are heading for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, hoping to indulge hedonistic splendours. Billy’s signature nervous energy contrasts Wyatt’s removed and meditative aspect, which he describes “just gettin’ my thing together,” whilst Billy jokes about “fightin’ cowboys and Indians on every side,” tipping a hat immediately to the underlying thesis informing the character names and also allowing the characters some hip distance from the association. Next morning Wyatt pads around the patch of desolation where they camped, with abandoned houses and shacks and scattered debris, signs of one outpost of the spread of America that didn’t quite take. Such signs fascinated Wyatt, as if a crucial part of getting his thing together is making himself muse on such scenes and feeling out the ghosts of the land. One shot wistfully scans a pioneer shack with a modern electricity tower in the background with a sense of the dizzying progress from one to the other. 

This kind of scene quickly became a bit of an Americana cliché in indie films (in Antonioni’s late-to-the-party Zabriskie Point, 1970, for instance, and also still often evoked, for instance in Aaron Morehead and Justin Benson’s films). Still it retains a special, spectral quality here, in large part thanks to Hopper’s odd, stuttering editing, linking scenes with a signature effect that’s neither dissolve not straight cut but instead flashes between shots into staccato fragments, setting the sense of cinematic time in flux and forcing the viewer to share the disorientated viewpoint of the characters. A major aspect of Easy Rider’s impact in its time and now, very apparent in this interlude, was Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography. Kovacs, born in Hungary, had become friends with fellow cinematography great Vilmos Zsigmond. The two former film students had filmed secret footage of the doomed Hungarian revolt against Soviet hegemony in 1956. They hiked out of the country but couldn’t find any interest in their smuggled footage for years, and after some time working manual labour jobs both eventually started getting work on low-budget films. Both men worked on infamous poverty row auteur Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Zombies Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966), and the surprisingly good look of that film led to Kovacs getting hired by the likes of Richard Rush on Psych-Out and Peter Bogdanovich for his Targets (1968). On those two films he mooted the visual lexicon that became a pillar of the New Hollywood look, at once gritty and grainy but also lustrous, charged with both artistry and immediacy. 

Kovacs might well have felt specially plugged into what Easy Rider set out to do as it mirrored his own experience to a certain extent, as an exile drawn to worship the American landscape in images. Long passages of Easy Rider simply and wisely allow Kovacs’ images to speak for themselves. At times they drink in the mountains and plains and roads with the expansive awe and grace of David Lean but constantly alternated with patches of quasi-abstraction as if recreating modernist paintings photographically, and vigorous use of zoom lensing that mimics documentary filmmaking language and using lens flare effects to help create a sun-washed atmosphere. When the bikers camp out in John Ford’s favourite amphitheatre of Monument Valley, Kovacs’ camera swings around in a long, dreamy arc, surveying the bluffs and mesas burned to grainy masses against a simmering twilight. Most of the film was shot with purely natural light, intensifying the rugged poetry. The geometrical struts of steel bridges, the high crags and snow caps of mountain ranges, surveys of pueblos and factories, shipping terminals and tumbledown shacks – the landscape in Easy Rider is given rare contemplation as a more than just pictorial interest but a domain of wonderment.

In the first of the film’s on-the-road vignettes, Billy and Wyatt stop at a ranch in Arizona. They ask the rancher (Warren Finnerty) and his hand, as they’re busy shoeing a horse, if they can repair a flat on Wyatt’s chopper. The rancher generously lets them use a shed and their tools, and extends his hospitality to inviting them to lunch. The two guests eat with the rancher’s wife (Tita Colorado) and their small army of children, whose presence the farmer attributes to his Catholic wife, and Billy upon request bashfully takes off his hat as the family say grace. This interlude presents Billy and Wyatt ironically with something very close to what they’re seeking virtually, or at least something worth finding, as soon as they set out, in a touch plainly inspired by Candide, in which the wandering heroes stumbled upon El Dorado early in their travails and found the demi-paradise where the locals had contempt for the plentiful riches around them, but the heroes were themselves doomed to move on through the world. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1971) would offer a similar vignette when its seeker-exile hero stumbles into a William Blake-esque vision of an English rural idyll. The kind of perfection is undeniable but also perhaps useless to men like Billy and Wyatt. The rancher’s so out of touch he doesn’t know the acronym L.A., and once it’s explained notes, “What I was a young man I headed out for California…but…well, you know how it is.” Wyatt nonetheless congratulates the farmer, recognising the worth of what he has: “It’s not every man who can live off the land, you know? You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.” 

This is immediately contrasted with a commune full of dropouts urgently trying to reverse-engineer themselves into the same breed of propagating and effectual being. The bikers encounter a hitchhiker, credited as the Stranger on the Road (Luke Askew), who proves to be a member of this commune, and thanks them by extending their own limited hospitality. The Stranger, one of the unofficial leaders of the commune, seems a very interior and spiky personality on the road, speaking in gnomic stoner riddles and chiding the bikers for their obliviousness when they camp for the night in a ruined pueblo near Monument Valley (“You’re right on top of them – the people this place belongs to are buried right under you…You could be a trifle polite.”). The Stranger nonetheless pays for their petrol, filling Wyatt’s gas tank much to Billy’s fretfulness, and once they arrive at the commune the Stranger shows them the brace of lanky, famished young would-be dropouts, all city kids, seeding the earth by hand, a shambolic but necessary step in trying to get the commune self-sufficient. 

The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune outside Taos, New Mexico (the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to shoot there, and instead recreated it in Malibu), and the bikers and their charge are glimpsed riding past the famous pueblo structure in Taos on the way there. The commune itself is an ultimate expression of the 1960s counterculture moment but of course also an idea with deep roots in American life, like the Transcendentalist communities of the 1800s, as well as the less self-conscious project of untold numbers of colonial settlers. The scenes in the commune are the most dated in Easy Rider but also encompass such a time and place with anthropological zest, blending yearning sympathy and more than a little scepticism. Hopper notes the incidental sexism ingrained in the set-up as the women work in the kitchen whilst the young men try to work the fields, but also the louche, non-possessive approach to sexuality. Hopper populates the place with a cross-section of scenesters, from men dressed as swamis to a band of improv theatre actors (referring to themselves as “Gorilla Theatre”) in guises like Victorian stage villain and carnival row Cleopatra, and a skinny, blissed-out hippie Jesus named Jack (Robert Walker Jr) who leads them in a group prayer and improvises sinuous, incantatory, yogic dance moves that would be recreated by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979). Wyatt explores the commune building, one part old Celtic roundhouse, one part nativity barn, with plastic-sheeted skylight for Wyatt to resume his sun worship.

Billy becomes increasingly jittery in such surrounds, particularly when the Stranger wards him off from a confab of the communards by implying he might be a narc, and soon Billy wants to split. Wyatt, more at ease, reminds him that they’ve been eating some of the commune’s limited resources, and feels this obliges them to do a favour for comely communards Lisa (Luana Anders) and Sarah (Sabrina Scharf). These two liberated lasses dig the two hot strangers and draw them out not for a chore but for an interlude of lyrical play, skinny dipping with them in the flooded cellar of a riverside building in a scene that comes closest out of the any in the film to offering familiar, what’s-marked-on-the-tin celebration of life on the road. Hopper however makes clever use of The Byrds “Wasn’t Born To Follow” in these scenes, with its alternations between lightly skipping guitar picking and lyrical paeans to romping in nature, and passages dipping into heavily produced, spacy-sounding throbbing, as if the bad trip is trying to break out, so even at the film’s most relaxed and lyrical there’s a sense of strangeness persisting: Wyatt has to be coaxed into full engaging with the play, and even then begins sinking back into his musing state. Hopper including Anders in the film was a nice homage to them working together on Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide, a movie that broke Hopper’s film acting exile. The commune inhabitants and their guests gather in a circle to offer a prayer of success for the crop they’ve planted, led by Jack the hirsute freak-saint. Hopper has the camera pivot around their silent and expectant faces as he did with the rancher’s children, finding much the same mixture of naiveté, frustration, and inward-drifting boding, until Jack begins speaking, with his benediction concluding, “Thank you for a place to make a stand.”

The disparity between Wyatt’s contemplative persona, appraising what he sees with a generous and optimistic eye, and Billy’s fidgety, nervous, livewire energy and fixation on fulfilling his appetites, reflect distilled and purposefully exaggerated versions of Fonda and Hopper themselves. Billy’s childlike streak is brought out as he plays with the commune kids. Wyatt praises the farmer, decides of the commune dweller they encounter that “They’ll make it,” and delivers the film’s final, famous epitaph with the measured meaning of a man who finds for all his efforts just cannot escape from his own company. Fonda’s inhabitation of the film anticipates where his own directorial efforts would drift on The Hired Hand (1971) and Idaho Transfer (1973), more overtly concerned with the permeable and insubstantial nature of character and fracturing of time, whilst Hopper would also more ostentatiously fragment linearity on The Last Movie but would also sustain his sardonic edge of social commentary and zeitgeist reflection in that film and his follow-ups Out Of The Blue (1980) and Colors (1988). The sense of preordained failure upon Wyatt and Billy’s excursion is underlined when, near the end of the film, Wyatt has a flash vision of the fate before them. As if seeking out some chance to go deeper and so come back out further, Billy accepts from the Stranger a tab of LSD which the Stranger recommends he wait for the ideal time and place to take. 

The two bikers move on, but quickly find themselves thrown in a small town police lock-up after they accidentally ride into the midst of a parade and get in on the act. They find aid in an unlikely place, that is, sharing their cell: George Hanson, a sometime ACLU lawyer and semi-pro drunkard, awakens from one sleeping off one of benders, setting off Billy’s aggression with his bumbling, but easing his way through shows of wry, drawling charisma and conciliation with both his fellow prisoners and the duty cop who brings him a cup of coffee and an aspirin. George warns them about the hair-clipping tendency of the local cops: “They’re tryin’a make everybody look like Yul Brynner.” When Billy asks if he can get them out of the clink, George answers, “I imagine that I can if you haven’t killed anybody – ‘least nobody white.” True to his word, George succeeds, handling their release with practised bonhomie. Taking his first morning swig of the hair of the dog with a toast to “Old D.H. Lawrence!, George performs a ritual like a cold engine turning over with the first shock of liquor in his tongue, punctuated by a random phrase (“Indians!”… “Firefly!”), an act a little reminiscent of “Nick Va-Va-Voom” in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) but apparently inspired by a mechanic working on the film bikes. When told where the bikers are heading, George muses on how he’s often started off for Mardi Gras but never got further than the state line, and brandishes a card given to him by the Governor of Louisiana, advertising a brothel in New Orleans called Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights: “Now this is supposed to be the finest whorehouse in the South. These ain’t no pork chops, these are US prime.” 

Nicholson’s performance as Hanson immediately paved the way for him becoming a mainstream star, playing a vivid character role that’s also a perfect springboard to show star quality, as a complimentary but also antithetical personality to the two leads. George like them is a substance abuser, moreover a heavy, self-destructive one, but his drug of choice is legal and socially acceptable, and it fuels his sociable and charming streak: George seems like the kind of guy who’s a hell of a lot of fun to be around at least until his liver packs it in. George contains aspects of Wyatt’s thoughtfulness and Billy’s rowdiness and gifted with articulateness all his own, musing on the meaning of the constantly encountered hostility the bikers encounter constantly. It’s easy to assume George is something of a self-portrait from Southern injected into the movie, as a perma-sozzled Texan wag both attracted to but also fatefully alien to the counterculture, translating the more allusive intent of Hopper and Fonda into something the viewer can readily digest. It’s George who spells out the uneasy nature of modern freedom in America, the two bikers embodying it and noting it’s easy to be jealous when “You’re bought and sold on the marketplace.” When George admits he wishes he was going with the bikers, Wyatt asks if he has a helmet, to which George slyly replies he does: cut to the bikers roaring down the highway, now with George riding with Wyatt, wearing his old high school football helmet. The three men have a blast as George enjoys his first motorcycle ride, his childlike gestures inspiring Billy to perform tricks on his bike, and waving to the people they pass.

George is also the star of the film’s one real lengthy dialogue scene and moment of comic bravura. As they camp out for the night, Wyatt offers him a joint, which George has also never done before, assuming at first it’s a normal cigarette. George is uncertain at first, reciting the much-mocked square line that it leads to harder stuff, and when he does take his first few puffs doubts it’s doing anything to him. Nonetheless, after Billy reports seeing an object in the sky like a satellite grazing the atmosphere, George declares it’s probably a UFO, explaining that’s seen them before, and launches into an explanation of how Venusians have been infiltrating human society for years, aiming to help it evolve into a state like theirs, devoid of “antiquated systems.” “How’s your joint, George?” Wyatt asks when he’s finally done. The basic gag of the neophyte dope smoker falling under its influence without realising is good, but more interesting and substantial is the way the scene extends the driving notion that the psyche of the average, ordinary person is a deeply weird place filled with startling assumptions and only needs a little pharmaceutical coaxing to reveal. George’s rant presages the oncoming New Age crazes of the 1970s and on, retreating from open confrontation with the modern world’s hard borders into fantasias of alternate realities and a search for new incarnations of old spiritual urges, of which UFOs would be a singular example. And yet also offers a bizarre yet on-point brand of social satire as George notes that human beings with their social hierarchies and “leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information” would be completely inimical to the Venusians because “each man is a leader.” In this regard Easy Rider becomes a kind of science fiction film.

Hopper’s initial edit of Easy Rider was very long, and at the request of executive Burt Schneider Henry Jaglom, a young filmmaker and future cult director in his own right, was brought in to reedit the film, much to Hopper’s initial aggravation, and he later commented that others, including Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, also made editing contributions. To Jaglom’s credit, he seems to have understood the movie Hopper wanted to make, excising elements more like other films of the type, including an early scene of Wyatt and Billy outrunning cops when bringing their drug haul over the border from Mexico, and instead lingering on the journey, creating an exemplar of a mode of picaresque storytelling soon dubbed the road movie. Whilst hardly the first road movie made (Francis Ford Coppola had, for instance, released his The Rain People a year earlier), Easy Rider nonetheless created a craze for the subgenre over the next few years, with such movies like the also Fonda-starring Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), as well as gentler variants like Paper Moon (1974), and Monte Hellman’s even more reticent and allusive take Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Meanwhile it wielded immediate sway over filmmakers like Rafelson himself and Terrence Malick, and even David Lynch likely took some inspiration from the trip scene for the churning dreamworld industrialism of Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). Easy Rider’s impact on the independent American film scene can barely be overstated, either, still reverberating in the films of Kelly Reichardt, David Lowery, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Jeremy Saulnier, and Nia DaCosta.

The first of the film’s two wrenching pivots of tragedy is set up when the trio roll into a small Southern town and go into a diner. There they find themselves objects of fervent fascination from some girls, but also of aggressive and contemptuous appraisal by some men, including the local sheriff. To get the desired effect out of the regional men he had hired for the scene, Hopper told them these longhair blow-ins were paedophiles and murderers. The palpable sense of exposure and imminent violence in the scene and indeed the film’s last third helped birth another subgenre over the next few years, particularly with the release of Deliverance (1972), as murderous and depraved rednecks would become a favourite movie monster. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern were channelling the very real rough treatment often turned on hippies in such locales but also reflected the uneasy spectacle and earned infamy of the previous decade a more of racial strife. The irony of it all, as George muses, is that it reflects, in a country so devoted to the idea of freedom, how the actual exercise of it deeply offends and frustrates some. Also inferred here is Hopper’s mediation on the uneasy relationship between the actual America and its mythologies, particularly the cinematic kind, a theme he would become more explicit in expressing in The Last Movie

One sharp irony for Hopper was that his other acting role of 1969 was in Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), a film that gained John Wayne an Oscar at last and neatly summarised that American mythos in its most classical form, the Western film. In an America weaned on tales of expansion and progress, of enterprise and self-reliance, of gun-wielding heroes bringing order to the wilderness, to encounter any kind of stymie in terms of class, milieu, and education is to be cheated, a loss which cannot be expressed without questioning the holy national mythos, and so must be turned on anyone trying to move on. Easy Rider diagnoses a great American ill, the pain of the loss of the pioneer spirit and its attendant ideals and illusions. Without heroic roles to play, however distantly, when immersed in such a mythos, people starve spiritually; guns meant to take out varmints instead are itchily trained on anything that offends, that gives testimony to one’s actual impotence. The further east they travel, the more Billy and Wyatt contend with the losers of history, the places left behind in the great westward sprawl and the great northern victory, experiencing devolution. “This used to be a helluva good country,” George avows sadly, although of course such nostalgia for the old weird America comes laced with ironies: not so much if you were Black or Native American, but then they were part of the same ecstatic flux too. Billy and Wyatt try to skip the problem through their own variety of alternative capitalism, and their original sin is not so much purveying illegal narcotics than of imagining that in some way could excuse them from dealing with the world. 

It’s in engaging with this theme that Easy Rider becomes something near-unique, leading to its disturbing final scenes that see the thesis crystallised in increasingly dark fashion. Camping out for the last time in their journey to New Orleans, George says his piece about the problems of freedom. After the men fall asleep and their fire burns down, a number of men, likely many of the same ones from the diner, sneak up on the camp and begin beating the sleeping men with bats and branches. Billy manages to wrestle out his knife and slash out whilst screaming wildly, sending the attackers scurrying away, but he finds Wyatt dazed and bloodied and George dead, killed seemingly whilst still dead asleep, saved the pain of waking to the cruellest disillusion. Once Wyatt recovers they bundle George up in his blanket and search through his belongings, which prove scant. In the most blunt and bravura of his jump-cuts, Hopper leaps Billy and Wyatt eating in a swank New Orleans restaurant the next day, still wearing the bruises of their beating: as they eat, Billy talks Wyatt into going to Madame Tinkertoy’s as George wanted. The surreal segue from the scene of death to the place of fine dining elides just what the two bikers did about George’s death: did they report it to the cops, and take the chance of having it pinned on them, or did they leave him by the road? 

Madame Tinkertoy’s, when Billy and Wyatt arrive there, proves to be a plush but tacky space replete with kitschy religious décor, fake baroque trimmings, and other trappings of an Old World inheritance, including paintings of obscure personages of another age. Many of the “US prime” stable of prostitutes are aging women with too much makeup on, others are plainly bored and zoned out, whilst others ply desperate attempts to be with-it, like one of the hookers shimmying on a table-top. Billy tries to live up to his kid-in-a-candy-store fantasies as he gets boozy and clingy with some of the women. Wyatt turns evermore inward and melancholy, surveying the fake religious trappings and painted philosophical missives on the walls and musing on Voltaire’s maxim, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Billy and Wyatt are stashed in an antechamber to await their selected partners for the night. The Madam (Lea Marmer) ushers in Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), two attractive young women who nonetheless suggest doppelgangers of Lisa and Sarah, those women’s free-and-easy vivacity exchanged for blowsy working sexiness. “Do you mind if I take the tall one?” Billy asks his pal. Wyatt, at a loss for what to do, eventually suggests they all head outside to experience Mardi Gras. They wander amidst the contrived spectacle and controlled weirdness of the holiday, the foursome desperately trying to alchemise their random association into some semblance of fun and connection and orgiastic flux.

At last they take refuge in the Basin Street Cemetery with its famous above-ground sepulchres, and there Wyatt has an inspiration, breaking out the acid tab the Stranger gave him and sharing between the four of them with the advice, “Just shut up and take it.” But the acid proves bad, and the foursome are stricken with an array of violently alternating states amidst the graves. The graveyard trip is one of my favourite scenes in cinema, as the rhythmic thump of a steam drill operating nearby is transformed into a doom-laden toll and pumping heartbeat of a monster whilst the bad trip is illustrated in a free-fall extravaganza of fisheye and zoom lensing, flash cuts and handheld shots, images ghostly and washed-out alternating with patches of damaged, colour-blotched film. Wyatt and Mary jam themselves between sepulchres, Mary stripping off and sprawling in the rain like a sylph whilst Wyatt arranges himself into a blank pop-art placard, the American flag on his jacket turned as a frightened placard; Karen moans about having a child and Billy excitedly caresses her thighs and bangs her over a tombstone. The technique in this scene owes much to experimental filmmakers, but achieves its own fresh, fascinating power in a new context, communicating the depth of a squall of interior feeling in a system of images that manage to avoid the by-then-already familiar clichés of on-screen trippiness and enter in a state remote, surreal, recessive, punctuated by flashes of intense and inchoate emotion, from Karen wailing to Wyatt clinging to a statue and experiencing a powerful wave of sorrow mingled with anger for his mother – emotions which came from Fonda himself in musing on his own late mother.

Watching this scene now reminds me that perhaps I’ve met more young women these days than young men on voyages like Wyatt and Billy – young men today find it far too easy to slip back into the amniotic illusions of gaming, for instance. Again, Hopper leaves the scene pointedly unresolved in any traditional sense, the maelstrom of emotion and disorientation suddenly left behind like the city, as Wyatt and Billy return to the road, this time more with the look of men fleeing than moving towards something. A great part of Easy Rider’s impact then and now, although I think has sometimes overstated, comes from the mostly pitch-perfect use of pop music on the soundtrack, including the Steppenwolf and Byrds songs mentioned and also pointed use of Jimi Hendrix’s troubled individualist anthem “If 6 Was 9,” The Band’s elegy to pay-it-forward fellowship “The Weight,” and the Electric Prunes’ eerie “Kyrie Elieson” used as an ironically eerie and spiritual counterpoint to the shots in the restaurant just after George’s death. Finally, as Wyatt and Billy flee up along the levees of the Mississippi, Hopper uses Roger McGuinn’s cover of Bob Dylan’s troubled surreal epic “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” with its famous line “He not busy being born is busy dying” imbuing a final hint of new existential quest for the bikers.

During their next campout, whilst Billy tries to maintain his enthusiastic outlook, Wyatt finally verbalises what he’s been thinking for some time as he comments, with great succinctness, “We blew it.” That line has often been taken to be the essential summation of the entire 1960s project. At least in the terms of Billy and Wyatt’s journey, it suggests Wyatt’s final conclusion that they didn’t just chase the wrong dream but leapt off from a bad beginning and then failed to understand everything of value they found on the way. The film’s infamous ending is then almost a mere coup-de-grace, as the two bikers ride along a road by a levee, passed by two rednecks in a pick-up who, like the diner customers, take delight in harassing Billy: one levels a pump action shotgun at him to nominally frighten him, but when Billy ignores him the redneck shoots him, swatting him off his bike and leaving him sprawled and bloody on the verge. Wyatt stops and checks him out: whilst Billy grunts out fragmented words, Wyatt dashes back to bike to get help. 

Only to meet the men in the pickup again, turned about to leave no witnesses: the blast of the gun and a near-subliminal flash of red gives way to Wyatt’s bike, front wheel spinning away wildly, flying across the curb-side ditch and crashlanding. The image of the wrecked and burning motorcycle, surveyed in a helicopter shot rushing away into the sky, conflates multiple frames of symbolic resonance, the crashing, riderless bike an image of some dream desperately trying to keep soaring, a bitter lampoon of a failed space shot in the year of the moon landing, and a conflation of the assassinations that had befallen American political life in the previous year with the epic carnage of Vietnam, all crystallising in internalised blowback, sparking madness on the home front. Hopper was likely inspired in part by the imagery of roadway carnage in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967), but the sense of connection with a parable for the war is exacerbated by the way Hopper concludes the film with a visual quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in the long, final helicopter shot that rises high above the madness to survey the wrecked bikes and sprawled bodies and the languorous course of the Mississippi, the flowing river evoked in the theme song written by Dylan and McGuinn that plays over the end credits. The end of Easy Rider retains such force in this disparity of jagged tragedy and elegiac yearning, the grand promise of the world still open to those brave enough to seek it even as the failed seekers lie dead on the green grass.

1960s, Historical, Western

How The West Was Won (1962)


Directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall
Screenwriter: James R. Webb

By Roderick Heath

Amidst the sprawl of big-budget historical epics designed to lure audience away from their televisions in the late-1950s and ‘60s, How The West Was Won was unusual as a grandiose Western rather than Biblical or medieval costume tale. The film was coproduced by MGM as one of several would-be epic follow-ups to Ben-Hur (1959), in collaboration with Cinerama, whose colossal, curving screen format which had previously been used to showcase specially-shot documentaries since first appearing in 1953. How The West Was Won was one of only two feature films, along with the same year’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, filmed in the original version of the Cinerama process, shot with three lenses and projected in three panels. This spectacular but unwieldy format offered a level of visual clarity and detail so unusual the filmmakers had to get costumes sewn by hand as machined seams were too obvious. Later films shot to exploit the format like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were more conventionally filmed. Today even the best, most exactingly restored prints of How The West Was Won still retain the imprint of the format, which when viewed in a standard letterbox sometimes seeming to bend landscapes into bizarre forms. 

How The West Was Won has its basis in a series of historical articles published in LIFE Magazine, but its purpose is much less to describe that historical process than to entertain. Indeed, it’s can be best described as a kind of monument to the idea of movie entertainment, with a subtext not that deeply concealed suggesting that the entire motive behind the westward expansion of the United States was so that Hollywood could be born, one reason a major protagonist of the narrative is a prototypical American song-and-dance gal. Similarly, How The West Was Won encapsulates just about the entire Western film genre in miniature, sporting most of its essential tropes and kneading them into an overall mythos that evokes and mimics Biblical narratives in erecting a church of Americana. In this regard How The West Was Won isn’t so conceptually different from the spectacular documentaries made for Cinerama, with a similarly curated, occasionally diorama-like aspect to its visuals and storytelling, and interludes designed purely to floor the audience with moviemaking might. The film finished up costing a then-colossal $15 million, but earned it back more than four times over.

The script was written by the experienced screenwriter James R. Webb, who had written Apache (1954) and Vera Cruz (1954) for Robert Aldrich, Trapeze (1956) for Carol Reed, The Big Country (1958) for William Wyler, and Pork Chop Hill (1959) for Lewis Milestone. He would win an Oscar for best original story and screenplay for How The West Was Won, before going on to expand on the film’s Native American sympathies in more overt fashion with his script for Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and write the two sequels to In The Heat of the Night (1967), They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). Production of How The West Was Won was complicated by MGM’s uncertainty over which episodes in the sprawling survey Webb penned would be filmed, which frustrated the great Western novelist Louis L’Amour, hired to write the novelisation. To make production easier and give the multi-strand story different inflections, producer Bernard Smith hired three directors, determined they all should all be “old pros.” So, Henry Hathaway directed the bulk of the movie, credited with the chapters entitled “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” and “The Outlaws,” whilst George Marshall handled the portion called “The Railroad,” and, in a coup that ironically marked the point just before his career started a last wane, John Ford directed the mid-film portion on “The Civil War.” A great number of Hollywood stars past and (then) present who had cut their teeth in Westerns were roped into the film, but the lead actors were young and fairly fresh faces – Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, and George Peppard.

Of course, from a contemporary perspective the inherent triumphalism of the title How The West Was Won and the general thesis contained within obliges more than a few raised eyebrows. The opening narration immediately sets teeth on edge as it formulates the idea of the West having to be “won from nature and from primitive man.” One can all but hear descendants of the primitive men snorting loudly in the aisles. Also very notably excised from its depiction of the West are any African-American people at all, a perturbing reminder of how not long ago people could make a movie like this and yet completely excise a whole bloc of society. In that light it’s interesting to note that the hit TV series Roots, screened a mere 15 years after How The West Was Won came out but reflecting a vastly different zeitgeist, played as both a vehement counter-narrative but also a spiritual companion piece with a similar narrative temple and equally engaged with creating a mythos of American founding. To be fair, also, How The West Was Won eventually proves surprisingly layered when it does get around to encompassing the clash between white and Native Americans in “The Railway,” as well as exhibiting feminist underpinnings in the way the film revolves around two strong-willed woman who each choose different paths entirely according to their own characters and who stitch themselves into the fabric of the country. When I recently watched the film shortly after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), a film just as about as opposite a social and historical viewpoint as it’s possible to get in mainstream storytelling, I couldn’t help but feel that in certain ways How The West Was Won is the more sophisticated dramatic artefact and consideration of history.

Of course, what How The West Was Won mostly wants to do is provide a rollicking and affirming epic. The physical immediacy and immersive power of the Cinerama screen is balanced by an insistence on playing the film’s dramatic elements for maximum theatrical bravura. Because the producers presumably couldn’t get hold of Jehovah’s agent when looking for a narrator, they got the next best thing in Spencer Tracy. His inimitable tones are heard over an opening shot that immediately evinces the film’s pure sense of spectacle and deeply worshipful sense of the American landscape, as the expanse of the screen is filled with the soaring crags and banks of ice of the Rocky Mountains. Linus Rawlings, one of the mountain men venturing into the wilderness to hunt fur and filled out by the dangling physique of James Stewart, rides a horse towards the camera along a high ridge, imbued with a monumental quality by the unique lensing effect and sharpness of the Cinerama camera and entirely fitting with the film’s hypertrophied aesthetic ambitions. Despite the multiple directors and sprawl of action, some attention is paid to revisiting this shot much later in the film when Linus’ son Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Rawlings (George Peppard) himself briefly drops out of society and spends time as a mountain man himself with his father’s old pal Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), like his father traversing a highland ridge, lord of all he surveys.

Linus’ ramblings see him negotiating with Native tribes as an exemplar of a peaceable intruder in the Western landscape, but already destined to intersect in returning eastward with the family of the religious but talkative and footloose Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), who has set his mind on dragging his large family – wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead), two grown daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds), and two sons – off in an expedition along the Ohio River via the Erie Canal to find a new spread in Illinois, sometime in the 1830s. Waiting for their paddleboat on the Canal, Zebulon raves to another patriarch, the Scottish immigrant Alex Harvey (Tudor Owen) who’s making the same journey with his clutch of sons, that he owned a farm so rocky he had to blast out furrows with gunpowder, a story Rebecca immediately dismisses: “We had the best farm in the county…it was his itchin’ foot that brought us here.” Zebulon, noting Harvey’s sons are all single and eager to get his girls married off, gets the musically inclined Lilith to entertain them all. Lilith initially, sarcastically starts to sing a dirty shanty, to be immediately chastised and obliged to sing the song that becomes a generational motif throughout the film, a version of “Greensleeves” with new lyrics (by Sammy Cahn) called “A Home in the Meadow.” 

Hathaway has always been a director left in a limbo of appreciation even as he surely counted as one of the major figures of Hollywood for most of its so-called Golden Age. Born the son of two actors, Hathaway had the odd distinction of inheriting through his mother the title of Marquis in the Belgian aristocracy: his mother’s father had been sent to the US negotiating with the government over possession of the Hawaiian Islands. Hathaway made his name as an assistant director under DeMille and Von Stroheim amongst others. Whilst he would work in just about every genre known the Hollywood when he became a director in his own right, his debut was on the Western Heritage of the Desert (1932), whilst The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) made him a major filmmaker. Most of his best work came in the film noir genre in the latter 1940s, with films like Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Niagara (1953), and later Westerns including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969), although his greatest work is likely the backwoods drama The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). Hathaway was a no-nonsense image-crafter and a smart handler of actors, although his lesser movies could dissolve into plodding competence.

Hathaway’s long-honed talent at balancing cinematic gloss with strong performances as the most professional of Hollywood pros is certainly apparent in the early scenes of How The West Was Won as he presents the Prescotts as a prototypical American family. Zebulon is nominally a zealous New England Quaker, named for a son of Jacob mentioned in the Torah who becomes a father of a tribe, but constantly lurches into tall tales and is tempted by profane urges, his daughters, whose names also wryly but meaningfully echo Biblical figures with the born-to-be-married Eve and the peripatetic Lilith, already well-schooled in worldly affairs: “Ma’am, it seems to me you’ve been kissed before,” Linus notes after snogging Eve. Linus encounters the Prescotts on the Ohio River down which they’re travelling with the Harveys on rafts they build themselves: afraid at first Linus might be a river pirate, Zebulon warns him to approach carefully with a gun trained on him, but is satisfied Linus is on the level and let him camp with them. Linus gives Eve the suggestive gift of a beaver pelt, and immediately Eve sets her cap at him, eventually drawing him into the woods for a spell of had wooing: “Eve, you make me feel like a man standing on a narrow ledge comin’ face to face with a grizzly bear,” Linus groans, and confesses, “I’m a sinful man, deep, dark, sinful – I’m on my way to Pittsburgh to be sinful again.” Eve nonetheless remains smitten. When her father awakens in the morning and sees Linus’ canoe is gone he immediately hollers out to make sure Eve is still in the camp, and finds she is, expecting nonetheless to meet Linus again.

The rather jagged age disparity between Baker and Stewart (although he looks younger than he was and Baker was a bit older than she looked) and Reynolds’ later offered the choice of Gregory Peck and Robert Preston for romantic interest reflects an odd moment in Hollywood history when younger leading men were thin on the ground (or too busy in TV, like Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Burt Reynolds) and the old familiars getting, well, old: the same year Stewart was called upon to play the idealistic young lawyer of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Baker and Peppard, playing her son, despite their genuine and formidable talent, look meanwhile far too glossy to fit properly into the historical setting. Reynolds meanwhile is at least given a role tailor made to show of all her skills as a musical star, and the way the film showcases her performances often makes How The West Was Won close to a musical in a manner that today rather strongly resembles Bollywood cinema in its willingness to inject such scene amidst otherwise serious stories, and might even have given that style some licence. One agreeable aspect of this, however, is that How The West Was Won left behind some of the more pretentious aspects of the 1950s Western style, avoiding the moral gravitas of Westerns begotten by High Noon (1952), and whilst also evoking the self-conscious mythicism of Shane (1953), its showbiz energy cuts in a very different direction, just two years before Sergio Leone would launch on his much darker-hued and wilder effort to drag the Western back to its violent and mythical roots.

Linus’ attempt to escape the spectre of settling down represented by Eve hits a serious road bump when he lands at a trading post set up in a cave by the river, which proves to be an enclave of actual river pirates captained by Jeb Hawkins (inevitably, Walter Brennan), with his daughter (Brigid Bazlen) and crew of cutthroats (including Lee Van Cleef, looking like the ancestor of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, 1969). Under the guise of getting Linus to identify a strange animal caught in the cave, the daughter leads him deeper into the cave before stabbing him in the gut and dropping him into a pit. Fortunately the wound proves superficial and the pit leads back out to the river, and Linus swims to safety. The Prescotts and the Harveys encounter the same pirates at a new locale further down the river, and are held up by at gunpoint by the rogues. Linus bounding out of the underbrush and launches an axe into one pirate’s back, sparking a battle: one of Harvey’s sons is shot dead, but Hawkins gets walloped with a chair, Lilith chases down and swats his daughter with a sack full of coins, and Linus hurls a barrel of gunpowder on a fire, causing an explosion that takes out several pirates. As they bury the dead, Zebulon leads a group in prayer, concluding with an invocation to God that, having sent His way several evil souls, “We ask thee humbly to receive them…whether you want ‘em or not.” Eve fails again to convince Linus to marry her, and continues on downriver with her family. The Prescotts take a wrong fork and finish up careening through some rapids: the raft breaks apart, and the two elder Prescotts are killed.

This first third of the film gains zest from Malden’s outsized performance, whilst Webb’s script cuts against the grain of sanctified patriotism by teasing out a disparity between the sentimentalities of Victorian fiction and the hard-headed necessities of frontier life. The disparity between the sarcastic and sceptical Lilith and the arch romantic Eve is noted as Eve rhapsodises over a passage in a romantic novel she’s reading in which lovers carve their names interlocked on a tree trunk and the man hurls his knife at the junction, much to Eve’s disbelief. Later when Eve successfully encourages Linus to perform this symbolic deed, Lilith blurts, “You got a growed man to do that?!” Part of the joke is precisely that Linus proves despite his status as the hardiest and most independent of men to be especially susceptible to such absurd gestures. Notably, Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), which knowingly appropriated Alfred Newman’s theme for this film for its opening, also in part was a spoof-cum-remake of “The Rivers,” similarly seeing a starry-eyed woman under the spell of romantic fantasy thrown in with an actual, hard-bitten adventurer. Lilith for her part plays a sardonic sad accordion sound as a response to one of Linus’ tall tales. There’s a satirical lilt to Hawkins using a big Stars and Stripes pinned on the wall to prove the adage about patriotism as a last refuge, reiterated when, as he and his men rob the settlers, Hawkins inveigles them: “Why, it’s in our noble tradition that we conquer the wilderness with nothing but our bare hands and stout hearts!” The sexually loaded image of Linus going off with Hawkins’ daughter to get a gander at a strange furry thing has meaning he acknowledges later on to Eve: “I still went to see the varmint with the pirate girl. I’ll always be goin’ to see the varmint.” 

The white water scene meanwhile sports some impressive stunt work of the kind that obviously demanded risk of life and limb to the stuntpeople involved, even though interspersed with rear projection work. After crawling out of the river, Lilith, helping Eve bury their parents (their two young brothers vanish from the story), plans to return east at the first opportunity, but Eve vows to remain on the shore of the Ohio where the graves are, and Linus, after hearing about the disaster, tracks her down and agrees to get married and help her build a farm. Lilith leaves on a paddleboat and, a few years later in “The Plains” chapter, is rediscovered making a living as a vaudevillian in St. Louis, singing her own songs and dancing in rambunctious fashion with a troupe. The moment she gets an unexpected inheritance from one of her gentleman admirers, who has recently deceased and left her a gold-producing claim in California, Lilith is happy to abandon her career and signs onto a wagon train forming up under the captaincy of Roger Morgan (Preston), partnering with another unaccompanied female, Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who quickly realises that Lilith is a man magnet and, being eager to get married, she might be able to nab one of her rejects. A professional gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Peck), who overhears Lilith hearing the news of her good fortune. Owing a lot of money, Cleve resolves to get into Lilith’s good graces by offering his services as a hired hand: initially rejected, Cleve trails the train, and at length gets Aggie to vouch for him. 

“The Plains” spares several scenes for Reynolds to strut her stuff in the kind of musical performance that made her a star, straining at the edges of credibility for a nominally straight-laced drama, particularly when she starts hollering out a hoedown dance number to stir up the others on the wagon train, who might well have shot her for waking them up, but instead all get roused for a fling including Cleve, who proves unembarrassed to dance in a towel having muddied up his pants. Later, when she’s back to performing alone around the California gold fields, Lilith sings the bawdy ditty “What Was Your Name in the States?”, mocking the denizens of the West as criminals and rejects of all stripes, and still later warbles “A Home in the Meadow” again with a backdrop and accompaniment more ripe for The Lawrence Welk Show rather unlikely for the setting of a Sacramento riverboat. Borderline silly as such moments are in context, they nonetheless point to that subtext I noted before, charting the birth of a specifically American performing style and attributing it to the wild energy of such places and people. This aspect of the movie is also connected with the interpolation of folk songs on the soundtrack, a touch that also pins the movie exactly to the folk music craze of the early ‘60s. Songs like “Erie Canal” and “Shenandoah” in “The Rivers” chapter and, more obviously, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during “The Civil War,” are used not just as appropriate mood-setting but as markers in the temporal and physical journey. 

Lilith, the avatar for the film’s conflation of pioneer and hoofer chutzpah, is partnered with the equally, obviously on-the-make Cleve, who Lilith understands as a creature much like herself: “We might both have been born for the poorhouse, but we’re not the kind to like it.” Morgan is contemptuous of Cleve, pegging him for a card sharp and almost giving him a beating when he catches him gaming with other travellers. He also initially takes Lilith for less than reputable, inspiring her to start lashing him with a whip when he calls her “a woman of your sort.” During the long trek to California, Morgan becomes impressed by Lilith and asks her to marry him. When the train is attacked by a band of Comanche, Morgan bets they want the train’s herd of cattle and some of their horses and takes the chance of charging the train for cover. Innumerable number of Westerns had sported scenes of Indians attacking wagon trains, but this is certainly the most spectacular, even on the smallest screen the looming, surging quality of the Cinerama frame and its depth of field matched to tracking shots and dashing behind and before the mounted riders and with the charging wagons surging across the screen which in standard format makes them seem to be bending. 

Cleve proves his valour by unhooking the lead horses from Lilith and Aggie’s wagon, in a stunt modelled Yakima Canutt’s famous work on Stagecoach (1939). He also leaps off to save some men from an upturned wagon, only to be thought lost in the melee. Morgan, toppled from his steed, grabs onto a lead horse pulling a wagon and plucks Lilith, who falls amidst crazily wheeling horses, off the ground and swings her in behind him. When Cleve turns up during the night with the man he rescued and utterly exhausted, it’s plain he and Lilith are in love, causing Morgan to shy away. When they reached California Lilith and Cleve find to their grievous disappointment that Lilith’s claim has already been mined out, leaving her as poor as before, and they soon split. When Morgan comes across her performing, he again offers to marry Lilith, but she still wistfully refuses, whilst also refusing to condemn Cleve for wanting the same things she does. Sometime after, Cleve hears her singing on the riverboat and performs what he considers the ultimate romantic gesture in putting aside a winning hand to come see her. He proposes they get married and insists they quiet they respective jobs and head off to San Francisco to make their fortune, having their clinch just in time for the intermission. 

Much of the hard work of stitching How The West Was Won into a whole was done by Newman with a score that counts as the climax of his career, wielding a variety of grandiose, even often corny, but ferocious showmanship that would barely last out the 1960s. Newman’s main theme immediately announces the blockbuster stature of the production as well as the florid romanticism and bristling energy of what’s ahead, over a painted title card representing Native Americans hunting buffalo and attacking a stagecoach. A variation heard at the end comes appended with silly lyrics, and lush, even syrupy renditions of “A Home in the Meadow” also punctuate the soundtrack. Between each chapter of the film come brief vignettes narrated by Tracy explaining the intervening, big picture events of the history the characters pass through, noting the likes of the Mexican-American War (borrowing footage from John Wayne’s The Alamo, 1960; later MGM recycles some shots from Raintree County, 1957) and the Pony Express at work but also being chased down by telegraph construction. The first vignette after the intermission notably features Raymond Massey playing Abraham Lincoln, the role he had essayed to acclaim in the play Abe Lincoln In Illinois and its 1940 film adaptation, but he doesn’t get any dialogue, only requied to look pensive and sit down to write at his desk like a slightly more mobile Disney animatronic.

Ford’s “The Civil War” chapter follows, and if ever a director taking over a project can be felt by a viewer, it’s here. Eve, now aging, is still on the farm she and Linus built, but Linus has gone to fight for the Union and gained a Captain’s rank, whilst she persists with her two teenage sons. The elder, named after his grandfather and called Zeb (George Peppard) by all, is eager to follow his dad off to the fight, whilst the younger, Jeremiah (Claude Johnson), loves working the farm. They receive a letter from Lilith brought by the local postmaster (Ford regular Andy Devine), assuring them there’s no fighting in California and offering to take Zeb in, but Zeb is insistent, and Eve finally gives in. Eve and Zeb talking about his future and his departure could have been clipped right out of How Green Was My Valley (1941) or The Sun Shines Bright (1953) in the slowly rhythmic, intense evocation of emotion registered more in gestures and physical attitudes than dialogue, start and end of the scene bracketed by Devine’s approach on his wagon and Zeb’s leaving by foot along a tree-shaded, sun-dappled road. Ford’s sense of dramatic symmetry is carefully despoiled when Zeb comes home by riverboat, and his return proves no return at all. Ford similarly brackets the central vignette depicting the Battle of Shiloh, or rather its nocturnal intermission, with banks of cannons being set off. Both Linus and Zeb are amongst the soldiers fighting the battle, but only Zeb survives it.

Where Hathaway dealt with the tricky problem of framing in the Cinerama format by mostly keeping his distance and often blocking shots along flat, rectilinear lines, Ford immediately displays his bolder eye in trying to wrangle the format to serve him. He works to compose multiple elements for the three-block frames, often framing his actors obliquely foregrounded and utilising the depth of field to hold them in their environs, or utilising the centre of the frame for its looming, almost vertiginous quality to achieve a painterly framing, as in a vignette of an army surgeon contending with a stream of bodies splayed out on a blood-smeared table top before him: one of the bodies is that Linus, whose loss hits the men under his command who have carried him there hard. They carry him out again, one becoming annoyed with an officer who bumps into him, not realising the officer is General U.S. Grant (Harry Morgan), accompanied by his friend and subordinate General Sherman (John Wayne), who behold the awful spectacle of the improvised surgical ward. Meanwhile Zeb wanders the battle disorientated and stricken with disgust, carrying only the barrel and affixed bayonet of his broken rifle. He encounters a stray Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who professes to be deserting and tries to talk Zeb into coming with him, whilst gleefully showing off the revolver he stole off a dead officer. But when they spy Grant and Sherman talking, the Confederate tries to take a shot at them, missing when Zeb grabs his arm, and Zeb stabs him to death with his bayonet.  

The conceit in portraying the Civil War through this vignette is transformed into pure Fordian expression, eliding traditional depictions of the conflict’s battles and instead meditating on its human cost, the carnage rather than action, in a manner reminiscent of his depiction of the aftermath of a Revolutionary War battle in Drums Along The Mohawk (1939). The stream flowing by the Union camp tastes strange to Zeb when he takes a drink of it, the Confederate tells him why: the stream is running red with blood. Ford’s surveys of ditches being dug for myriad corpses would be quoted by Leone for Duck, You Sucker (1972). Ford applies painterly skill to images like the blooming trees lit up in firelight looming over the bedraggled warriors and rows of corpses and tainted rivers, whilst the sidelong glance at Grant and Sherman achieves a similar brand of nuance in depicting the human underneath the historical mystique to that he managed with Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Grant is portrayed as feeling the toll not just of a terrible and exhausting day of fighting, but in expecting to be blamed for the nearly successful surprise attack with rumours he was drunk going around. Sherman retorts that he was the one hit by surprise, and argues with Grant until he relents in his decision to resign: “I say a man only has the right to resign if he’s wrong, not if he’s right.” The odd but ingenious casting of Morgan and Wayne renders Sherman the block of assurance to Grant’s wizened self-doubt, the pivot of the moment of regaining moral and personal courage matched to Zeb more literally saving Grant’s life and so changing the course of the war.

Zeb and the Confederate’s encounter provides the common grunt’s mirror to the two leaders, and acknowledges the surreal and unnecessary sight of two ordinary men representing two great power blocs meeting amidst the wreckage and connecting. The moment the Confederate takes aim he becomes an enemy again, and Zeb screams at him as he dies, “Why did you make me do that?!” Zeb’s return home continues the cyclical motif but also breaks with it, as Zeb returns on a riverboat rather than by the road, setting the scene for Zeb’s shock in seeing Eve’s grave now beside Linus’s, his mother having wasted away after his father’s death. Zeb declines continuing to run the farm with his brother, and decides to remain in the army. This leads into Marshall’s contribution to the film, with “The Railway” opening with a brief depiction of the Pony Express riders degying “bandits, Indians, hell and occasional high water” and their supplanting by telegraph poles, before shifting to the race to build the transcontinental railroad. Zeb, now in the Cavalry, is the army’s official representative charged with negotiating with the Arapaho whose land the railway is being built across, and protecting the construction workers, a job that requires tricky balance. Zeb meets Stuart, his father’s old pal, who’s been hired to hunt buffalo to keep the workers fed. Both men find themselves in constant conflict with the high-powered and overbearing engineer running the construction, Mike King (Richard Widmark).

“The Railway” is in terms of story and length the scantiest of the film’s five proper chapters, and it doesn’t have the artistry of Ford’s portion. But it’s the most interesting part of the film in terms of what it tries to dramatise and say about it. George Marshall was one of the oldest of old pros still working in Hollywood: like many early Hollywood figures he lived a peripatetic life after he dropped out of college, doing everything from journalism to logging, until he stumbled into filmmaking and debuted as a director on the 1916 short Across the Rio Grande. Marshall worked with early screen heroes from Tom Mix to Laurel and Hardy, but most of his films were lost or relatively forgotten until he found a niche in comedy, reviving Marlene Dietrich’s career with the comedy-western Destry Rides Again (1939) and cleverly fusing horror and comedy with The Ghost Breakers (1940), and with films like The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Perils of Pauline (1947), Houdini (1953), and The Sheepman (1958) scattered amidst a lot more forgettable fare. It’s to Marshall’s credit that he manages to construct an ideogram of narrative, history, philosophy, character, and filmmaking bravura in his twenty-minute chapter. “The Railway” deals with the tension between the relentless progressive positivism the film otherwise espouses and the question of its cost to Native Americans and other bystanders and bit players of history. Tracy’s narration notes that the prize in the race to complete the track is free land “one day would be worth millions.” 

Mike King embodies the headlong and relentless drive of the railway project in specific and the west-conquering project in total. When Stuart brings to the railhead the bodies of some men killed by Arapaho for violating their agreed territory, King furiously demotes the foreman who lets workers gawk at the sight, and sacks Stuart, who only laconically queries whether King himself is going to feed the men. When the railway has to take a new route through the tribal hunting grounds, King pressures Zeb into making a new agreement with the Arapaho for the diversion. Zeb makes the compact, only for Stuart to make him aware that he’s now personally responsible in the Arapaho logic for the keeping of the agreement, and he’ll pay the price if anyone breaks it. Hearing the train whistle Stuart mutters that it sounds “like the crack of doom for all that’s natural,” and muses on how he and Linus were constantly driven forward by the coming of civilisation: as the nation-building project reaches its climax already it’s birthing rueful nostalgia for days when everything was free and wild. Meanwhile Zeb’s clashes with King see the railroad man willing to do anything to get his job done, and obeys his bosses who, cash-strapped from the construction, want to make money by transporting buffalo hunters and immigrant settlers up the line. 

This immediately infuriates the Arapaho, and Zeb finds himself abandoned by his scouts. Zeb confronts King, who retorts that the Arapaho will have to do like the incoming settlers and change their ways to make it in the new land. Zeb says he knows he’s right in the long term but that “they don’t have to be double-crossed” and vows to resign. Zeb rides out to try and appease the Arapaho but is immediately shot at, and the tribes muster together a huge herd of buffalo and stampede through the railway camp, killing a number of camp dwellers including women and children. The buffalo charge is another interlude of awesome spectacle, but more impactful is the aftermath as Zeb again confronts King, demanding of him as they listen to an orphaned baby wailing, becoming an emblem of everything injured and left bereft by the American project: “You can live with that?” “You think that’s crying?” King retorts: “That’s just new life being born.” Nonetheless the cost to the self-appointed prophet of the future is glimpsed as King climbs up onto the front of a train and his face buckles in pain, allowing himself a private squall of empathy even as the iron horse starts urging him forward again. Some of the patchiness of the film’s last third, according to Hathaway, was down to Smith, whom Hathaway felt was incompetent, and MGM boss Sol Siegel, who he said was drunk right through filming, spending so much money on the early portions they were reluctant to shoot the latter, but Hathaway argued that if they didn’t at least film “The Outlaws” they wouldn’t have a movie, as in his mind the victory of law and order enacted in the chapter was the winning of the west.

 “The Outlaws” finally delivers a classic Western situation reminiscent of High Noon but with a new situational twist. The chapter begins with some more connecting vignettes depicting frontier struggles between sheep graziers and cattle farmers, with a shepherd gunned down whilst his flock is driven off. Zeb, now middle-aged, moustachioed, and weathered, is glimpsed working as a US Marshal, shooting after some hooligans careening down his main street. Zeb has become an intermediary figure, bring law and order to the far west in Arizona Territory, but also one with his readiness to use a gun and get down and dirty about to meet his own sunset. In San Francisco, the now greying and widowed Lilith is glimpsed selling off the mansion she and Cleve built and all the belongings within to pay off their debts, including the chair Lilith is sitting on. Lilith says that she and Cleve “made and spent three fortunes together…if he’d lived a little longer we would have made and spent another.” She takes comfort in her last possession, some land in Arizona, and knowing Zeb is working near it at the town of Gold City, she decides to get him to help her work it. Zeb is happy to quit being a Marshal, as he’s now a family man, and he, his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones), and his three children meet Lilith at the train. Also on the train is a much less welcome face: Zeb’s old outlaw nemesis Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), released from prison and met in town by some of his old gang (with Harry Dean Stanton amongst their number). 

Zeb, immediately suspecting Gant has both some criminal enterprise in mind and possibly revenge too considering Zeb killed his brother in a shootout, goes to warn his replacement as Marshal and former colleague Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb). Lou however doesn’t feel there’s anything to act on except for Zeb’s own apparent grudge against Gant. After Gant, in his customary manner of smiling hyperpoliteness, makes veiled threats against Zeb’s family, he becomes convinced the only way to stop him is to catch him in a crime, and deduces Gant and his gang intend to rob a gold shipment going out of town on a train. When Lou finds Zeb preparing for battle he threatens to arrest him. Whilst “The Outlaws” is chiefly a pretext for the climactic action scene, it grazes substantial territory here as Lou makes clear he’s not going to tolerate any vigilante action, echoing the theme of many a 1950s “adult” Western in contemplating the end of the Wild West’s each-man-a-paladin ethos and the oncoming age of proper law and order. Zeb however manages to persuade Lou that he means to use the law, and the two ride out on the gold train. Just as Zeb expected, Gant’s gang try to stop the train with a barricade on the tracks, but the driver speeds through it. The outlaws chase on horseback and clamber onto the train, trying to fight their way up to the engine.

Whilst it would likely have more dramatic impact if it came at the end of a more developed story, the shootout on the train is the show-stopping sequence it was plainly intended as. It also marks an interesting moment in the history of the Western film, where it intersects with nascent signs of the modern action film emerging, in turning from a genre mostly powered by literal horsepower to action staged at speed and with an emphasis on chaotic danger and large-scale destruction, which makes it the one sequence in How The West Was Won that feels forward-looking. Nods to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) are played dead straight as cargo on the train like lumber lengths, a tractor, and a steam engine break loose and cause havoc for the men who have to dangle and dodge it, punctuated by some brilliant stunt work from dedicated performers pretending to fall dead off the top of the moving train. Lou turns the chaos to his own purpose as he shoots up ropes tying down the engine to force Gant out of cover: finally the tractor falls off with is caught by a dangling chain and dragged behind the train. Finally rear carriages detach from the forward and roll back down a gradient, and Zeb, hanging off the rear, manages to plug Gant before the train crashes off the rails and wreckage flies everywhere. Steven Spielberg would directly cite the sequence as a model for the desert chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), George Miller would evidently take much inspiration for the climactic chases of his Mad Max films, and echoes through all movies influenced by them. 

The sight of an aging but still wry and lively Lilith finding a home with Zeb and his family sets the seal on the How The West Was Won’s generational story, with Hathaway sneaking in a last flourish of humour as Lilith sits down to distract Zeb’s kids by teaching them card games, before arguing with them over ownership of “A Home in the Meadow” which Zeb learned from Eve, as the family roll out towards their new home via, inevitably, the forms of Monument Valley. The film is capped off in its full-length version by an appended epilogue utilising footage shot for the Cinerama-showcasing film This Is Cinerama, surveying works of modern American industry and engineering, from Boulder Dam and Lake Mead and logging machinery at work, open-cut mines and vast wheat fields, to the freeways and skyscrapers of San Francisco, at length resolving on an incredible helicopter shot barrelling under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea. With Newman reiterating his theme but this time with soaring choral voices voicing cheesy lyrics, this all goes stratospherically over the top, whilst underlining its sense of imperial vigour in the won west with visions of capitalist-industrialist imprint on the land that’s hard to exalt quite so freely from sixty years later, and indeed within only a few short years American culture was being reshaped by those more with Jethro Stuart’s outlook. And yet the epilogue is also undeniably impressive and memorable, exalting in cinema at its largest possible scale capturing imagery redolent of a continental myth, and coherent as a conclusion to the story the film tells. And the film’s faith that it can find something gobsmacking in the real world and not a CGI program now feels, well, radical.

1930s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Romance, Thriller

Shanghai Express (1931)


Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenwriter: Jules Furthman

By Roderick Heath

Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich perhaps come closest of all the products of classic Hollywood film to embodying an oft-conjured pop-art fantasia of what popular cinema once was like. Theirs was a cinematic world of glamour-touched amazons blazing in photogenic glory against backdrops that persist amidst dreamlike textures and expressionist shadows, a world forged on soundstages as Sternberg rejected realism in cinema in favour of generating his own, stylised pocket universes and exalting the notion that cinema was above all a foundry of dreams for a dull and seamy world gripped by Depression and war and other chaotic turns. The sort of thing more recent filmmakers and pop stars try to create pastiches of when referring back to that era’s cinema. Dietrich was the fetishised linchpin, the preeminent and eternal exemplar of Sternberg’s actress-sphinxes, transformed through both filmmaking technique and an array of carefully worked narratives into a confluence of female archetypes that blur the feminine illusion and the cinematic kind and merely become everything alluring and untouchable. Sternberg discovered Dietrich whilst making a sojourn to Germany to recover from commercial disappointments in Hollywood. Their first collaboration The Blue Angel (1930), was a variation on one of Sternberg’s favourite themes, of a man destroyed by his own obsessive streak, but this time with heavy emphasis on the saucy, amoral seductress who almost incidentally breaks down a cultured professor.   

Dietrich and Sternberg’s first film in Hollywood, Morocco (1930), partly inverted that template, casting Dietrich as a nightclub performer who eventually discovers the mortifying bliss of selfless passion. Lucky perhaps for Dietrich and Sternberg that Morocco came out in America before The Blue Angel, establishing Dietrich not as a femme fatale but a romantic hiding within a sensual cynic, essentially the persona that would drive the next thirty years of her career. By the time of The Scarlet Empress (1934) Sternberg was charting the ironic shifts of the collaboration and their off-screen relationship, the gawking naïf eventually replaced by the imperious, cuckolding hedonist, and finally the all-sweeping conqueror who can only be regarded in awe and fear. Shanghai Express was Sternberg and Dietrich’s fourth film together, in a string of movies that moved purposefully between intensely imagined far-flung locales. It also represents another stream within Sternberg’s oeuvre, forming the first part of a loose quadrilogy that could be described as Sternberg’s Orientalist phase, followed by The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Macao (1952), and the actually made-in-Japan Anatahan (1953). Something in Sternberg’s imagination was set loose by such settings. Undoubtedly, this was partly sparked by proximity to exotic aesthetics and the promise of different ethical and cultural prisms, both things he was ineffably fascinated by in his ongoing rebellion against tepid mainstream aesthetics and mores, just before both public taste and Hollywood regimes would turn against what he was doing.  

Sternberg, despite his mock-aristocratic airs and appended “von”, had come up the hard way, both as an Austrian Jewish immigrant and a Hollywood player. Sternberg was born out of wedlock in a Vienna to which he remained permanently, nostalgically attached, scion to a bullying father who was disinherited for finally, actually tying the knot with his mother. He recalled his family’s passage through Ellis Island and being inspected like cattle. He was a troubling youth, intermittently homeless and oscillating between Europe and America in a long and desperate search for something like a home. He dropped out of high school determined to teach himself, and changed his name from Jonas to Josef to please himself. He first started working with film during World War I when he made training films for the US Army, and afterwards rode a motorcycle around Italy to try and see all the country’s churches. Even the roots of his appended “von” are hazy, possibly handed him by a studio, or adopted as a tribute to his hero Erich Von Stroheim, whose favour he lost after he agreed to help MGM reedit the master’s The Merry Widow (1926).  

Sternberg’s fascination for places and cultures meeting at points of flux in multicultural melting pots had then a persuasively autobiographical meaning. For Sternberg aesthetics weren’t just decoration, but the actual stuff of life, evoking the jostling mass of impressions and conventions and signifiers woven together to create an illusion of society, his cinematic frames points of converge for myriad signs and tropes and ideas. In none of his films is this more vital than with Shanghai Express, which might not be his greatest film, but is nonetheless perhaps his most essential and representative work. That’s in part because it’s one of his Dietrich vehicles, and also a sublime balancing act at once delirious and exacting, surreal and tactile, sarcastic and sincere, old-fashioned and fiercely modern. The basic material is harvested from some well-worn texts revolving around the ever-mythologised figure of the fallen but essential decent and redeemable prostitute, pinching the basic plot of Guy De Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” (which would also serve a few years later as a template for John Ford’s Stagecoach, 1939), with a little of W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Rain” and novel The Painted Veil thrown in for good measure.  

The official basis however was a story by Henry Hervey, inspired in turn by a true incident that occurred in 1923. Known as the Lincheng Outrage, that incident saw a warlord out of Shandong capture the Shanghai-to-Beijing express and take everyone on board hostage, including twenty-five westerners, amongst them Lucy Aldrich, aunt of future filmmaker Robert Aldrich. After being held for two days, a ransom was paid and all the captives freed. Shanghai Express posits other reasons for such a waylaying. Warner Oland, the Swedish actor then very famous and popular for playing Chinese characters including the prototypical supervillain Fu Manchu and detective character Charlie Chan, is cast as Henry Chang, aka Number One, the leader of a revolutionary army who has mixed Chinese and European heritage, a detail Sternberg seems to have introduced in part to express scepticism with being saddled with Oland’s yellowface act, but also using it purposefully to meditate on the theme of divided identity in a film otherwise driven by clashing binaries. Chang becomes one of many projection figures for Sternberg as a portrait in will, a man who declares “I live by my own code,” and operates his army less as an organ with political aims than as an extension of his own will and ego, much like Sternberg’s approach to filmmaking.

Structural affinity here with disaster movies, and Shanghai Express is one, after a fashion, whilst also resembling the film that beat it out for 1932’s Best Picture Oscar, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, which similarly threw together an array of archetypes into a microcosmic setting that begets odd new realities. Where Grand Hotel is nascent soap opera wrapped in art deco chic, Shanghai Express is more classical melodrama, and a consequential hit of early sound cinema, establishing some stock situations and archetypes that would pervade the next twenty years of Hollywood product. Even Casablanca (1942) can be described as a variant. Furthman would recycle elements of his script for this for the likes of Tay Garnett’s China Seas (1935) and eventually for Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and as different as Sternberg and Hawks were, they had a point of intersection that Furthman helped draw out, in their fascination with characters who learn to live entirely by their own compass. Furthman would also recycle and amplify some of it, like the “To buy a new hat” joke made by the footloose heroine when questioned by pompous creeps about her reasons for travelling, in Hawks’ To Have And Have Not (1944). More immediately Shanghai Express sparked a wave of films set in then-fractious China, films like Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Lewis Milestone’s The General Died At Dawn (1936), John Farrow’s West of Shanghai (1937), and Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937).

Sternberg opens with a rigorous sense linearity in tethering narrative to the train itself, depicting labourers making the train ready for is journey out of Beijing Station, or Peiping as it’s referred to here as per outmoded transliteration. Sternberg offers a brief montage of an engineer oiling mechanisms and a coolie washing windows, before the passengers begin to arrive. Some servants carry an opulent litter up to the train and out climbs Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), presented as an exemplar of Eastern status but also the first of the film’s two crucial women apart, granted prosperity and a measure of imperious independence at the expense of being considered socially unacceptable. Meanwhile the representatives of the West buy their tickets in a queue: old biddy Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) hands out cards for her boarding house in Shanghai and dotes over her dog which she smuggles into her compartment in a hamper, only to suffer his being stashed away in the baggage car. Bulbous businessman Yankee Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette) wears his wealth literally on his sleeve in the form of diamonds, only for these to prove to be phonies, the real ones never leaving his safe. Skinny old traveller Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz) brings a whiff of decadence and neurasthenia aboard: he calls himself an invalid and is grouchily insistent on avoiding all drafts, forcing windows to be kept shut and ventilators turned off. Major Lenard (Émile Chautard) is a French military man in full uniform, making his pleasantries to all but barely speaking a word of English. Missionary Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) comes aboard charged up with seemingly scornful passion for virtue. And there’s Chang, biding his time and playing the gentleman but always barely concealing his mordant and fatalistic vision.

Two other passengers of consequence also board the train: Captain Dr Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook), a military surgeon being shuttled to Shanghai to perform an urgent operation on the governor-general of Shanghai, and Madeline, known to all and sundry by her nom-de-guerre Shanghai Lily (Dietrich). Lily is dropped off in the up-to-date equivalent of Hui Fei’s litter, a shimmering black Rolls Royce. She enters station, film, and our dreams, dressed as a fantasy vision, wearing a dress made of black feathers and a black mesh veil. She’s rendered a dark angel, a looming raptor, a creature of the night, every inch the maneater she’s characterised with by Harvey’s army chums and the fuming moralists aboard the train. Word of Lily being aboard is an instant topic of gossip and amused speculation, and Donald is forewarned to his affectations of sardonic disinterest and bewilderment as he’s told of this “notorious coaster.” When he asks what that is, he’s told, “A coaster’s a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast.” A high-class prostitute, in short. Donald maintains a level of cool detachment in the face of such notoriety close at hand, until he actually encounters Shanghai Lily and realises she’s actually Madeline, his former flame, the woman whose photo he still keeps a photo of in his watch case. “Married?” Donald asks, to Lily’s famous reply with its faint note of bitter humour and perverse pride, “No. It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”  

Even as he was adapting well to working with sound, Sternberg was a born silent filmmaker, who instinctively laboured to communicate through images. In true form, Sternberg condenses his metaphor for the world he’s portraying in Shanghai Express into a shot of the train rolling down a narrow Peiping street festooned with banners and crowded with shoppers and vendors, with the train it finally forced to halt because a cow has taken up station on the tracks, his aged owner in no hurry to move on for this chugging, blustering, smoke-spewing machine of modernity and its cargo of the rich and white. During the halt for the cow to be urged on Harvey and Lily meet and square off in the sharply divided image of a carriage window, shifting postures and attitudes, Lily framed with the edge of a bold and hard-edged Chinese banner, Harvey with a more tattered and discoloured standard, even as his trim, contained figure in uniform counters the inky wash of her black feathers. Once the train is allowed to creep onwards again, the contingent of soldiers riding atop the train lean over to spear food on the vendors’ stalls with their bayonets, in a sublimely cynical vignette that encapsulates with equal efficiency Sternberg’s opinion of military power and its part in this drama. Soon the Reverend Carmichael gets wind of the wicked ladies aboard the train, peering in on them like a bespectacled stork, and then warns Harvey, “Those two women are riding this train in search of victims…For the last fortnight I’ve been attending a man who went out of his mind after spending every penny on her.”

Whilst nominally a thriller and adventure movie, Shanghai Express is barely interested in that sort of thing, instead playing out as a series of entwined confrontations that all explore aspects of personal morality, finally winnowing it all down to a romantic quandary, being the fate of Harvey and Lily’s relationship. Both are still obviously charged with profound attraction from their first reunion and all the fluctuations that befall them. It’s a stock situation of course, cornball in almost any other hands, except for the way Sternberg frames it as only a slightly exaggerated take on the basic problem of men and women. It becomes clear during their many, angular conversations, filled with wordings and phrases that suggest some sort of elaborate semaphore, that whilst they were once engaged, Lily decided to test Donald’s faith in their love by provoking his jealousy, but the gesture backfired as Donald immediately left her. The push and pull between passion and disquiet, trust and suspicion enacted between Donald and Lily is the crux of all, with love posited as a form of faith as vital as, if not moreso, the religious kind. In that context it’s Donald rather than Lily who is the fallen figure, although at the same time he has a potency of will that distinguishes him from the men who go out of their mind after spending every penny on her. It’s easy to imagine Sternberg smirking more than a little when the film builds to the crucial moment when Lily prays for Donald’s safety in an apex of Hollywood cheese, and yet he deals with it with fierce earnestness, in part because of the heady power in that convergence of kinds of faith and, more importantly, in the images springing from it. Where Morocco found its famous zenith in the image of Dietrich striding off into the desert, facing a kind of degradation but also transcendence that took her to the verge of the mythic, Lily faces a similar pivot in which she offers her proof of faith in the most literal manner possible, with her body.

Sternberg couches this against the backdrop of the titular Shanghai Express, which is for the most part a moving stasis chamber for European sensibilities, drilling its way through a land in turmoil with its own ways of thinking and seeing and feeling. China at the time was a very different country in 1932 to the one we know today, notoriously beset by civil strife, regional warlords, clashing political factions, and overbearing Western influence. In the same year Shanghai Express was released Japan annexed Manchuria, and two years later Mao Zedong would lead the Long March. Not that Sternberg is interested in such political reality, although he and Furthman still arrive at a pretty sharp metaphor for a variety of petty, revanchist nationalism as embodied by Chang. Chang and Hui Fei are the only locals travelling in the first class compartment. Petty irritants proliferate, including Baum’s demands the ventilators in the dining car be shut off, but contain the seeds of awful consequence; big objections, like Carmichael’s complaints about the two hookers on the train, eventually prove negligible. At one point the train is stopped by government soldiers who inspect every passenger’s passports and papers, a sort of legal-official version of what Chang does more exactingly later when he scours every passenger for lies, deceptions, delusions, and hidden motives. During the sweep a tall Chinese passenger is arrested and spirited away by the soldiers: the arrested man is an agent of Chang’s carrying important information, and his loss provokes Chang to send a coded message to his soldiers up the line to wait for the train at the remote station of Te-Shan and be ready to capture it. The lush language of Chang’s coded message (“Blue Lotus lost – must have red blossoms at midnight.”) offers a flash of incidental poetry wrapped around dark meaning, and sarcastically mirrors the interplay of social codes and expressions that dance around the meat of each matter, including the way Donald and Lily’s speech waltzes around exact expressions of their feelings.

As the two fall into talking again on the carriage balcony, eventually resurging passion gets the better of both as Lily draws Donald down for a kiss, whereupon Sternberg cuts wittily to a shot of the loop on a mail pouch being held for a porter on the train to snatch as it rushes by: the old snare draws tight. “I wish you could tell me there were no other men,” Donald declares in exasperation after as he abruptly releases Lily, who retorts, donning his uniform cap in ironically subsuming his captaincy: “I wish I could too Doc, but five years in China is a long time.” When Donald glumly recites the life they should have had together and notes the things he wouldn’t have done if all that had transpired, Lily responds the only thing she wouldn’t have done was bob her hair. Delivered a telegram and asked by Donald if it’s from one of her lovers, she says no, and after she extracts a promise of belief from Donald hands him the telegram, which is indeed from one of her male admirers awaiting her arrival in Shanghai eagerly. Lily delivers the killer blow for both of them: “When I needed your faith you withheld it, and now that I don’t need it, and don’t deserve it, you give it to me.” The contrast in affect between the two, Donald’s glumness and Lily effervescent, accepting humour, betrays radically different ways of surviving an event that did damage to them both, suggesting that when Madeline became Shanghai Lily it was with a kind of heroic determination.

That determination shines out from her earliest scenes, as Lily is ensconced in her apartment with Hui Fei, the two hussies of radically different backgrounds and temperaments nonetheless obliged to meet in solidarity and silently indulge each-other. Lily has a gramophone from which she lets blare saucy jazz. When Mrs Haggerty comes around soliciting their custom for her boarding house with the promise she only allows the most respectable people in, Lily questions as she twiddles Haggerty’s card, “Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” When Haggerty reiterates that she keeps a boarding house, Lily makes a play of mishearing her and alluding to the possibility she keeps a bawdyhouse, whilst Hui Fei comments that she doesn’t quite grasp Haggert’s definition of respectability. The sarcasm of the two women repels her and Carmichael, even as Donald, Lenard, and Salt are in their individual and worldly ways more gentlemanly: “Time to put on the nose bags!” Salt quips as he passes the women on the way to the dining car and gives Hui Fei a chummy squeeze of the shoulder. Palette is ingeniously cast as Salt, exploiting his bullfrog chin and croaky voice to embody a certain kind of stolid American canniness, sporting his showy jewels that declare his wealth, only to be forced to give them up, and then reveal they were fakes all the time: “The real ones are in a safe in Shanghai.”

Chang meanwhile tries to corner Hui Fei in her apartment, seeking an easy conquest from the courtesan. Sternberg films this crucial moment in one deadpan shot utilising the sliding compartment doors as an element of staging, as Chang slides shut a door with a curtained window as a screen, before drawing Hui Fei to him for a moment of shadow-play, only for her to resist and slide the door open again, shoving Chang back into the hallway and delivering harsh rebuke in Mandarin. When the train reaches Te-Shan, Chang’s hidden soldiers gun down the government troops protecting it in an interlude of pure Expressionist style, and gather the first-class passengers in the station building, a run-down and eerie locale hastily repurposed as Chang’s headquarters. Chang takes over an office and bunkroom and one by one summons the passengers up to be variously interrogated and robbed, and, when Chang thinks it proper, to be punished for their slights and injuries to him. In the process Chang ruthlessly exposes rips away all false guises including his own, becoming a kind of judge and also an authorial figure, ending the games played aboard the train and forcing a dramatic crisis. Chang robs Salt, prods Baum with the truth that he’s an opium merchant, and utilises Lily’s translating skills to extract Lenard’s confession that he’s been drummed out of the French army but still wants to maintain the illusion he’s a soldier for his sister’s benefit when he reaches Shanghai. Hui Fei is bundled into his rooms, raped, and kicked out again, dishevelled and dizzy. He even nimbly extracts from Donald the facts of his mission to Shanghai, presenting him with just the right point of leverage to force his agent’s release and return.

Chang waves a red-hot iron plucked from a brazier at Baum and using it to scorch through a hanging mesh veil as a grim promise of his intention towards the rude old man: “I’m not punishing you because you deal in opium, but for your insolence to me on the train.” The station is festooned with many such veils, creating a kind of spider’s web as well as exacerbating the dreamy atmosphere. Chang burning the veil also serves as an arresting visual metaphor for Chang’s function in burning away the veils around the other characters, and a note of authentic brutality that gives special urgency later when Chang makes even worse threats against Donald. After Lily aids Chang in translating for Lenard, Chang lets her take a nap in a bunk in his office, and then proposes that she come be his guest-cum-concubine for a spell. Lily however declares that she’s reformed, and when Chang becomes physical, Donald, waiting out his hostage time in a neighbouring room and overhearing, kicks down the door and wallops the warlord. In payback, even after his agent is returned by the government in a special train, Chang plans to burn Donald’s eyes out. Lily, worried when she’s thrown out of Chang’s rooms whilst Donald is held, is so desperate she asks Carmichael if he can do anything: Carmichael tells her the only thing she can do is get down on her knees and pray, and when Lily admits she might as well “if God is still on speaking terms with me,” Carmichael declares, irritably but also earnestly, “God is on speaking terms with everybody.” Carmichael then catches a glimpse of Lily retreating into a darkened compartment and praying.  

What’s compelling about all this, which seems on the face of things to be a pure sop to Hollywood sentiment and the Carmichaels in the audience busy getting the Production Code imposed on movies, lies in the way Sternberg presents this turn not as an abasement of Lily but rather an apotheosis. Lily makes no appeal for approval to anyone except the Almighty, evincing a personal code just as strong as Chang’s, and it’s she who forces Carmichael to revise his ideas of morality rather than him working upon her. Hui Fei has a similarly rigorous sensibility, with an added lustre of patriotic zeal: when she finally realises who Chang is, she comments that it will “be a great day for China” when he’s captured and executed, and soon is given good cause to do it herself. Later she comments with cold zest, “He repaid his debt to me.” Sternberg had a recurring fascination with tales of redemption, transfiguring events that rescue characters from the cage of their ego, existing simultaneously to and sometimes in commentary upon his other fixation on self-destructive types who finally can’t escape that cage and go mad or are otherwise destroyed instead. The spectacle of Carmichael becoming Lily’s champion imbues the last portion of the film with unexpected new dimension, moving beyond a mere clash between the representative of happily sceptical erotic power and the joyless puritan, or the opposite, the fallen wanton beatifically reformed by the patronisingly virtuous, but with a sense of evolution in both characters and their worldviews: both are linked by their capacity to live up to implicit but difficult, even humiliating aspects of their credos. “Love without faith is like religion without faith,” Carmichael sighs with his customary brusqueness as he admits Lily’s point: “It doesn’t amount to very much.”

Dietrich had a slightly different energy in her early vehicles than she did by the 1940s when her persona had hardened along with her features. Dietrich was older than the usual run of movie ingénues, pushing 30 when Sternberg cast her in The Blue Angel and with a successful stage career already behind her, plus marriage and myriad adventures in Weimar nightlife. So her unique screen presence came ready-loaded with an impression of a personality well-honed, backing up the aura of bulletproof power and sly, provocative humour and pansexual power her characters so often displayed. And yet she was also just young enough to allow glimmers of naivety appear in her characters. Which made it all the more impressive when that veneer breaks down in the course of a movie, as Shanghai Express depicts, not shattered by external forces which Lily is well used to weathering, but by her true self, when faced with consequences for the things she actually cherishes, and the shattering of her veneer is not a loss but a recovery. Sternberg’s most electrifying and carefully crafted close-ups throughout the film portray the stations of this particular cross, as when he has her peer through the window of the Te-Shan station doors, eyes wide and blazing, her blonde bob now a little loose and wild, in the throes of fear for Donald, the spark of wild madness also rapture in the grip of authentic passion.

Wong, today a revived cult figure but one Hollywood sadly never really knew what to do with her in her own time, is just as fascinating a presence despite having a much smaller part. Shanghai Express posits Hui Fei as Lily’s accidental companion but also her fated doppelganger, even a kind of familiar, one who embodies and enacts the darker implications of Lily’s journey. Even more taciturn and self-contained, she’s untroubled by any lost love as Lily is. The mere sight of the two women in their compartment is compelling, the spectacle of their indolence in their detachment from all judgement and opinion outside of themselves, Lily playing her jazz and Hui Fei listlessly playing solitaire and smoking, the netherworld of hazily sensual and amoral delights each has repeatedly and bravely stepped into and still carry about them like a bubble, a state of almost alien exception Sternberg also rhymes with the ideal of cinema stardom itself. Sternberg and costumer Travis Banton present them as visual mirror images, Lily initially swathed in black only to eventually reveal her blazing hair, Hui Fei dressed in light, glossy hues with her black hair sliced in geometric precision. Shanghai Express isn’t exactly feminist in the modern sense, and yet its radicalism in certain regards still startles, viewing these two “fallen women” as the ones who command events on subtle and overt levels, and it’s the male characters who must get over themselves.

Hui Fei is unfortunately also exposed to someone like Chang, who feels no compunction in taking what he wants from her, where he’s more circumspect if scarcely less acquisitive with the Westerner Lily. When Hui Fei  resists Chang sees it as a cue to abuse and humiliate, only to find the kind of pride and strength Chang seems to think is his personal province is also shared by the equally, potently vengeful courtesan. There’s also some sense of evil humour in the way Wong and Oland are cast given that Wong had played Oland’s daughter in the Fu Manchu film Daughter of the Dragon (1931). After Hui Fei is thrown out of Chang’s rooms with her formerly sculpted hair now loose and bedraggled, pawed at by one of Chang’s soldiers, she descends back into the train, trailed by Lily who grabs her when she plucks a dagger from her carrying bag and seems to be considering suicide. Instead, Hui Fei sneaks back into the station, lays in wait for Chang in the shadows, and stabs him to death when his back is turned to her: Sternberg films her through the hanging veils and shadows, transformed into a spectral presence by murderous zeal, only to return to her compartment on the train and resume her game of solitaire, only a slightly sadder gleam to her betraying anything happened in the meantime. By this time Chang has released Donald, having used the hot iron he was going to use on Donald’s eyes to first light his cigarette and then scorch through the bonds on his captive’s wrists to release him.  

Seeing Lily in Chang’s company and assured by both of them that she’s going with the warlord willingly, Donald retreats with his gentlemanly pretences barely suppressing offence and anger, but when he learns from Hui Fei that she’s killed Chang, he grabs a gun from a superintendent sent to fetch him and dashes into the station to rescue Lily. Donald doesn’t have to shoot anyone, knocking out a couple of guards, returning to the train with Lily, and ordering a fast departure. Donald is an interesting romantic hero in the frame of such drama. He’s portrayed as an almost ideal embodiment of a certain kind of masculinity, so English you can smell London smog on him, combining the bravery of a soldier and a healer’s sense of care, one who readily jumps to the rescue even when he’s broken-hearted and furious. Sternberg plainly describes this creature he admires enormously to also critique him: Donald is also repressed and troubled by his memories of loving Lily, and his romantic failure is that he had no deep intrinsic sense of her loving him back, even as he wants to. Lily had not just an infamous career to retreat into but also an alternate identity, the costume of Shanghai Lily wrapped around Madeline, a privilege of womanhood. Donald’s uniform is the perfect outer expression of his inner spirit, tight and contained, gallant but held in check: the curse of manhood.  

Brook, a mostly forgotten matinee idol who nonetheless also had the claim of starring in the following year’s Best Picture winner Cavalcade, has the relatively thankless role in the film that’s more about a man being loved by a woman, in which the hero is indeed more of an object despite his shows of bravura. And yet the film very much depends on Brook pulling off what Sternberg demands of him, to suggest what’s impressive about Donald and also what’s flaccid in him. Despite being freed in flashes of action, Donald is so often throughout the film locked into frieze-like postures, or as film writer Erich Kuersten neatly described, “cigarette ad abstraction,” in part because he’s constantly pictured with a cigarette squeezed between his fingers as tightly and tensely as a falcon’s claws about a fish, blowing out smoke in measured plumes. Such postures illustrate Donald’s frigid Anglo-Saxon restraint warring with his deep-flowing sense of erotic and emotional excitement when drawn back into Lily’s orbit, resulting in paralysis and sour frustration concealed by a veneer of flinty cool, reduced to registering expressions of pouty, desperate Englishness as he oscillates between sarcastic and urgently romantic pronouncements. Carmichael finally becomes as fuming mad at him as he was with Lily at the outset, not revealing the motives for Lily’s actions but mentioning her praying for him, planting disquiet in Donald’s mind. Meanwhile Mrs Haggerty derides Lily’s behaviour on the train whilst Lily announces her disdain for everyone else by playing her gramophone as loud as she can.

The real climax of the film isn’t Chang’s death and Donald’s rescue, nor is it the final clinch the lovers share in Shanghai, although that makes for a splendid afterword. The climax instead comes when Lily, with a carefully contrived appearance of flirty casualness, comes to Donald as he sits pensively in his compartment. Lily bums a cigarette and Donald notices her hands are shaking like she’s nervous, before noting that Carmichael told her about the praying, but appends with a curl of disdain, “Which I doubt,” and Lily, aggravated and with pride resurgent, says she would have done it for anyone and takes her leave. She retreat into her cabin, turns off the light, and leans against the wall, lit by a fanlight. An on-set still photo taken with this lighting set-up and Dietrich posed with eyes turned up to the light became famous, capturing the mystique of Dietrich as Sternberg had laboured so hard to fashion in its most iconic reduction. But the photo didn’t capture the specific emotion Dietrich is called upon to project in the actual scene, what makes it so memorable as a moment of cinema. The tiny quivers in Lily’s hands, the lines in her forehead and the expression of frayed desperation and anguish, the cost of what she’s done finally telling but still only expressed in private reverie. Here Sternberg does something very few other directors have managed, to convey a character’s inner life with every element available to their filmmaking – a highpoint of his labours, and Dietrich’s.

The train passengers all reach Shanghai and the terminus of their association, people who earlier were facing pivots of life and death together saying their farewells in varying degrees of rush, distraction, and eagerness to leave it all behind, except for Donald and Lily who receive gratitude for their actions: “I owe you my life and I’m not the man to forget it,” Salt tells Donald, “Although between you and me it isn’t worth very much.” Hui Fei gains her own, fresh, not particularly welcome fame as journalists quiz her about how she killed Chang, and very quickly and irritably moves to flee them. Lily buys Donald a new watch to replace the one with her image, broken in the melee, whilst Donald has her on his mind even as he exchanges pleasantries with others. Sternberg maintains his cinematic wit through these last shots as he makes odd use of dissolves, first to suggest how Lily is lingering on Donald’s mind even as he’s speaking to Salt and a military colleague, and then to weave their final union into the flow of life churning through the station. Finally, Donald gives in and places aside his doubts, finally achieving the odd state of grace Lily always demanded of him, allowing them to have their triumphal kiss before the fade-out, with the enticingly fetishistic final detail of Lily caressing and gripping the leather strap of Donald’s bandolier. All accompanied by jaunty jazz on the soundtrack, fanfare for people willing to take their leap into the strange new world.

1960s, Auteurs, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Drama, Experimental, War

Week End (1967)


Director / Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard

In memoriam: Jean-Luc Godard 1930-2022

By Roderick Heath

In 1967, cinema ended. Whatever has been flickering upon screens ever since might perhaps be likened to a beheaded chicken or a dinosaur whose nervous system still doesn’t know it’s dead even as it lurches around. At least, that’s what the title at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s most infamous film declares – FIN DE CINEMA – as an attempted Götterdammerung for an age of both movies and Western society, as well as for Godard’s own life and career up to that moment. In eight years Godard had gone from being a fringe film critic to one of the most artistically respected and cultishly followed filmmakers alive. His marriage to actress Anna Karina had unexpectedly made him a tabloid star and inspired some of his most complete and expressive films. The union’s dissolution by contrast saw Godard driven into a frenzy of cinematic experimentation that started his drift away from his Nouvelle Vague fellows and off to a strange and remote planet of his own, defined by an increasingly angry and alienated tone. Godard’s relentless play with cinema form and function seemed to become inseparable from his own drift towards radical politics. Politically provocative from Le Petit Soldat (1960) on, Godard’s new faiths crystallised whilst making La Chinoise (1967), an initially satiric but increasingly earnest exploration of the new student left and its war on decaying establishments, which happened to coincide with him falling in love with one of his actors, Anne Wiazemsky, in what would prove another ill-fated marriage.  

Godard found himself riding at a cultural vanguard, as young cineastes adored his films and considered them crucial expressions of the zeitgeist, and Godard in turn championed the radical cause that would famously crest in the enormous protest movement of 1968. Week End predated the most eruptive moments of the late 1960s but thoroughly predicted them. What helps keeps it alive still as one of the most radical bits of feature filmmaking ever made depends on Godard offering the rarest of experiences in cinema: an instance of an uncompromising artist-intellectual with perfect command over his medium making a grand gesture that’s also an auto-da-fe and epic tantrum, a self-conscious and considered repudiation of narrative cinema. Many critics in the years after the film’s release felt it was a work of purposeful self-destruction, not far removed from Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide. Godard certainly did retreat to a creative fringe that of course thought of itself as the cultural navel of a worldwide revolutionary movement, making films in collaboration with other members of the filmmaking collective called the Dziga Vertov Group, and would only slowly and gnomically return to something like the mainstream in the 1980s. Godard’s aesthetic gestures, his violation of narrative form, and the conviction with which it anticipates the ever-imminent implosion of modern civilisation. Godard set out to attack many things he loved, not just film style but also women, art, cars – his alter ego in Le Petit Soldat had mentioned his love for American cars, but in Week End the car becomes a signifier of everything Godard felt was sick and doomed in the world.  

Week End was the film Godard had been working to for most of the 1960s and all he made after it was a succession of aftershocks. It remains in my mind easily his greatest complete work, only really rivalled by the elegiac heartbreak of Contempt and the more pensively interior and essayistic, if no less radical 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). It’s also a crazed one, an obnoxious one, laced with self-righteousness, self-loathing, confused romanticism, sexism, flashes of perfervid beauty, and violence that swings between Grand Guignol fakery and snuff movie literalness. Some of it has the quality of a brat giggling at his own bravery in pulling his dick out in church, other times like a grandfatherly academic trying to talk hip. All feeds into the maelstrom. Godard’s overt embrace of surrealism and allegory, with heavy nods to Luis Buñuel, particularly L’Age d’Or (1930) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), allowed him to ironically lance at the heart of the age. The vague basis for the film, transmitted to Godard through a film producer who mentioned the story without mentioning who came up with it, was a short story by the Latin American writer Julio Cortázar, whose work had also inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966).

The plot of Week End, such as it is, presents as its rambling antiheroes the emblematic French bourgeois couple Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), greedy, amoral, wanton, bullish creatures, hidden under a thin veneer of moneyed savoir faire: they might be total creeps but they dress well. Both are having affairs and plotting to murder their spouse. Both are meanwhile conspiring together to kill Corinne’s father, a wealthy man who owns the apartment building they live in, and is now finally sickening after the couple have spent years slowly poisoning him. But they’re worried he might die in hospital and Corinne’s mother might falsify a new will cutting them out, so need to reach the family home in Oinville. The couple linger around their apartment in expecting news: Corinne talks furtively on the balcony with their mutual friend, and her secret lover, whilst Roland does the same over the phone with his mistress. “I let him screw me sometimes so he thinks I still love him,” Corinne tells the lover as they converse on the balcony, whilst Corinne idly watches as the drivers of two cars down in the building car park clash. The driver of a mini accosts one a sports car for cutting him off. The fight quickly escalates into a fearsome beating, with one driver set upon by the other and his companion, and left in a bloodied sprawl by his vehicle.  

A little later this vignette is algorithmically repeated with variance as Roland and Corinne also get into a battle in the car park, after Roland bumps their Facel-Vega convertible into a parked car. A boy playing in store-bought Indian costume shouts for his mother, as the hit car belongs to his parents. The mother berates the couple, quickly sparking a comic battle in which she fends off the infuriated Roland by swatting tennis balls at him whilst Roland fires paint from a water gun at her. Her husband bursts out of the building with a shotgun and fires, forcing Roland and Corinne to flee, whilst the boy cries after them, “Bastards! Shit-heap! Communists!” The diagnosis of some awful tension and rage lurking within the seemingly placid forms of modern consumer life is the first and perhaps the most lasting of Week End’s insights, anticipating epidemics of road rage and on to the flame wars and lifestyle barrages of online life. Things like cars and designer clothes as presented through Week End aren’t just simply indicted as illusory trash, but as treacherous things because they are presented as yardsticks of modern life, creating bubbles of identity, and when those bubbles of identity collide and prove to be permeable, the result stirs a kind of insanity.

Before they set out on their fateful odyssey to Oinville, Corinne goes out to spend a session with a therapist, or at least that seems to be the cover story for Corinne meeting her lover. In cynical pastiche of the analytic process – or “Anal-yse” as one of Godard’s title cards announces – Corinne sits on a desk, in a near-dark office, stripped down to her underwear, with her lover playing therapist (or perhaps he really is one), his face in near-silhouette. Corinne begins a long, detailed monologue recounting sexual encounters with a lover named Paul and also Paul’s wife Monique, explaining her pornographic adventures with the pair that quickly progresses from lesbian fondling to dominance displays as Monique sat in a saucer of milk and ordered the other two to masturbate. Whether the story is real or not matter less than its ritualistic value in serving the game between Corinne and her “therapist,” who ends the game by drawing Corinne in for a clinch. The lurid flourishes of Corinne’s anecdote (drawn from surrealist erotica writer Georges Bataille, whose influence echoes throughout the film) mesmerise by describing sordid and perverse things Godard can’t possibly show in a mainstream movie, the first and most elaborate of his many uses of discursive and representative technique to avoid the merely literal.

Along with the titillation, challenge: nearly ten minutes long, this scene is one of several in Week End deliberately contrived to exasperate viewers with its seemingly pointless length and intense, unblinking technique. Darc has to hold the screen right through without a cut, with Godard’s regular cinematographer Raoul Coutard gently moving the camera back and forth in a kind of sex act itself. On the soundtrack random bursts of Antoine Duhamel’s droning, menacing score come and go, sometimes so loud as to drown out the speech: the music seems to promise some dark thriller in the offing, and keeps coming and going through the film. Satirical purpose is draped over it all, as Godard indicts secret roundelays of sexual indulgence played out in bourgeois parlours whilst official moral forms are maintained, as well as mocking movie representations of sex. On yet another level, the scene is an extension, even a kind of ultimate variation, of Godard’s penchant first displayed in Breathless during that film’s epic bedroom scene, for long, rambling explorations of people in their private, deshabille states.

Godard’s signature title cards, with their placard-like fonts all in capitals save for the “i”s still sporting their stylus, have long been easy to reference by any filmmaker wanting to channel or pastiche the Godardian style, instantly conveying ‘60s radical chic. Godard had been using them for a while in his films, but it’s Weekend that wields them as a recurring device not just of scene grammar but aggressive cueing and miscuing of structure and intent. Week End is introduced as “a film found in a dustbin” and, later, “a film lost in the cosmos.” The titles declare the day and time as if obeying neat chronology, but begin to lose track, designating “A Week of Five Thursdays” and events of apparent importance like “September Massacre” and “Autumn Light” and devolving into staccato declarations of theme like “Taboo” and conveying cynical, indicting puns. At 10:00 on Saturday morning, as one title card informs us with assurance, Corinne and Roland set off on their unmerciful mission, surviving their encounter with the shotgun-wielding neighbour only to get caught in a massive traffic jam on a country road.  

This sequence, nearly eight minutes long and setting a record at the time for the longest tracking shot yet created, contrasts the hermetic intensity and verbal dominance of the “Anal-yse” scene with an interlude of pure visual showmanship, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most elaborate of Godard’s career. It’s one that also takes to a logical extreme Andre Bazin’s cinema theories about long takes, transforming the movement of the camera and its unyielding gaze to enfold multivalent gags and social commentary. The shot follows the course of the jam as Roland tries with all his gall and ingenuity to weave his way along it. The air sings with endless blaring car horns amassed into an obnoxiously orchestral dun, as the Durands pass multifarious vignettes. An old man and a boy toss a ball back and forth between cars. Men play poker. An elderly couple has a chess match whilst sitting on the road. A family settled on the roadside, father reading a book and sharing a laugh with the rest. A white sports car rests the wrong way around and parked in tight between a huge Shell oil tanker and another sports car. Trucks with caged animals including lions, a llama, and monkeys which seem to be escaping. A farmer with a horse and cart surrounded by droppings. Roland almost crashes into the open door of a car, and Corinne geets out and slams the door shut with the choice words to the driver before resuming. On the roadside at intervals dead bodies are glimpsed near the broken and buckled remains of cars. Roland finally leaves the jam behind as police clear one wreck, and takes off up a side road.

The guiding joke of this scene sees most of humanity adapted and resigned to such straits. The price paid for the car, in both its functionality and its promise of release, has proven to be the screaming frustration of dysfunction and ironic immobility, punctuated by the horror of traffic accidents, and an enforced detachment, even numbness, in the face of a survey of gore and death. At the same time, comic pathos, scenes of ordinary life simply being lived in the transitory state of the road rather than in tight urban apartments, and the establishment of tentative community. Nascent, a primal hierarchy, as Roland and Corinne urge, bully, threaten, and steal bases along their path, mimicking their plans to circumvent waiting for their fortune: awful as they are, the couple are at least evolved to be apex predators in this pond. This sequence links off every which way in modern satire and dystopian regard, close to J.G. Ballard’s writing in its satiric, quasi-sci-fi hyperbole and anticipating Hollywood disaster movies of the next half-century, just as much of the film’s midsection lays down the psychic blueprint for generations of post-apocalyptic stories.

Weekend is a satire on the (1967) present and a diagnostic guess at the future, but also a depiction of the past. Visions of roadways clogged with traffic, roadside carnage, the tatty countryside infested with refugees, refuse, and resistance warriors, constantly refer back to the France of the World War II invasion and occupation, perhaps merely the most obvious and personal prism for Godard to conceive of societal collapse through, whilst also presenting the invasion as a mutant variation, infinitely nebulous and hard to battle. Week End starts off as a film noir narrative with its tale of domestic murder for profit, and remains one for most of its length, even as it swerves into a parody of war movies. It’s also an extended riff on narratives from Pilgrim’s Progress and Don Quixote to Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz, any picaresque tale when the going gets weird and the weird turn pro, each encounter a new contending with the nature of life and being, the shape of reality, and the limits of existence. Comparisons are easy to make with Week End, because everything’s in there. The sense of time and reality entering a state of flux becomes more explicit as the Durands begin to encounter fictional characters and historical personages and new-age prophets, keeping to their overall motive all the while.

After escaping the traffic jam, Corinne and Roland enter a small town where they stop so Corinne can call the hospital her father is in, as they’ve fallen behind schedule and Corinne is fretting over any chance her father’s will can be changed at the last moment. As they park a farmer drives by in a tractor lustily singing “The Internationale,” and a few moments later the sound of a crash is heard, a fatal accident as the tractor hits a Triumph sports car, a sight Corinne and Roland barely pay attention to, and when they do it’s to fantasise it involved her father and mother. When Godard deigns to depict the crash, he slices the imagery up into a succession of colourful tableaux, the mangled corpse of the driver covered in obviously fake but feverishly red and startling blood, gore streaming down the windshield. The driver’s girlfriend can be overheard arguing with the tractor driver, before Godard show the two bellowing at each-other, the woman, covered in her lover’s blood, raving in a distraught and pathetic harangue as she accuses the tractor driver of killing him deliberately because he was a young, rich, good-looking man enjoying life’s pleasures: “You can’t stand us screwing on the Riviera, screwing at ski resorts…he had the right of way over fat ones, poor ones, old ones…” Worker and gadabout cast aspersions on each-other’s vehicles, and the girl wails, “The heir of the Robert factories gave it to because I screwed him!” All this Godard labels, with cold wit, “Les Lutte des Classes” (“The Class Struggle”).

As the pair argue, Godard cuts back to shots of onlookers seemingly beholding the scene but also posing for the camera, framed against advertising placards with bright colours and striking designs. Coutard captures the popping graphics and the faces of the witnesses, sometimes gawking in bewilderment, one trying to control the urge to laugh, and others ranked in stiff and solemn reckoning (including actress Bulle Ogier, who like several actors returns at the end as a guerrilla). The woman and the farmer dash over to Corinne and Roland to each solicit their support in reporting the accident their way, only for the couple to flee in their car: “You can’t just leave like that, we’re all brothers, as Marx said!” the farmer shouts, whilst the girl shrieks, “Jews! Dirty Jews!” Both left bereft and appalled, the farmer finishes up giving the woman in a consoling embrace, in the film’s funniest and most profoundly ironic depiction of the evanescence of human nature. Godard shifts to a vignette he labels “Fauxtography” as he now films the actors from the scene in group portrait against the ads, with a discordant version of “La Marseillaise” on the soundtrack, as if in pastiche of group photos of resistance members at the end of the war, and the way patriotism is often invoked as the levelling answer to the aforementioned class struggle.

Throughout Weekend Godard recapitulates elements of style explored in his previous films: the “Anal-yse” scene as noted recalls the explorations of human intimacy in his first few films, albeit hardened into distanced shtick, as the tractor crash scene recalls his more pop-art infused works of just a couple of years earlier like Pierrot le Fou (1965) and the fetishisation of the allure of marketing in Made in USA (1966). Vignettes later in the film, including Emily Bronte musing over the age of a stone and its pathos as an object untouched and unfashioned by humanity, and the Durands studying a worm squirming in mud, recall the intensely focused meditations on transient objects and sights explored in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The concluding scenes return to the children’s playtime approach to depicting war Godard had taken on Les Carabiniers (1963). Few directors, if any, had ever tried so hard to avoid raking over their old ground as Godard in the whirlwind of his 1960s output, and this systematic rehashing underlines the way Week End offers a summarising cap on his labours whilst also trying to leap beyond it all. Godard resisted suggestions his films were improvised, instead explaining that he often wrote his scenes just before filming, nonetheless seeming to grow them organically on the move, and so Week End is its own critique, a response to a moment and a response to the response.

As they roar on down the road, Roland comments when Corinne asks about the farmer’s plea, “It wasn’t Marx who said it. It was another Communist – Jesus said it.” As if by invocation, the couple soon encounter a son of God on the road, albeit not that one. In a jaggedly filmed interlude, the couple pass through another, seemingly even more hellish traffic jam, with Godard’s title cards violently breaking the scene up into hourly reports. This jam is glimpsed only in close-up on the couple as they engage in bellowing argument with other drivers who, out of their cars, grab and claw at them, obliging both to bit at hands and fingers, as Roland barks at another driver, “If I humped your wife and hurt her would you call that a scratch?” Resuming their journey again, this time through rain, the pair are flagged down by a woman hitchhiker, Marie-Madeleine (Virginie Vignon): Roland gets out and inspects her, lifting her skirt a little, before assenting to take her. The woman then calls out a man travelling with her (Daniel Pommereulle), hiding in a car wreck on the roadside: the frantic man, dressed in bohemian fashion and wielding a pistol he shoots off like a lion tamer, forces the Durands to take them back in the other direction.  

The man explains after the rain stops and the top has been rolled back down that he is Joseph Balsamo, “the son of God and Alexandra Dumas…God’s an old queer as everyone knows – he screwed Dumas and I’m the result.” This unlikely messiah explains his gospel: “I’m here to inform these modern times of the Grammatical Era’s end and the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema.” That Joseph looks a little like Godard himself connects with the earnestness of this seemingly random and absurd pronouncement, as Joseph herald’s the film breakdown into arbitrary and surreal vignettes, and the texture of the movie itself losing shaoe, and Godard’s own imminent departure from mainstream filmmaking. It’s also a flourish of puckish self-satire, as Godard-as-Joseph wields the power of the camera and editing to manifest miracles and punish the wicked, whilst also paying the debt to Luis Bunuel’s arbitrary swerves into pseudo-religious weirdness as he labels this scene “L’Ange Ex Terminateur.” Joseph promises the Durands he will grant any wishes they want to make if they’ll drive him to London, and proves his statement by casually manifesting a rabbit in the glove compartment.  

This cues an oft-quoted scene as the Durands muse on the things they want most: Roland’s wishes include a Miami Beach hotel and a squadron of Mirage fighters “like the yids used to thrash the wogs,” whilst Corinne longs to become a natural blonde and for a weekend with James Bond, a wish Roland signs off on too. Joseph, disgusted with such obnoxious wishes, refuses to ride with them any longer, but Corinne snatches his gun off him and tries to force him: the Durands chase the couple out of the car and into a  field strewn with car wrecks, but Joseph finally raises his hands and transforms the wrecks into a flock of sheep, reclaiming his gun from the startled Corinne and thrashing the couple as they flee back to the car. Godard refuses to perform a match cut as Joseph works his miracle, instead letting his gesture and cry of “Silence!” repeat, making crude technique into a performance in itself, claiming authorship of the editing miracle and breaking up screen time.  

Godard had always exhibited an approach to filmmaking akin to trying to reinvent it from shot to shot even whilst assimilating myriad influences, but Week End as seen here engages directly with the notion of treating the film itself as a kind of artefact, with seemingly random, amateurish, but actually highly deliberated, assaults on the usually ordered progress of a movie. Godard reported that he took inspiration for Corinne’s orgy monologue from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), but it feels likely he also found permission in the Bergman film’s opening and closing glimpses of the film itself starting to spool and finally burning out, to take the notion much further and attack the very idea of linear coherence as proof of professional assembly in cinema. One ostentatious example later in the film sees a scene toggle back and forth from “Sunday” to “Story For Monday,” with a brief shot of Yanne-as-Roland singing as he walks down the roadside shown three times, like the scene’s been hurriedly spliced together by a high schooler, signalling the further fracturing of time in the Durands’ odyssey. Some of these touches quickly became emblematic clichés of the era’s would-be revolutionary cinema, at once heralded by simpatico minds and derided by others.

More immediately, Godard uses the impression of movie breakdown to illustrate another kind. After fleeing Joseph, the Durands tear down the road, Roland so frustrated and aggressive he causes bicyclists and cars alike to swerve off the road, until he crashes himself in a fiery pile-up with two other cars. Godard makes it seems as the film is sticking and flickering, eventually caught with the frame edge halfway up the screen, as if hitting an amateurish splice point. This delivers the impression of the crash, its awfulness a wrench in the shape of reality, whilst allowing Godard to avoid having to actually stage it, and placing the illusion of the film itself in the spotlight, dovetailing Godard’s aesthetic and dramatic intentions in a perfect unity. This inspiration here feels more like Buster Keaton’s games with cinema form in Sherlock Jr (1924), the frame becoming treacherous and malleable, characters and story getting lost in the spaces between. The crash also cues the film’s most famously cynical gag. The wreck is a scene of total chaos, a passenger tumbling out of a burning car writhing in flames, Roland himself squirming out of the capsized Facel-Vega all bloodied and battered. Corinne stands by, screaming in bottomless horror and woe, finally shrieking “My bag – my Hermés handbag!”, as the designer item goes up in smoke.  

Surviving relatively unscathed, the couple start down the road on foot, still seeking the way to Oinville, or someone who will give them a lift. But the country proves an increasingly unstable and dangerous space as the couple stroll by an increasing numbers of car wrecks, corpses littering the road: trying to get directions from some of the splayed bodies, Roland eventually concludes, “These jerks are all dead.” Corinne spies a pair of designer trousers on one corpse and tries to steal it, only forestalled when a truck comes along and Roland has Corinne lie on the road with her legs splayed as a hitchhiker’s tactic, one step beyond It Happened One Night (1934). At another point on the road, the tiring pair settle on the roadside, Corinne taking a nap in a ditch whilst Roland tries to thumb a ride. A tramp passes by, sees Corinne in the ditch, and after alerting Roland to the presence of a woman there to Roland’s total disinterest, the tramp descends to rape her. Meanwhile Roland keeps flagging down cars for a lift only to be asked gatekeeping questions like, “Are you in a film or reality?” and “Who would you rather be fucked by, Mao or Johnson?”, Roland’s answers apparently wrong as the drivers speed off leaving them stranded. As Corinne crawls out of the ditch, Duhamel drops in a flourish of stereotypically jaunty French music as if to place a sitcom sting on her assault.  

The evil humour here and elsewhere in Week End does provoke awareness of Godard’s often less than chivalrous attitudes to women at this point in his art. He told Darc when they first met for the film that he didn’t like her or the roles she played in films, and a cast member felt Godard relished a scene where the actor had to slap Darc, but cast her anyway to be the ideal emblem of everything he hated. The identification of the bourgeois society Godard was starting to loathe so much with femininity is hard to ignore, even if it is intended to be taken on a symbolic level. Of course, Week End is primarily the spectacle of an artist emptying out the sluice grate of his mind, come what may, and this vignette, playing ugliness as a casual joke, also captures something legitimate about the state of survival, as if Corinne and Roland are by this time two hapless refugees on the road of life, the dissolution of any semblance of safety befalling this prototypical pair of wanderers, although the film signals they are still perfectly armour-plated by their arrogance and obliviousness, and their own hyperbolic readiness to use violence and murder to achieve their own ends as representatives of the exploitive side of Western capitalism. “I bet mother has written us out of the will by now,” Corinne groans as she tries to purloin those designer pants, to Roland’s retort, “A little torture will change her mind. I remember a few tricks from when I was a lieutenant in Algeria.”

Earlier in the course of their wanderings, the pair also muse over their plans for killing whilst strolling by an incarnation of Louis de Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a major figure of the French Revolution, reciting his political tract “L’esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de la France,” with his passionate denunciation of the constant risk to liberty and fair governance from human fecklessness and greed. As well as the blatant contrast with the duo discussing murder for profit behind Saint-Just, Godard implies the link between the glorious revolutionary spirit of the past and the modern radical spirit, like turns to Marxist-hued revolution in the Third World, as espoused in a length scene late in the film in which Godard has two immigrant garbage collectors, one Arab (László Szabó), the other African (Omar Diop). The two men lecture the audience in droning fashion about current revolutionary turns in their respective homelands. Throughout Week End Godard makes a constant attempt to adapt into cinematic language playwright Berthold Brecht’s famous alienation techniques from the stage. Such techniques were intended to foster detachment from mere dramatic flow and oblige the audience to think about the ideas being expressed to them, in the opposite manner to the goal of most dramatic creations to weave such things together. The many formal and artifice-revealing tricks in the movie are wielded to that end, perhaps presented most bluntly when Godard has each garbage man gets the other to speak out his thoughts whilst Godard holds the camera on the face of the silent man as they eat their lunch: the directness of the political speech is amplified by not seeing it spoken. During their speech Godard drops in flash cuts to earlier moments in the film, including of Saint-Just speaking, but also of the cart loaded with horse manure – the continuum of history, or just the same old shit?

Amongst the many facets of his filmmaking that made an enormous impression from his debut Breathless (1960) on, Godard’s ardent belief that the history of cinema was as worthy as literature and music of being referenced and used as the basis of an artistic argot had been a salient one: where an author would readily be congratulated for including allusions to and quotes from other texts, there is still anxiety in many cineastes over whether that is in movies just ripping off, or the equivalent of a kind of secret handshake between film snobs. Godard happily indulges himself to the max in that regard in Week End – the final scenes see resistance cells speaking on the radio using codenames like “The Searchers” and “Johnny Guitar” – even as he also constantly provoked his audience by also insisting on the reverse, interpolating long passages from books as read by his actors and nodding to other art forms constantly in his movies, as with Saint-Just’s speech. Almost exactly mid-movie Godard offers a vignette titled “A Tuesday in the 100 Years War,” his camera fixing that worm in the mud, whilst on the soundtrack the voices of the Durands are heard, considering their own ignorance and pathos in lack of self-knowledge, in an unexpected show of philosophical depth from the pair, even as Roland also offers self-justification in his way, arguing they must do as they do much like the worm, understanding neither the forces that move it or them.

Amidst many bizarre and hyperbolic scenes, one of the most extreme comes halfway through and presents in part the spectacle of Godard acknowledging the frustration he’s out to provoke with such moments, as the Durands, still seeking directions to Oinville, encounter Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson) and an oversized version of Tom Thumb (Yves Afonso) walking along a country lane, swapping quotations from books. Roland and Corinne become increasingly enraged (“Oinville! Oinville!”) as Bronte insists they solve riddles she reads to them from the book she’s holding before answering their questions, considering the answering of conundrums much more important than mere spatial location. The confrontation of 19th century literary method with modern cinematic virtues is enraging, and acknowledged by the two modern characters: “What a rotten film,” Roland barks, “All we meet are crazy people,” whilst Corinne rants, “This isn’t a novel, it’s a film – a film is life!” Finally Roland gets so angry he strikes a match and sets Bronte’s dress on fire. He and Corinne look on impassively as the flames consume the decorous poetess. “We have no right to burn anyone, not even a philosopher,” Corinne comments. “She’s an imaginary character,” Roland assures, to Corinne’s retort, “Then why is she crying?”

The dizzy turn from aggravating whimsy to apocalyptic horror in this vignette obliquely describes the simmering anger Godard was feeling against the Vietnam War which metaphorically pervades the film as a whole. Bronte’s burning conflating infamous images of victims of napalm bombing into a singular image of gruesome death, albeit one rendered in a fashion that refuses pyrotechnic representation of pain, as Godard doesn’t show the burning woman or have her screams fill the soundtrack, with only Corinne’s deadpan description to suggest that all an artist can do in such a moment is weep and not wail. Godard conceives as the war, and indeed perhaps all modernism, as direct offence to artistic humanism, whilst also accusing precisely that artistic humanism as continuing blithely through epochs of horror in the way Tom Thumb continues his recitation to the charred and flaming corpse. The theme of characters who know they’re characters engaged in frustrated hunts for obscure ends echoes the 1920s Theatre of Absurd movement, particularly Luigi Pirandello, although the surreal interpolation of such figures with affixed names of famous and mythic import in the context of such tragicomic sweep might be more directly influenced by Bob Dylan. At the bottom of things, moreover, Godard treats the political gestures and artistic interpolations alike as varieties of tropes in the modern sense, fragmented and nonsensical in the dream-logic of the narrative, part of the madcap stew of anxiety and despair the film as a whole proves to be.

And yet it’s the film’s islands of tranquillity that stand out most strongly when the texture of the work becomes familiar. The embrace of tractor driver and the rich girl. The sight of one of the revolutionaries, a “Miss Gide” (a cameo by Wiazemsky) reading and having a smoke as her fellows row in across a Renoir pond. The sight of Bronte and Tom Thumb wending their way along the country lane. A wounded female guerrilla (Valérie Lagrange) dying in her lover’s arms whilst singing a wistful song. Such moments lay bare the ironic peacefulness the idea of chaotic revolution had for Godard – the possibility that in the formless and perpetual new state of becoming he might find his own restless and relentless conscience and consciousness stilled and finally allow him to relax and take simple joy in the act of creating. The most elegant of these interludes, if also once more defiant in its extension, comes when the Durands are finally given a lift during their trek, it proves to be by a pianist (Paul Gégauff) who agrees to take them as close as he can to Oinville if they’ll help him give a concert he’s driving to. This proves to be a recital of a Mozart piece in the courtyard of a large, old, classically French farmhouse, given purely for the edification of the farm’s workers and residents. Coutard’s camera seems to drift lazily around in repeating circles, as the residents listen and stroll about lazily within their separate spaces of attention and enjoyment. The pianist stops playing now and then to comment on his own lack of talent and argue that contemporary pop music sustains much more connection with the spirit and method of Mozart than the disaster of modern “serious” concert music. Given the film around this moment, such a jab at artists going up their own backsides in the name of radical innovation and antipopulism in the name of the people be considered highly ironic jab.  

The sequence is marvellous even in its salient superfluity except as a rhythmic break and interlude of pacific consideration, the pianist’s occasionally fractured recital mimicking Godard’s own cinema and the scene as a whole expostulating an ideal of art as something that reaches out and enfolds all, without necessarily dumbing itself down: if Week End’s ultimate project is to force chaos onto the cinema screen, it also exalts culture in the barnyard. Actors who appear elsewhere in the film, including Jeanson who acts as the pianist’s attentive page turner, and Wiazemsky, appear amongst the audience, whilst the Durands also listen, Roland yawning every time the camera glides by him and Corinne noting the player isn’t bad. In random patches throughout the scene bursts of sudden ambient noise, including the buzz of a plane engine, clash with the lilting beauty of the playing, as if Godard is pointing the difficulty of capturing such a scene on film considering the pressure of rivals in volume and attention so pervasive in modern life. Once the couple are dropped off further down the road by the pianist, the Durands resume their tramping. As they pass some men sitting on the roadside: “They’re the Italian extras in the coproduction,” Roland explains.

The appearance of Saint-Just earlier in the film is followed immediately by Leaud in another cameo, this time in a movie joke that plays on the cliché of people who want to make a phone call being stymied by some ardent lover speaking on the phone. Rather than simply speaking, the wooing lover insists on singing a song over the phone and cannot break from it until it’s finished, by which time the Durands have turned their acquisitive eyes on his parked convertible. Finally breaking off his song, the man battles the pair in another extended slapstick clash like the one in the car park at the start. The Durands find they’re not quite the most evolved predators in the countryside they like to think they are, as the skinny young man finally outfights them both, even jabbing his elbow into Roland’s spine to leave him momentarily unconscious, before fleeing. The movie joke is matched towards the end as Godard makes fun of another cliché, that of cunning warriors communicating with bird calls, as the Durands encounter a gangly man who will only communicate in bird noises, even holding up a picture of a bird before his face as he does so. This weirdo proves to be a member of a hippie revolutionary cell calling itself the Liberation Front of the Seine and Oise, who take the Durands captive when they in turn are trying to rob some food off some roadside picnickers they encounter.

Before the Durands are waylaid by the Liberation Front, they do actually finally reach Oinville, only to find their fears have been realised: Corinne’s father has died and her mother has claimed all of the inheritance. Corinne washes the filth off the journey off herself in the bath, with Godard positing another joke on himself, avoiding showing Corinne nude in the bath but including in the frame classical painting of a bare-breasted woman looking coquettishly at the viewer. Corinne’s fretting is meanwhile deflected by Roland as he angrily reads out a book passage contending with the way an animal’s invested nature, in this case a hippopotamus, defines existence for that creature. This scene is another multivalent joke that swipes at the different expectations of censorship levelled at cinema and painting as well as extending Godard’s motif of discursive gesture, which he reiterates more forcefully when the couple confront the mother. In between these scenes, a portion of the film the breaks down into random shots of Oinville with the title “Scene de la vie de province” with the sarcastic lack of any apparent life in the provinces, with Roland’s recital on the hippo on sound, vision punctuated by recurring titles from earlier in the film and random advertising art, threatening for a moment to foil all sense of forward movement in the story. Roland argues with the mother over splitting the inheritance for the sake of peace, whilst the mother carries some skinned rabbits she’s prepared. Suddenly Corinne sets upon her with a kitchen knife and the couple butcher the old lady, represented by Godard by torrents of more of his familiar, hallucinatory fake red blood (shades of Marnie, 1964) spilt upon the beady-eyed and skinless rabbits as they lay on paving pebbles. The couple take the mother’s body into the countryside and contrive to make it look like she died in yet another traffic accident.

Through all the discursive, masking, and symbolic devices thrown at the viewer with Week End, the overarching purpose accumulates. Godard contends with the constant provoking strangeness and slipperiness of representing life, experience, and concepts in cinema, with its duplicitous blend of falsity and veracity, its constructed simulacrum of reality, its overriding capacity to sweep over the viewer and make us feel perhaps more intensely than anything in actual life can, and Godard’s cold-sweat anxiety in not being sure if he as a film artist and suppliant lover is contributing to some deadly detachment pervasive in modern life particularly as it relates to awareness of the world at large. One can argue with the thesis as with many of the other attitudes present in the film – the average person in the modern world is constantly forced to safeguard their own psychic integrity in the face of a bombardment of stimuli and demands for empathy where in, say, the 1300s one’s concerns barely went beyond travails in the next village, and it’s this safeguarding that is often misunderstood at apathy or ignorance (whilst writing this I’m glancing at the TV news updates by thousands of deaths in the Turkish earthquake, of which thanks to the miracle of technology I’m instantly aware and constantly informed of, and can’t do a damned thing about). But what’s certain is that to a degree very few other filmmakers, if any, have matched, Godard creates a work that is a complete articulation of his concern, even if at times the film manifests its own blithely insensate streak, its determined attempt to burn through the veils of its own knowing and intellectual poise. Godard’s method is to constantly force a reaction through indirect means, proving that implication can sometimes pack the shock that direct portrayal cannot.

The long, self-consciously shambolic last portion of the film as Roland and Corinne are held captive by the Liberation Front, becomes a succession of blackout vignettes and vicious jokes. The “liberators” instead play Sadean anarchists and Dadaist provocateurs, raping, killing, and consuming captives – one part end of days hippie happening, one part inverted take on Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom with a bit of Lautreamont’s The Chants of Maldoror thrown in. Passages of the latter are recited in prototypical rapping over drum licks, as the Front have a drum kit set up in the forest glade that is their base for ritual expounding of evil art, companion piece and counterpoint to the piano recital. A captive girl is handed over to Ernest (Ernest Menzer), the Front’s executioner-cum-cook, who specialises in making cuisine with human flesh: “You can screw her before we eat her if you like.” Roland and Corinne are tied up, having been partly stripped and made filthy, likely in being raped and brutalised. Ernest roams around the camp, splitting eggs over prone bones and dropping the yolks on them, and then with the delicacy of a master chef does the same upon the splayed crotch of a female prisoner, before inserting a fish into her vagina – Godard managing to portray this grotesquery whilst still maintaining a judicious vantage, implying clearly without presenting any image that nears the pornographic – which, in its way, makes the scene even more squirm-inducing.  

Some unknown time after being captured, the Front crouch with their captives near a roadside, waiting for passing travellers to waylay and add to the pot. Roland tries to make a break, and the Front’s chief (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), rather than let him be shot, instead hits him with a stone from a slingshot. Corinne stands over Roland, his head split open by the missile and bleeding to death: “Horrible!” Corinne moans. “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” the leader replies, a line that might as well come out of Mao’s little red book, and can be taken as implicitly accusing nothing so petty as movie censors but the entire rhetorical infrastructure always mobilised whenever aggrieved and angry populations unleash that anger in destructive ways. Or, as apologia in dark tidings in glancing back at Stalinist purges and over to Maoist Cultural Revolution and on to Khmer Rouge killing fields. Or both and more. This cues the film’s most infamous moments as a pig is shown being swiftly and efficiently slaughtered, bashed on the head with a hammer to stun it before its throat is cut, and a goose having its head cut off, its body still flapping away pathetically when both animals are laid out for Ernest to add to his cuisine. Actual death on screen, inflicted on hapless animals, a profound provocation to animal lovers. Pauline Kael commented that for all Godard’s tilting at those who inflict horror and destruction, here was a bit of it he could own himself. And yet such scenes would be entirely familiar and commonplace to any farmers and slaughtermen in the audience but when placed in a movie become disturbing horror, given the average audience member’s distance from the realities that put food on the plate. Earlier in the film the farmer who ran into the young couple’s Triumph angrily declares people like her need people like him to feed them, and Godard only engages with that truism on its fundamental level.

The scenes with the Liberation Front, barbed as they are in portraying dark fantasy extreme of the radical dream, can also be taken as a sarcastic riff on Godard’s soon-to-be-ex-pal François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), taking up the same notion of a fringe group in revolt against society with a project of sustaining works of art within themselves, but with a much less poetically reassuring upshot. Rather than memorising books to carry into an unknown future, these radicals read the books out and turn them into new, perverse forms of art, which warring on the society that has no time for such works. Some remnant flicker of narrative purpose returns for the film’s last five minutes, as the Front arrive at a rendezvous on a muddy road by a farm, the guerrillas all edgy and armed, to get the chief’s girlfriend returned, as she’s been taken prisoner by some obscure rival gang. Corinne is given over in exchange, as she begs to stay with the devil she knows. When a sniper sparks battle, the chief’s girl is killed, dying in his arms whilst warbling her last chanson. Here is Godard’s simultaneous indulgence and mockery of both movie images of romantic death for good-looking freedom fighters, as well as the way such images were held in fond imagination by a generational cadre of gap year radicals, in the way all good radicals should hope to die before age and disillusionment despoil us. Corinne flees, joining the chief in their flight back to the forest.  

The last glimpse of Corinne sees her having shifted with ease that shouldn’t be that surprising from rapacious bourgeois to voracious cannibal, taking the place of the chief’s dead girl and listening to his sad musings on “man’s horror of his fellows.” The film’s punchline is finally reached like fate, as Ernest gives Corinne and the chief portions of cooked meat on the bone, a batch of human meat which the chief casually confirms includes parts of some English tourists from a Rolls Royce as well as the last of her husband Roland. “I’ll have a bit more later, Ernest,” Corinne instructs as she gnaws eagerly on her meal, before the fade to nihilistic black and “FIN DE CONTE – FIN DE CINEMA.” Of course, cinema didn’t end in 1967, any more than great Marxist liberation waves swept the Third World or France cracked up into chaotic guerrilla warfare and spouse-on-spouse anthropophagy. At least, not yet. Week End refuses to ease into a pathos-laden half-life of nostalgia the way most radical artworks tend to. As time-specific as the clothes and cars are, the daring of the filmmaking, the way Godard transmutes what he deals with into scenes at once abstract and charged with unruly life, still has a feeling of perpetual confrontation, of standing poised at the edge of a precipice. Not the end of cinema, but certainly one end of cinema, a summative point. Beyond here lies dragons.

1980s, British cinema, Drama, Historical, Sports, Uncategorized

Chariots Of Fire (1981)


Director: Hugh Hudson
Screenwriter: Colin Welland

In Memoriam: Hugh Hudson (1936-2023) / Vangelis (1943-2022) / Ben Cross (1947-2020) / Ian Charleson (1949-1990) /  Brad Davis (1949-1991)

By Roderick Heath

Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire can still be called a beloved and iconic work, even as it’s suffered a precipitous decline in stature since its release in 1981. At the time it was an uncontroversial winner of the Best Picture Oscar, marked by many as the official moment of resurgence for British cinema at a moment when the New Hollywood era had been decisively declared dead following Heaven’s Gate (1980). Actor turned screenwriter Colin Welland also gained an Oscar for the script, as did the Greek prog rocker turned electronica composer Vangelis. As if the film’s themes of patriotic toil and achievement were bleeding out into real life, entrepreneurial producer David Puttnam gained the climax to his and others’ efforts to foster that British film renaissance after the long, hard winter of the 1970s. That sentiment was famously summarised by Welland’s declaration upon receiving his Oscar, “The British are coming!”, and David Attenborough’s Gandhi would repeat the feat the following year. For years after its release, tributes, pastiches, and lampoons playing on its opening images of men running set to the shimmering electronic tones of Vangelis’ glorifying theme were all over the place.

With time however Chariots of Fire seems to have fallen away from attention, now often dismissed as the prototypical piece of Oscar bait that unfairly beat out Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in the ultimate prestige-versus-pop movie clash, and a flagship of 1980s conservative resurgence in moviegoing taste: Ronald Reagan reportedly loved it. Puttnam would piss off myriad players and onlookers with his brief period running Columbia Pictures a few years later. Hudson’s career would suffer a similarly jarring switchback of fortune. Hudson was one of a cadre of directors fostered by Puttnam, following Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, and Adrian Lyne, who had cut their teeth making TV commercials. Like Parker, Hudson had worked for Scott for a time, with Hudson’s signature talent, as evinced on a famous ad for Fiat showing cars being robotically assembled set to music from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, being interesting fusions of sound and vision. He had also demonstrated his interest in sporting subjects with his documentary on racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio, Fangio, A life at 300 km/h, and worked as a second unit director on Parker and Puttnam’s breakthrough collaboration Midnight Express (1978). Chariots of Fire was his feature debut, and for a follow-up Hudson made Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), and Revolution (1985): the latter proved a disaster both commercially and critically. Hudson was pushed to the margins, only returning sporadically for relatively straitlaced and classy fare no-one watched, with Lost Angels (1989), My Life So Far (1999), I Dreamed of Africa (2000), and Altamira (2016), although as his feature career broke down he kept up making much-admired commercials. His recent passing at the age of 86 was barely noted by many cineastes.

Despite the train wreck his once-dazzling career became, I retain admiration and interest in Hudson’s prime, when he seemed the least flashy but also most quietly experimental of the directors Puttnam fostered. Greystoke tried to reiterate the Tarzan tale in a fastidiously realistic manner, drawing on a script that was a long-time passion project for writer Robert Towne. The result was uneven but fascinating and, in its early portions, uniquely vivid. But it was also the first case of one of Hudson’s film being tinkered with, as would happen more destructively on Revolution, a film which certainly didn’t work but was also a product of authentic artistic ambition. In keeping with his fascination with culture clashes and boldness in risking elements of anachronism, Hudson tried to explore the American Revolution in a manner that nodded to both punk and new wave-era pop culture – notably casting singer Annie Lennox as a revolutionary maiden – and art cinema, particularly Mikhail Kalatozov and Miklos Jancso, with his rolling, flowing staging of communal events, whilst engaging seriously with the theme of an angry and vehement underclass emerging from revolt, as embodied by Al Pacino’s lead character. The film gained some reappraisal when Hudson reedited it in 2008.

Indeed, the singular thread connecting Hudson’s films despite their wildly varying reception was an interest in clashes between and within cultures, as experienced and embodied by individuals. Hudson himself came from an officially privileged background, having attended Eton as a lad – he notably filmed the other famous scene of Chariots of Fire, the Great Court Run, on location at his almer mater – but also developing a visceral hatred for the prejudice he often found espoused in such circles. As a consequence Chariots of Fire is far from being straightforward in its attitudes to patriotic endeavour and identity, revolving as it does around two core protagonists who become champions and national heroes but nonetheless do so in highly ironic ways and upholding vehemently different motives that somehow still mark them as perpetual outsiders, if only in their own minds. In the late 1970s Puttnam was explicitly looking for a story reminiscent of A Man For All Seasons (1966) as a study of a hero obeying their conscience, and discovered the story of Eric Liddell, 400m champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics, in an Olympic history book. He commissioned the former actor Welland to write the script, and Welland talked to everyone he could still alive and able to remember the 1924 Olympic Games where Liddell had competed, but he just missed interviewing Liddell’s teammate and rival Harold Abrahams, the 100m champion at the same games, as Abrahams passed in 1978. Welland nonetheless attended his funeral service, inspiring his script’s flashback structure and anchoring a story of the past in the then-present.

Stories about the British upper crust had been officially unfashionable for decades when Chariots of Fire emerged, around the same time as the hugely successful TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which similarly worked with serious purpose to convey the flavour and meaning of a bygone era’s mores on their own terms, whilst also noting the birth pains of the more recent epoch. If films like David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Joseph Losey’s King and Country (1963) explored the breakdown of the old British character in the face of the Twentieth century’s charnel house, Chariots of Fire evoked it from a safe distance, noting an age when it wasn’t considered absurd to put God before fame or when the idea of patriotic duty as a transcendental virtue was still a still-lit if flickering flame. Chariots of Fire didn’t just set the scene for other posh British dramas to start proliferating again on movie and TV screens, and lurk as an influence behind other ambitious sports films like Ford v Ferrari (2019), but perhaps also opened a door leading to Harry Potter films, which depended on a similarly elastic push and pull between nostalgic yearning and anxiety and rebellion in the face of haughty tradition.

Chariots of Fire has been described as a rare sports movie that even people who don’t like sports movies like. That could be whilst, as movie stories go, Chariots of Fire contains all the stuff of a heroic sporting drama, it also avoids the usual – by historical necessity of course but also but dint of focus and method. The film charts the rivalry, and mutual admiration, of the two standout champions of the British team at the ’24 Olympics: Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who nonetheless are fated not to compete head-to-head, but instead find separate paths towards their eventual reckonings with victory. Eric (Ian Charleson) is a China-born Scottish missionary and Rugby Union player turned runner. Harold (Ben Cross) is the son of a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant turned successful English banker. For both men faith defines them as individuals and in relation to the world about them, but in disparate ways: for Liddell his religion supersedes worldly cares and values, whilst Abrahams is driven by angry resentment. Eric muses with love on the Scottish landscape that is nonetheless new and foreign to him after years of hearing about it from his father, whilst Harold chafes at constantly feeling, despite ardent sense of loyalty and English identity, like others still consider him an alien. The title of course is comes from William Blake’s beloved poem “Jerusalem,” a relevant choice not just in the dashingly poetic lilt it lends but in evoking the centrality of religious faith to the drama as well as Blake’s anxious questioning of the changes befalling his beloved England, and desire to rebuild it as something finer and cleansed: in much the same way the film notes the enlargement of the idea and ideal of British identity.

The film’s flashback structure nods to Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (also relentlessly mimicked by Attenborough on Gandhi, at a time when Lean still couldn’t get a film financed to save his life) as it commences with a funeral service for Harold, with a eulogy given by his former teammate and pal from Cambridge Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), and attended by some other old comrades including Aubrey ‘Monty’ Montague (Nicholas Farrell). Hudson dissolves from the sight of the old, withered men mourning one of their own to the spectacle of them in all the glory of their youth, dashing as a team through the surf at Broadstairs in Kent (although the scene was actually shot at West Sands, next to St Andrews Golf Club, in Scotland), both physical strain and sheer joyful pleasure in pushing their abilities to the limit apparent on their faces. Hudson returns to this vision at the film’s very end, partly in sustaining the motif of fluid time and restoration of glory days, and also with an old ad man’s knowledge he has a killer hook: it’s this vision, with Vangelis’ music over the top, that became an instant pop culture landmark. A brief vignette follows of Harold’s competitive and brattish streak on full display as he becomes frustrated at failing to bowl Liddell out during a game of cricket, staged with amusing bohemian verve within the plush environs of a seaside hotel’s ballroom, as well as Harold’s final ability to laugh at himself for all his concerted passion.

Loose framing narration comes from Monty in writing a letter home as he muses on Abrahams’ customary intensity, and thinks back to their first meeting three years earlier when first coming to Cambridge, setting the scene for stepping back again in time, as several of the future track and field stars meet whilst signing up for clubs during their induction at the university. Harold, a law student, also immediately makes his declaration of intent when he takes on a standing challenge that hasn’t been beaten in 700 years: the Great Court Run, referred to in the movie as the College Dash, sprinting around the courtyard of Trinity College in the time it takes for the school clock to strike noon. He unexpectedly gains a fellow challenger when the dashing young aristocrat Lindsay decides to try too: still, Harold manages to not just beat him but the clock too, making history. Truth be told, Abrahams never even tried to take on the Great Court Run (which was actually first beaten by Lord Burlegh, one of the two real men Lindsay is based on, a few years after this), but it makes a great scene in first evincing Harold’s blistering ability in the context of this capital of an eminent but hidebound establishment he’s clawing his way into, and its description of the essence of a certain British kind of exceptionalism blending schoolboy larkishness and fearsome ability, the spirit of eternal renewal and limit-stretching amidst echoes of hallowed tradition.

Soon Harold tells his fast friend Monty that he’s determined to avenge the many slights and insults turned his way by the British upper class, to “run them off their feet” literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the more serenely modest and pious, if also hearty and good-humoured Eric is being feted in Scotland for his success as a footballer, and courted by coach Sandy McGrath (Struan Rodger) to turn his hand to running: encouraged to give a show of his speed during a sporting carnival he’s giving out trophies at, Eric demonstrates his astounding talent, complete with his signature move as he zeroes in on the finish line of leaning back with his mouth yawing wide in ecstatic effort. He soon decides to take up Sandy on his offer. On the one occasion Eric and Harold race against each-other in the 100m, at a meet at Stamford Bridge, Eric handily beats Harold, sparking a momentary crisis for Harold who’s built his entire identity around being unbeatable. He gains solace when a professional coach he’s approached, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), assures him he can make him a better runner, whereas he thinks Eric has reached his limit as a sprinter and is a better fit for longer runs.

The story of the two runners is presented against the backdrop of a Britain recovering in the aftermath of the Great War, with both men competing unawares to be salves for, as one character puts it, “a guilty national pride.” Harold, first signing into Caius, deals with the patronising Head Porter Rogers (Richard Griffiths) in explaining that he only just missed fighting in the war and comments, “I ceased to be called laddie when I took the King’s commission – is that clear?” Harold’s habitual pugnacity and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is both a reaction to various manifestations of anti-Semitism and taken by others as a justification for it, particularly the Masters of Caius and Trinity Colleges (Lindsay Anderson and John Gielgud), who observe the courtyard race with languid interest, two old trolls inhabiting the high reaches of this otherwise romantic world of blazers and boaters. They later put Harold on the spot for violating their purely amateur ethos by hiring Mussabini, which they worry will besmirch the honour of the university. “I take the future with me,” Harold ripostes, provoked to tension but also perhaps just a little thrilled to have put the old guard’s noses out of joint, to one Master’s exchange with the other once he’s gone, “There goes your Semite, Hugh.”

The two Master are played with snooty verve by the obviously cast Gielgud and the more mischievously cast, famously antiestablishment director Anderson, maker of what could be described as this film’s antithesis, If… (1968). The inevitable punchline that when informed of Harold’s eventual victory one Master notes to the other with satisfaction, “Just as I expected,” lends a more sardonic hue to the theme of the establishment making room. Some have expressed qualms over what Harold’s bucking of the Masters means over the years, considering that the Harold future claims as his own is the one we’re familiar with today, of professional sportspeople and the invasion of sporting endeavour by overriding commercial concerns and an attendant competitiveness that often manifests in drug cheating. More immediately, it also points to a subtext of Chariots of Fire wound in with its own making. Financing for the film was taken over by immigrant entrepreneur Mohammed Al-Fayed and his son Dodi: Harold’s expressions of a multigenerational intent to carve a path into the heart of the British establishment by immigrant outsiders against all headwinds of prejudice might well have caught Al-Fayed’s attention, as it could well have spoken to so many who had come to Britain in the post-Imperial age. He extends this to Mussabini, a man with a strong midlands accent who nonetheless is Arab-Italian in heritage, further exacerbating the complicating sense of national identity.

This theme is starkly at odds with the film’s reputation as being a conservative statement, although it could also be said to rhyme to a certain extent with the Thatcher-Reagan era’s mixture of embraced traditionalism and narrowly defined and channelled rule-breaking: the outsiders want to be insiders. The film is also cunning in offsetting its antagonist figures. If the Cambridge Masters represent a hidebound old guard, Lord Lindsay is presented as a gentleman bohemian who could also stand in for the Thatcher era Tory’s ideal self-projection, enjoying the fruits of his privilege, merrily practising his hurdling technique in the grounds of his country house with champagne used an actual training tool, but entirely open-minded and breezily reassuring to all in his circle.

The nominal enemies on the running track are the Americans, the flashy Charlie Paddock (Dennis Christopher) and the muscular, intimidating Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis), who have a rivalry not unlike that of Harold and Eric. Whilst Paddock is a figure ripe for a takedown, Scholz proves a serious person who feels unexpected kinship for Eric, eventually giving him a note that suggests equally serious religious feelings, which Eric then carries into the race. Davis had played the lead in the Puttnam-produced, Parker-directed Midnight Express (1978), the film that established the potency of Puttnam’s production approach if with a safe appeal to the US market; Christopher meanwhile was cast with some wit after his lead role in Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979) as another sportsman, albeit this one lean and mean, casually accepting a passionate kiss from a random woman when first setting foot in France. Scholz himself, who actually beat both Liddell and Abrahams in the 200m, was still alive when the film was made, as was Jennie Liddell, both thanked in the end credits.

The film’s deeper theme is the way an athlete – perhaps anybody, really – is obliged to find strength and motive within, in wellsprings distinct from and even perhaps alien to the society they represent, even as they’re expected to share out whatever success and glory they win in collective terms. In both Harold and Eric those wellsprings are apparent, Harold’s driving need to prove himself the best participating in a constant roundelay of pride and shame, versus Eric’s triumphal sense of spirituality expressed through physicality, and whichever compels one as an individual viewer the most perhaps says much about one’s own inner drives. Eric’s awesome talent is illustrated to both Mussabini and Harold’s profound wonder when they watch him in a race at a Scots vs English track meet: a fellow runner shoves Eric at the first turn and he falls down at the trackside, gets back up, chases down the other runners and wins, at the cost of collapsing as a breathless mess at the end. Here in particular Eric’s speed seems the purest expression of something beyond the merely human, a vitality of mind and body springing from a conviction so total as to be reflexive: whereas Harold needs the society he feels at odds with in a peculiar way, Eric is beyond it.

In much less airy terms, Eric’s talent has long been honed in active competition as a footballer, the furore of actual struggle a realm he’s been trained to be indifferent amongst, where Harold for all his bloodymindedness competes as the gentleman amateur, and he needs Mussabini’s keen sense of technique to help him improve. Whilst he never does get to race Eric again after losing to him, leaving a tantalising ambiguity in the air, Harold gains something that lets him take on the rest of the best in the world and win. “Short sprinters run on nerves,” Mussabini tells Harold when assessing his and Eric’s differing capacities, “It’s tailor-made for neurotics.” He and Mussabini develop an almost paternal relationship during the course of their labours, with Mussabini finally crying, “My son!” when Harold triumphs. Harold’s friendship with Monty sees him praising him as a “complete man” even as Monty is hurting after grievous failure, even as Harold despairs that he himself might be too scared to win after a life of being scared to fail.

Welland’s script was rife with historical and dramatic licence, including the actual circumstances of Abrahams’ race(s) against Liddell and of Liddell’s quandary at the Olympics, Jennie’s age and attitude to Liddell’s running, the timing of Abrahams’ meeting of his future wife Sybil, and inventing the character of Lindsay as a concatenation of two real historical figures, one of whom didn’t want to be involved with the film and the other competed at a later Olympics. Montague was actually a student at Oxford, although the narration his letters provides is practically verbatim from his real missives. But Abrahams’ authentic musical talent – and Cross’s – and love of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular, was smartly tapped as one of the running motifs of the film, as songs from the G&S catalogue provide jaunty leitmotifs for Harold and the other Cambridge adventurers. After his self-explaining soliloquy to Monty, Hudson shifts into a spry and witty montage of Harold’s training regimens and running victories, scored to his own singing in the Cambridge G&S Society’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore: his signing the anthemic “He Is An Englishman” is a gesture laced with both spry sarcasm and perfect earnestness given Harold’s mission.

Later Harold is distracted from his pure dedication when he’s dragged by his friends to see a production of The Mikado, where he he’s instantly smitten with Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), playing the role of Num-Yum, belting out “Three Little Maids From School Are We.” Much to Monty’s heartache given his own long-nursed crush Harold successfully asks her out on a date, in part because Sybil’s younger brother is athletics mad, and the two have immediate chemistry even as Sybil tries awkwardly to reassure Harold as he explains his position as Jewish: “I’m what they call semi-deprived…It means that lead me to water but they won’t let me drink.” A moment of crisis seems to arrive when the special of the restaurant Sybil ordered for them both proves to be pig’s trotters, only for this to set them both laughing. Later, as they’ve become a firm couple, Sybil tries with mixed sympathy, irritation, and frustration to coax Harold through his crisis after losing, a moment where despite the jaggedness of emotion it’s plain that Sybil has become along with Mussabini a person Harold can show his deepest, most inchoate vulnerability to.

Eric and his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) have a similarly fraught and close relationship, both being predestined to take up their father’s work in China. Jennie becomes worried that his new passion for running is drawing him away from his habits of faith and their duty, and Jennie is particularly upset when Eric is late from a training session for a prayer meeting, making anxious appeals that he remember what their ultimate purpose it. As he walks with her up Arthur’s Seat outside Edinburgh, Eric explains patiently but firmly that he’s already committed to becoming a missionary but is also determined to take his running as far as he can, feeling that his talent is god-given, that when he runs he “feels His pleasure,” and so must honour it to the upmost. This attempt to balance faith with passion will of course be strongly tested, foreshadowed early in the film when he chides a boy for playing football on a Sunday, although he also makes sure to play a game with the lad and his family the next morning so he doesn’t think “God’s a spoilsport.” Just as Eric and the rest of the team selected for the ’24 Olympic embark on a Channel ferry for their great venture, he learns from an inquisitive reporter’s questions that the heats for the 100m will be held on a Sunday.

When Eric soon declares he can’t participate in the heats, he’s soon taken before  number of British Olympic Committee bigwigs including Lord Birkenhead (Nigel Davenport), Lord Cadogan (Patrick Magee), the Duke of Sutherland (Peter Egan), and Edward the Prince of Wales (David Yelland), in a scene that becomes, in Eric’s words, a form of inquisition in the pointed test of loyalties. Eric stands up for himself effectively against Cadogan’s stern espousal of patriotic duty above all and Birkenhead and the Prince’s smoother espousals of the same, whilst the Duke has more sympathy, retorting to Cadogan’s comment “In my day it was King first, God after,” with, “Yes, and the war to end wars bitterly proved your point.” Eric’s steadfastness places them all at loggerheads until Lindsay intervenes: having already won a silver medal in the hurdles, he suggests that Eric take his slot in the 400m, to be held on a different day, and the offer ends the impasse. Meanwhile Harold is obliged to install Mussabini in a hotel room a safe distance away from the Olympic stadium lest he taint it with his professionalism (“I’ve seen better-organised riots,” he quips earlier on regarding a different meet).

Holm’s expert supporting performance was invaluable, presenting the worldly professional flipside to all the toffee-caked youth, whilst Cross and Charleson’s effective performances went oddly ignored even in Oscar nominations. Hudson lost the Best Director Oscar to Warren Beatty’s work on Reds (1981), an ironic win given that whilst both directors paid homage to Lean in their elliptical approaches to stories set in the same period if contending with highly divergent social perspectives, and because Beatty’s work was generally much more traditional than Hudson’s. Hudson’s exacting recreation of the period milieu, and equally exacting feel for the classically British virtues and foibles at play in the drama, blends throughout Chariots of Fire with an aggressively modern film aesthetic. This is most obviously keyed to the boldly anachronistic electronic textures of Vangelis’s score (which made so much impact that Peter Weir pinched the idea for his Gallipoli, 1982, as did Michael Mann for The Keep, 1983, whilst Vangelis was immediately hired by Scott for Blade Runner, 1982), but is also apparent in Hudson’s restless camerawork and innovative editing. Not that Hudson was being entirely original. Slow motion, freeze frames, and replays were already an accepted part of the average TV sports broadcast by this point, and films like Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1972) had played with fracturing time in filming sporting contests.

Hudson still went a step further in trying to use it all for dramatic, even poetic emphasis, balancing the relentlessly fleeting nature of sporting competition, in which entire lives and fates can be decided in a few brief seconds of perfect physical expression, clashing with the mind’s capacity to experience it in expanses of dilation and distillation, the surging physical effort of racing glimpsed in contorting slow motion that turns events into arias of motion and character. Harold’s loss to Eric in their one race is a blink-and-miss-it affair where the difference between the two men seems trifling and yet means everything, and Harold’s obsessing over it is illustrated in constant, drawn-out flash-cut returns to it, each moment and gesture turned over with agonising meaning, punctuated by Vangelis’ moody electronic stings. Harold’s climactic race is filmed first in a deadpan shot looking down the track, the race that has obsessed the runners and become the focal point of the drama disposed of in a few seconds, the winner hard to make out because of the angle – the event of such grand drama is also a mere blip in movie time, never mind the history of the world, but then is revisited in glorifying slow motion, becoming a dream of individual will translated into speed.

Other innovative touches are more subtle, including Hudson’s use of steadicam shots not just for flashy effects but subtle unity that emphasises more communal moments, in the induction day scene, as he moves through the crowd with and around Cross, and then with more intense effect when he films the American Olympic team training fiercely for the contest, set to pulsing music from Vangelis. Later Hudson’s clever feel for making sound and vision interact manifests as he turns a scene of Eric giving a sermon on the Sunday into a study in contrasts, Eric’s meditative words spoken over footage of the athletes who are racing in various states of pain and effort, including Monty who suffers falls during a steeplechase, and Harold loses to Scholz in their heat, rendered studies in slightly absurd pathos as their efforts crash to earth in dreamy slow-motion. Hudson also honours more familiar and hallowed flourishes, like a montage of spinning newspapers used to communicate the furore Eric’s refusal to run sets off in a battle of religion versus patriotism.

Hudson’s direction has weathered better than Welland’s script in some regards – as intelligent and well-layered as it is, not all Welland’s dialogue is crisp and convincing, as he uses Sutherland to deliver a brief, annoyingly essayistic note on the dangers of severing Eric’s strength from his motives, or when Scholz, after the American coach (Philip O’Brien) dismisses Eric to one of his American competitors, notes, in clunky cliché, “He’s got something to prove, something personal – something guys like Coach’ll never understand in a million years.” Nonetheless, the essence of Chariots of Fire that drives it well beyond the usual kind of sports drama never goes out of focus, even as the film ratchets up tension in building to Harold and Eric’s climactic races. That we usually expect a certain outcome in following the story of a sportsperson in a movie is factored into the viewing experience, in the way Hudson presents Harold’s victory with that deadpan long shot, cutting briefly to Eric cheering him on before returning to a slow motion shot of Harold lunging through the finish tape in exact obedience to Mussabini’s instruction. The coach himself is forced to wait until he can hear the strains of “God Save the King” until he knows his protégé has won.

The more interesting point, reiterating the essence of the entire film, is how he wins, and how it affects him: reeling after the effort of his lifetime, Harold doubles up as if in mortal pain, again in slow-motion, whilst the race flashes once more in his head, this time with his sheer and perfect focus on display. The music on the soundtrack is plaintive and eerie even as Eric comes over to shake Harold’s hand in a gesture of great meaning. Here Hudson captures something profound about victory even whilst resisting the usual movie language for conveying it: for Harold it is a purgation, an emptying out indeed, of his previous identity. Harold afterwards shirks out of the changing room as Lindsay counsels the worried Monty to leave him along: “Now one of these days Monty, you’re going to win yourself, and it’s pretty difficult to swallow.” Eric’s subsequent win is a more traditional kind of heroic payoff, if still one filmed and conveyed in an unusual manner. Eric’s earlier conversation with Jennie is heard over his run, emphasising the vitality of his words as part and parcel with his deeds. He charges home to victory with his signature wide mouth and back-flung head, watched with knowing joy by Sandy and Jennie, and Harold with blazing intensity. The heroes’ return to England sees some further irony in the way Eric readily accepts adulation with the others whilst Harold quietly waits to slip off the train and meet with Sybil, his private war over at last, and his victory that of simply becoming a fully functional man.

The film offers title notes on the Harold and Eric’s different ends, with Harold living to a ripe old age whilst Eric’s air of being a little too good for the world is confirmed in the report of his death at the end of World War II (he died of a brain tumor whilst in a Japanese POW camp), which suggests a whole other, equally interesting story in itself. “He did it,” the aged Monty notes to Lindsay as they leave the church in a brief return to Harold’s 1978 funeral service, “He ran them off their feet.” Whereupon Hudson returns to the opening vision of the athletes running on the beach, restored again to their youthful glory. This encore is particularly cunning in the way it lingers on the men for a few moments after a performance of the hymn version of “Jerusalem” ends, with only the sound of their feet splashing in foam and went sand, nailing a plaintive sense of the ephemeral and immediately physical before Vangelis’ theme returns. Sure, Chariots of Fire might indeed not be as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is a movie in the top echelon of its kind, a properly mature spectacle that represents a rare melding of dramatic intelligence and stylistic vigour. Tragic lustre has been imbued upon Chariots of Fire’s meditations on the dimming of golden youth and sadly exulting nostalgia in the time since its release, by the sheer fact that several of its stars died young, with both Charleson and Davis claimed by the AIDS epidemic, and whilst Cross lived to be an august character actor, even he departed too early. Still, they’re always young in this movie.

1950s, Crime/Detective, Scifi, Thriller

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)


Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenwriter: A.I. Bezzerides

By Roderick Heath

Robert Aldrich was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors and one of its most unclassifiable, his life and art stamped with fearsome individualism and replete with ironies. Chief amongst which is that for a director who usually made such gritty movies filled with violence and mania and living rage, Aldrich came from perhaps the most privileged background of any major American filmmaker. Aldrich was born in 1918 into a Rhode Island family with deep roots and deeper pockets. Aldrich counted amongst his ancestors Rhode Island Colony founder Roger Williams and Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. The Aldrich family’s affluence was chiefly owed to his grandfather, a hugely successful inventor. Aldrich’s father was an influential newspaper publisher, and his aunt married into the Rockefellers, establishing a potent political clique. Aldrich himself was heir to the family fortune, but he broke with his family and stoically accepted complete disinheritance after a turn to leftist politics in college partly inspired by the spectacle of the Great Depression. He persuaded an uncle to get him a job on the lowest rung of the ladder at RKO Pictures, around the same time Orson Welles signed his contract with the studio, but unlike Welles Aldrich faced a long apprenticeship as a filmmaker.

After being rejected for service in World War II, Aldrich was nonetheless able to move quickly into working as an assistant director. Soon he went freelance and was in heavy demand. He worked with a swathe of major filmmakers including Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Lewis Milestone, William A. Wellman, Abraham Polonsky, and Joseph Losey, and made connections with many of his future, stalwart collaborators including cinematographer Joseph Biroc and composer Frank DeVol. Aldrich was left alone during the Red Scare, perhaps because of his relative youth and family background, but many of his friends and collaborators like Polonsky were targeted and blacklisted, and Aldrich remained their staunch supporter. With his growing directorial ambitions frustrated by a lack of offers to make features, he worked in television for a busy few years, which he described as a “director’s crash course” that taught him efficiency but also gave space to experiment. In between TV jobs, an established director recommended him to MGM, leading to him making his feature debut on the low-budget baseball film, Big Leaguer (1953). It wasn’t a success, but when he pieced together the action film World for Ransom (1954) with the cast and sets of a TV shows he regularly helmed, he gained the attention of Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht, and was hired to make the Western Apache (1954). This proved a hit, and a follow-up, Vera Cruz, was even more successful.  

Now fully established, Aldrich moved into producing as well as directing, founding his Associates and Aldrich company, commencing a lifelong effort to maintain as much control as possible over his movies. In an amazing spasm of work, he made eight films in the first three years of his career, including some of his very best work in Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly, Autumn Leaves, and Attack, as well as the overcooked but fascinating Hollywood tale The Big Knife (1955). Unfortunately he also commenced another of his career habits, as that run of great works didn’t include enough hits, and he only made sporadic movies for time in a peripatetic career until Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) proved another, much-lauded success. This pattern would repeat as big hits like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974) punctuated more personal, edgy, and often unpopular works. Perhaps the fundamental concern of Aldrich’s cinema, beyond a compulsive interest in character forced to extremes of survival, was a preoccupation with characters consumed by a feeling they’re not in control of themselves or their lives, and being driven to extreme measures to earn a slice of agency and rescue themselves, writhing their way through hellish straits in an attempt to come to grips with their world and battle the emblems of their frustration, only to too often squander it or finish up in self-negation. Cool intelligence was the only trait Aldrich exalted, but also found it rare. Authority was inevitably treated with utmost scepticism.

Most often in Aldrich’s films this registered through emphasis on a certain brand of virile masculinity with outsider heroes put in a pressure cooker situation, particularly in his take on Mickey Spillane’s popular private eye character Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, the war-is-hell tales Attack and The Dirty Dozen, the disaster survival film The Flight of the Phoenix (1964), the Depression-era duel of bum and thug in Emperor of the North Pole, and the clash of jailers and jailed in The Longest Yard. But he also often articulated the same theme through a succession of fractured heroines, in the sullen melodrama of Autumn Leaves, the gothic furore of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), and the forlorn queerness of The Killing of Sister George (1968). When he took on Hollywood myth-making it came in the twinned, gendered portraiture of The Big Knife and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), both of which couch their arguments in portrayals of the anointed movie star as a creature possessed and puppeteered by the wills of others, including the audience. By the time he made films like The Grissom Gang (1970), Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and Hustle (1975), films that purely articulated his tragic-romantic streak in the context of brutally honest takes on the Gangster, Western, and cop thriller respectively, the zeitgeist and filmmaking fashion had caught up with him, even as his hit-and-miss habits continued until his death in 1983.  

Aldrich also often presaged trends in Hollywood and the broader pop culture, his ahead-of-his-time stature particularly ironic given his only occasional synch with the popular audience. He anticipated the next generation of “Movie Brat” directors in trying to construct his own movie studio to escape the thralls of the system as much as possible, finally springboarding it off the success of The Dirty Dozen only to, like most of his followers, lay it waste in following his wont. Apache and Vera Cruz set the scene for the revisionist-themed Westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the latter provided a crucial embarkation point for both Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Attack announced a new era of bitter, ambivalent war movies. His calculated use of the aging stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? found a new way to utilise the mystique of aging movie stars and their popular cachet, and helped usher in a camp sensibility in exploiting the disparity between their acting styles and air of pathos in ruined grandeur and a cruder new world, as well as Aldrich’s penchant for overheated behaviour. The Dirty Dozen, still his most famous and popular film, presented Aldrich with the perfect vehicle to articulate his obsessions and express his rebellious streak, even as it shaded into a uniquely fork-tongued tale where the nominally heroic rebels are mostly, ultimately revealed as viciously murderous lunatics and then killed in the name of greater good.  

Kiss Me Deadly meanwhile would prove a source point not just for the next few decades’ worth of urban crime films but, in a way, a swathe of modern cinema. Whilst detectably influenced by the likes of Welles, John Huston, and Joseph H. Lewis, Kiss Me Deadly fused their examples and created something fresh and weird. Whilst it wasn’t much of a success at first in the US, it became a cult hit in France, and proved a major inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague cadre, in its dynamic use of location shooting and also the way it utilised genre film conventions to encompass a panoramic viewpoint on a time and place, crawling through the gut of 1955 Los Angeles in both the sweep of its settings and its survey of characters, and adding on new elements of encoded political commentary. Jean-Luc Godard assimilated its aesthetics deeply, as did Stanley Kubrick for The Killing (1956), Welles repaid the favour by taking some licence for his Touch of Evil (1958), John Boorman took it to it few more paces into the realm of the surreal with Point Blank (1967), and Arthur Penn would recontextualise it for Night Moves (1975). Decades later Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would take direct inspiration from its bizarre and grotesque open-the-Pandora’s-Box climax for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Walter Hill would nod to it with The Driver (1978), as would John Carpenter in The Fog (1980) and Prince of Darkness (1987), Alex Cox would subsume it for Repo Man (1984), and Quentin Tarantino would extrapolate its MacGuffin, “the Great Whatsit,” into an even more abstract distillation of narrative purpose and symbolism in Pulp Fiction (1994). A persuasive afterlife for a movie condemned by Estes Kefauver’s famous Senate committee on organised crime for trying to ruin American youth.

Kiss Me Deadly was written by A.I. Bezzerides, a screenwriter who specialised in tough noir films usually with a focus on working class heroes. He had penned the source novel for Raoul Walsh’s 1940 hit They Drive By Night, a title that echoes in the opening of Aldrich’s film. Aldrich’s daring and peculiar mix of headlong force and discursion manifests in his opening frames, which split the difference between actualising a kind of idle driving fantasy and the hangover from a troubling dream. A frantic woman dressed only in an overcoat (Cloris Leachman) runs down a stretch of lonely highway, and stands before an oncoming car to force it stop. The driver of the car proves to be Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who grudgingly gives her a ride. Aldrich finally lets the credits roll but has them spool downwards, slanting towards the camera, as if nodding to the credit scenes of monster movies like It Came From Beneath The Sea (1953) but reversed, mimicking the roll of the road and suggesting something strange and untrustworthy about the story about to unfold, as if engaging in an act of devolution. This only emphasises the strange, punch-drunk nocturnal mood as the two burn down the road, drilling into vast darkness with headlights and a moody Nat King Cole ditty on the radio as an incidental, diegetic title theme.  

A meeting of opposites: the frightened, forlorn, contemplative, poetry-loving woman needles the most insensate of tough guys, teasing his masculine vanity as she diagnoses his character via his convertible and general demeanour with an air of rueful knowing: “I bet you do push-ups every morning to keep your belly hard…You’re the kind of man who never gives in a relationship, only takes…” Meanwhile she invokes the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti, grazing a world and sensibility about as alien to Hammer as any Martian language, as she explains she was named after the poet, and quotes the title of the poem “Remember” in a way that imbues it with totemic import that nags at Mike evermore for all his detached and mercenary postures. Christina’s wryly teasing meditation on such extremes of gendered values immediately cuts against the grain of Spillane’s mythos – the equivalent passage in the book sees Hammer telling his female passenger, there named Berga Torn, multiple times to shut up – and sets up Aldrich’s deconstruction of it. Christina comes cloaked in mystery, alluding to mysterious men who locked her up in a sanatorium and took away her clothes to force her to stay, and warning Hammer she can’t tell him why: “Because what I don’t know won’t hurt me?” Hammer suggests.

After a brief stop at a gas station, where Hammer gets an attendant (Robert Sherman) to pull out a branch jammed in a wheel from his swerve and for Christina to hurriedly hand the attendant a letter to stamp and mail, they continue their journey, only to be run off the road by a car waiting on the curb. Aldrich focuses only on the legs of the men getting out of the car as Christina begins to scream, and her screams continue as Aldrich dissolves to a shot of her bare legs dangling off a bed. She’s plainly being brutally tortured by the men, until she finally goes limp and silent and dead. Mike himself lies barely conscious on a mattress-less bed and is pushed off it onto the ground, where he can only see the legs of the captors, and hears a distinctive, ironically cultured voice commenting that the torturer who still hopes to revive her would have to raise the dead – “And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?” Mike and Christina’s corpse are placed back in Mike’s roadster and sent over a cliff, intended to be the end of the matter, only for Mike to wake up days later in a hospital.

Aldrich’s style in this long and fascinating opening announces a creative vision detaching itself from classical Hollywood method like a butterfly erupting from a chrysalis. This is apparent not just in the unusual way of interpolating the credits but in the jagged, nervous textures, which continue throughout the film. The way Aldrich shoots Meeker and Leachman in a real car on a real road. The sudden swerve from the deceptively quiet, quasi-romantic tension of the car ride to violence. The frenzy of Christina’s bloodcurdling screams and the ingenious way of skirting showing the horror of her torture whilst still conveying the cruelty and the ruthlessness of her tormenters. The way Aldrich obliquely portrays the thugs, bordering on a form of abstraction, close to disembodied agents of fate. In the novel Hammer gets in a few good socks at the attackers before he’s overwhelmed: here he’s rather easily blindsided and taken down, and only survives thanks to sheer luck and physical toughness. The ironically cultured voice belongs to Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker), who remains unseen save his shoes and trousers until the very last scene, but he pervades the drama as the ultimate master of corruption who nonetheless purveys civilised values as an educated aesthete and well of sardonic commentary, providing an intellectual’s auto-critique of the drama in repeatedly comparing its twists and turns to Greek and Biblical mythology.

After he recovers Mike faces down members of the Interstate Crime Commission who want answers about what happened to him and Christina. The cabal turn acidic disdain on his character and way of making a living as a private eye, which basically consists of alternating using himself and his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as honey traps to leverage divorce cases that come his way. “All right, you’ve got me convinced – I’m a real stinker,” Mike drawls, and all the interview accomplishes is to let Mike know that Christina’s death was part of something important enough to “set bells ringing all the way to Washington.” Mike is allowed to go on his way but Mike’s friend and nemesis on the force, Lt Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), warns him off pursuing the case even as he knows the thought is wriggling like a worm in Mike’s brain. Mike repeatedly announces he expects to earn a big cut of whatever action lies behind Christina’s murder, and follows faint leads through Christina’s friends and acquaintances, starting with Ray Diker (Mort Marshall), a former newspaper science reporter. When Mike meets with Diker he finds the man has been badly beaten, but he still gives Mike Christina’s last name and address. In Christina’s apartment, which she shared with a roommate, Lily Carver, who has since fled the place, he finds a book of Rossetti poems and little else. An old caretaker in the building (Silvio Minciotti) tells him where Lily is staying, and Lily in turn tells Mike about how Christina “stepped on a carousel” and was consumed by fear. Diker calls up again and gives Mike more names from Christina’s circle of friends, who also died in seemingly random traffic accidents. As he digs, he connects their deaths with two hoods employed by big-time gangster Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).  

Aldrich’s film was the second film to be based on a Spillane novel, following 1953’s interesting if cheap and relatively crude I, The Jury, directed by Harry Essex and with Biff Elliott playing Hammer. Spillane’s Hammer novels found fast and lasting popularity even as they offered a defiantly pulpy take on the detective story. Whereas Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler strove to invest the style with real literary sophistication and a muted, almost tragic sense of their lone wolf heroes exploring and battling criminals with a sense of them as mere extensions of a venal, on-the-make society, Spillane pitched his books as naked, near-delirious macho fantasies replete with lashings of sex and sadistic violence. In many ways Hammer was the American, low-rent equivalent of James Bond: Hammer was offered as an ideal projection figure for a generation of stymied post-war men acting out fantasies of unleashing brute force in a world portrayed as a Hobbesian hellhole where only a streetwise barbarian like Hammer can thrive. Spillane wryly but honestly described himself as having politics to the right of Genghis Khan. Spillane’s writing garnered little respect, and he certainly aimed for diamond-hard thrills, but there’s a sense of imagist intensity and brutish power to some of his prose, as in the startling climactic paragraphs of the novel of Kiss Me Deadly:  

The smile never left her mouth and before it was on me I thumbed the lighter and in the moment of time before the scream blossoms into the wild cry of terror she was a mass of flame tumbling on the floor with the blue flames of alcohol turning the white of her hair into black char and her body convulsing under the agony of it. The flames were teeth that ate, ripping and tearing into scars of other flames and her voice the shrill sound of death on the loose.

Understandably, most filmmakers tackling Spillane felt uneasy with his books’ unregenerate, quasi-fascistic worldview and down-and-dirty servicing of their audience’s appetites, and set about partly dismantling his dingy mythos in varying ways. Essex cast Elliott as an amusingly luggish Hammer, with the aspect of a former footballer and the glazed eyes of a neurotic itching to punch everything that confounded his intelligence. Aldrich and Bezzerides, for their part, purvey the version of Hammer found in their version of Kiss Me Deadly as a bottom feeder and chauvinistic egotist who more than earns the disdain turned his way by cops, who causes death and destruction through his pig-headed determination and shallowness of outlook. Spillane himself would ultimately grow frustrated with such tweaks and play his own character, to less than galvanising effect, in the low-budget, British-produced The Girl Hunters (1963). Aldrich and Bezzerides keep Hammer at a certain distance, initially through Christina’s comments about him and then through Murphy, who keeps issuing warnings to him to keep out of the big kids’ business with a tone of schoolyard provocation, and then finally delivers scathing rebuke to him when his meddling puts Velda in mortal peril and screws up the police investigation. He’s also made a fool of by the cunning of Lily, who is actually named Gabrielle and is Soberin’s mistress and confederate: the game is only given away when Murphy tells Mike they fished the real Lily’s body out of the harbour days before.

Nonetheless Hammer was a perfect hero for Aldrich precisely because he is simultaneously a prickly, rebellious man in contention with society and one perfectly attuned to its secret appetites. As Christina correctly guesses right off the bat, he’s at once at extremely hardy and wily in his way, but also a sucking void of arrogance who doesn’t know what’s actually valuable to him until it’s taken from him. His battle with a mysterious, almost miasmic form of evil throughout the film is at once far beyond the compass of his primeval instincts but perhaps also only can be taken on by someone like him. As the world evolves into a strange, frightening new era charged with apocalyptic potential, Hammer, even more than Bond in his battles with supervillains, wields the primitive to take on the futuristic. Not that he’s anywhere near as successful as Bond: Aldrich’s Hammer is a damn fool as often as he’s an effective battering ram of results-getting, and he barely ever comes to grips with the machinations at work in the case. Meeker comes on with just the right affect for the character with his bulletproof forehead, pork roast chin, and sullen, rubbery grin he has the aspect of an overgrown high school bully, handsome in a blunt force trauma sort of way. Where in a traditional detective story the hero’s doggedness is their ultimate advantage and quality, Mike spends most of the film following a trail of corpses and nearly becomes one himself, ultimately putting Velda in danger after a career of pimping her out for gain.  

Murphy revokes Mike’s PI licence and gun permit early in the film, forcing him to survive and make headway without either. The character was also removed from the New York he haunted in Spillane’s books and transplanted to Los Angeles. Whatever motivated this, it was a particularly consequential change for the way Aldrich renders the city a character unto itself throughout the film, exploiting its locations and also utilising its geography as a kind of moral and social map, reaching from seamy little apartments and hotel rooms to gleaming mansions, through which Hammer’s investigation takes him. “Why are you always trying to make a noise like a cop?” Velda asks at one point, in a story that patently refuses to indulge Mike’s pretentions to playing the lone vigilante avenger. Aldrich’s concept of Mike Hammer sees him as a man still with lingering glimmers of empathy for fellow proles even as he’s dedicated to making himself prosperous feeding on scraps falling from the tables of the rich and bored. He helps the old caretaker carry a weight, he maintains a genuinely warm friendship with hyperactive Greek motor mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis), nicknamed “Va Va Voom” because of his constant utterance of that phrase, who looks after Mike’s car and sometimes does errands for him. Mike hangs out in a jazz bar full of Black patrons where, ironically, he seems most at home and relaxed to get pie-eyed, on plainly intimate terms with the denizens including the bartender (Art Loggins) and lounge singer (Kitty White), who offer him commiserations for his pains. Despite his grouchy projections he also offers essentially decent turns of behaviour in helping Christina and “Lily” as they’re stalked by malevolent persons. Mike even has, in a technological wonder for 1955, his own answering machine service on a reel-to-reel recording device, a mechanism through which the voices of both allies and enemies are mediated with a weird, ghostly texture, again like harbingers of fate.  

His investigation isn’t however the logical game of connect-the-dots. What leads Hammer gets come mostly from Diker, who keeps feeding him or Velda names, and he’s left to feel out their connections. Many players in the sordid little story are already dead, killed with ruthless efficiency by the enigmatic cabal comprising Soberin and Evello, a strange meeting of minds if ever there was, and their minions. Mike talks with Harvey Wallace (Strother Martin), a truck driver who hit and killed one man Diker mentions, a boxer named Kowalsky, who swears the man was thrown in front of his truck. He talks with Kowalsky’s trainer Eddie Yeager (Juano Hernandez), but Yeager tells him he was visited by the goons and allowed to keep breathing on the proviso he keep silent about Kowalsky. Mike meets with failed opera singer Carmen Trivago (Fortunio Bonanova), who was the friend of another dead man named by Diker, named Nicholas Raymondo. Mike learns, in the most consequential development, that Raymondo was a nuclear scientist beset by gnawing melancholia and who Trivago tells Mike was murdered by some men in search of some obscure object he possessed. Diker also puts Velda onto an art dealer named William Mist, who has connections with both Soberin and Evello. What really happened or how such a diverse group of personalities became enmeshed never becomes entirely clear, but the nature of the “Great Whatsit,” as Velda eventually, sarcastically describes the object of everybody’s search, wields diabolic power.  

Mike’s ruthless streak is more than sufficiently illustrated when he’s followed by a knife-wielding heavy (Paul Richards), presumably sent by the cabal, down an appropriately mean street. Mike turns the tables by suddenly waylaying the goon and beating him until he goes tumbling down a long flight of stairs into oblivion, Mike watching him go with a sneer of satisfied pleasure. Later, he intimidates Trivago simply by plucking out one of his prized Caruso records and casually snapping it in half, immediately making the man talkative. When Mike goes to Evello’s mansion to stir up the ants, he encounters Evello’s sister Friday (Marian Carr) who’s eager to meet this big hunk of meat but also stirs Evello to set his two prize toughs, Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) and Charlie Max (Jack Elam) on him, only for Mike to unleash a show of force that lays Sugar flat and sends Max scurrying away in fear. Aldrich wittily elides showing just what move Mike uses on Sugar, and later has Evello question just what he did, keeping some morsel of mystique to Mike, as if to confirm that yes, in a fair fight when he can see his foes coming, Mike Hammer is a truly effective dude. Trouble is, too often he can’t see them coming. Sugar and Charlie are indicated to the hands directly responsible for the spate of murders – Mike surveys and identifies their discarded shoes in Evello’s poolhouse – and Christina’s death in torture, but they’re just as human as Mike and touched with comedy, distant ancestors of Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent as a pair of dim, semi-competent hoods whose job just happens to be dishing out murder and threats on the behalf of Evello and whose chief advantage is their willingness to do it. After Mike easily flattens Sugar, demanding Sugar lift his game, the two heavies later waylay Mike in his office and Sugar knocks him out with a blackjack, proudly announcing, “I been taking lessons.” Aldrich soon undercuts this boast of evolution when he again cuts away as Sugar is attacked by Mike in a fraught moment and only Sugar’s mortal scream is heard.

From its surrounding hinterlands as glimpsed at night at the opening scenes to the stilt-riding beach house where the climax unfolds, Aldrich renders his mid-century LA area the ultimate expression of the modern world, a realm of sleek, fast cars and boxy domiciles, bright lights and abyssal dark, shiny newness concealing patches of blight and desperation, place of squalor hosting hints of some lost grandeur in the now rundown and seamy buildings of the town’s older quarters. Mike gazes down at the street outside his apartment with its crisp, rectilinear lines and flowing bright bubbles of traffic, skulks around tasteless insta-mansions and invades the Edward Hopper blankness of skid row rooms. Here people subsist with their small packages of culture and personality, like Christina’s flat crammed with books and Trivago with his records, whilst the people on the bottom of the heap work up their muscles and wits in boxers’ gymnasium under the indulgent eye of Yeager who, as Mike sourly goads him, always sells out his fighters for easy money in thrown bouts. This LA is ageless, ahistorical, vibrant on its roads, gleaming and featureless in most of its interiors, but where the hard edges and bright lights still somehow harbour shadows, illustrated most insistently in the scene where Mike first returns to his apartment after being released from hospital: Mike explores his seemingly obvious “home” with its clinical furnishings – the only sign of human habitation is an unfinished game of solitaire left on a table – with paranoid care and tentativeness, expecting a nasty surprise somewhere. When Mike ventures into the seamier parts of town he, and Aldrich’s camera, find islets of the baroque to latch onto – old wooden verandas and stained glass fanlights, cavernous foyers and the slow, slanting progress of the Angels Flight funicular.  

Kiss Me Deadly wasn’t shot by Aldrich’s future regular cinematographer Joseph Biroc, but Ernest Laszlo, who aids Aldrich in mimicking Welles in his constant recourse to high and low camera angles to build his compositions and capture a constant sense of the vertiginous, wrenching both characters and viewers out of a settled sense of space (he also tips his hat to Welles more directly in casting Stewart and Bonanova, both from Citizen Kane, 1941). Mike’s fight with the knife-wielding killer offers an interlude of pure urban mystique with bare brick walls touched by inky shadow and whitewashed windows glowing seedily, before the thug’s endless tumble down the stairs into concrete jungle oblivions. Otherwise Aldrich is forced often to contend with the mercenary blankness of the utilitarian architecture and décor and find brutalist poetry in it all. Compositions are often built around doorways and corridors to provide frames within frames that often emphasise people separating and fragmenting, particularly in a pair of twinned shots late in the film in which Velda roams her apartment murmuring sleepily in her meditation on Mike’s obsession with the Great Whatsit and then retreating to bed in moral exhaustion after Mike commands her to seduce Mist. The lobby of Lily’s building becomes a trap of space and expressionist shadows as Aldrich gazes down from on high on Mike and Lily as the hero proposes to rescue the fearful waif from the darkness crushing in on her.  

Mike and Velda’s relationship, a constant of the Spillane books, is moulded into a study in Aldrich’s near-compulsory fascination with folie-a-deux figurations, sporting people locked into a sadomasochistic bind through some dynamic of control and obedience, love and hate, and sometimes become fatefully entangled, whilst there are hints of something similar in Soberin and Gabrielle’s relationship too. Velda is used to offering her proofs of love in obeying Mike’s need for her to be professionally unfaithful. Aldrich had already mooted this obsessive refrain in The Big Knife in a manner both overt and embryonic in the theme of the movie star enthralled to the status of stardom as well as the domineering, blackmailing studio honcho, and even the two fast friends doomed to shoot it out to the death in Vera Cruz. Aldrich moved on to such variations as the heroic sergeant and cowardly colonel in Attack, the mutually loathing sisters of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, the mother and baby dyke of The Killing of Sister George and director and star in The Legend of Lylah Clare and even to an extent the prisoner-soldiers of The Dirty Dozen – people who need others to shock them into some sort of life ironically by goading them, wounding them, driving them to awful deeds, feeding off the perverse emotional energy sparked.  

It could be grazing the zone of pop psychology to note that Aldrich’s preoccupation with this theme might have reflected his experience with his family, but it’s hard to doubt he gained intimate knowledge of a kind of conspiracy between oppressor and oppressed in that experience. Mike and Velda’s symbiotic project, as the ICC men diagnose initially, is one of calculated mutual exploitation that depends on basic hungers in other, eminently exploitable people. But it’s also marked by strange expressions of love, as Velda does what she does largely to please Mike, and Mike does what he does to please Mike too. “I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna have any strength to fight off my new-found – my bosom friend,” Velda murmurs wearily as she heads to bed after Mike has instructed her to seduce Mist, merely to find out more about the enigmatic doctor. Aldrich makes a recurring joke out of macho men too caught up in their obsessive pursuits to be interested in the lusty ladies clinging to them: Mike cannily exploits this in the case of Friday, but he himself is constantly distracted from Velda’s come-ons. Only, ironically, Soberin expresses any kind of gratitude to his odalisque-agent Gabrielle “for all the creature comforts you’ve given me,” but he still proposes to leave her behind as he presumably wings away to distant shores with the Great Whatsit as his treasure.

Meanwhile Soberin calls up Mike and delivers in velvet fashion a mix of warning to desist and a token of amity, which proves to be a flashy replacement for his smashed car, left park out the front of his building. The gift horse comes fitted with two bombs – one for finding, the other to actually do the job – and Mike narrowly intervenes to save Nick, who dives into the vehicle when he spots it and considers a little spin. Nick’s stalwart aid to Mike, which also sees him dispatched to look into whoever souped the car up on the promise that Mike will buy him his own sports car when the whole deal pays off, eventually proves fatal: Soberin, again identified by his signature shoes, enters Nick’s workshop whilst he’s labouring under a car and let the trolley jack down, crushing Nick to death. Nick’s death is charged with special, brutal irony as Aldrich offers a shot of Nick’s screaming face from the viewpoint of the car falling down on him, Nick’s passion for the automobile consummated in a strange, gruesome erotic rite, and the truest, worthiest sacrifice to the cult of the Great Whatsit. Not long after, whilst Mike gets plastered in the Black jazz bar, Velda also vanishes, and Nick is flushed out with the news. Mike however first drives back to the gas station where he and Christina stopped to try and learn from the attendant where the letter she wanted mail was addressed. When he finds it was sent to him, Mike dashes back to his office, but there is waylaid by Sugar and Charlie.

Mike is taken to a beachfront house which, although Mike doesn’t know this yet, belongs to Soberin. “For a couple of cannons you two sure are polite,” Mike comments as they deliver him to the house, only for Mike to try and make a break, the two hoods chasing him down and beating him senseless at the edge of the surging surf. This choice of location for the lair of villainy eventually proves by the film’s end to be one of Aldrich’s most effective choices, exploiting the air of gentle apocalypse to be found on the western edge of the American continent, the sunset place of a cultural and geopolitical realm, about to host a more fiery and spectacular equivalent. The punch-up in the surf also became after this something of a regulation cliché of LA noir films. Mike is tied to a bed face-down and injected by Soberin with sodium pentathol to make him more pliable, because they’re just as clueless as he is as to the location of the Great Whatsit. During the vigil that follows Mike recovers enough to wrench one hand free, and when he draws Evello in close on the pretext of spilling the beans, he overpowers the gangster. He then lures in Sugar, who unwittingly stabs Evello, as Mike’s tied him to the bed in his place. Mike kills Sugar and flees, leaving only the bewildered and lonely Charlie behind. For an added touch of wit, Aldrich has this scene accompanied not be music but by the buzz of a radio broadcaster commentating on a boxing bout in which one fighter suddenly turns the tables on his opponent.

Mike subsequently puzzles out the special sarcasm in Christina’s demand in both word and letter to “remember me,” as he gets “Lily” to read him the Rossetti poem and through it deduces Christina must have swallowed whatever it was she had that was valuable, which proves to be a key. He and “Lily” go to the morgue and Mike quickly deduces the morgue attendant, Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton), must have the key after performing her autopsy. Kennedy, no fool, assumes something valuable is attached to it, and demands a big payoff, and eventually Mike simply crushes the fool’s hand in his own desk drawer and retrieves the key himself. Here Mike finally encounters a character sleazier and blunter in his greed than he is, and he takes great, grinning delight in dishing out brutality to Kennedy. The key proves to fit a locker kept by Nicholas Raymondo at an athletic club, but when he bullies his way to the locker and opens it, he finds a strange case that’s disturbingly hot to the touch, and when he opens the lid a fraction he receives an awful burn on his wrist. Leaving the case put, he goes out and finds “Lily” has fled. Mike on the warpath is a hell of a thing, but he’s still a sap, because Gabrielle and Soberin return, kill the club attendant (Leonard Mudie), and take the case. Mike is finally forced to break into Mist’s apartment to seek out any kind of lead on Soberin’s whereabouts: Mist downs a bottle of sleeping pills to escape Mike’s coercive attentions, but Mike sees Soberin’s name on the prescription for the pills and uses his wiles to eventually learn that the beach house belongs to the doctor.

Kiss Me Deadly is crammed with superlative performances, most famously from Dennis as Nick, whose constant exclamation of “Vroom! Vroom! Pow!” describes a working class immigrant’s sheer delight in even getting to touch and anatomise the awesome new speed machines of his adopted land, a sort of pure worship for its creations that has a curiously innocent and unsullied quality that’s matched by Nick’s love of Mike and both of which are paid off in the ugliest manner possible. Dennis created an instant catchphrase and archetype. More subtle but just as good are vignettes like the way Hernandez’s Yeager beams with the cigar between his teeth tilted up at a high and proud angle as he boasts to Mike about his new fighter, only for the cigar to droop when Mike mentions Kowalski’s name. Neither Cooper nor Rodgers had notable careers after their parts here, but they both have a vital presence in the film, particularly Rodgers with her short-cut blonde hair and unnerving smile that later shifts, once “Lily” morphs Gabrielle, into a sweetly enticing but crazy-eyed and murderous antithesis of Mike, cooing to him as she describes mocks his embodiment of the macho lout, as Christina did but with pathos exchanged for a sick kind of empowerment. Cooper, making her feature debut and who would be a regular presence in Aldrich’s movies as well as a fierce anti-blacklist activist, makes a mark as Velda, whether it’s allowing a slyly insolent provocation into her tone as she swings around an exercise pole whilst talking with Mike, slick from stem to stern with sweat from keeping her money maker tight, or carefully laying a pillow against his thigh before taking up post lying against him as if playing inverted therapist. Both actresses, like the rest of the cast, have features brutalised by Laszlo’s lighting and photography, flaws in skin and physiognomy laid bare, but it’s precisely this palpable sense of physicality that’s part of Kiss Me Deadly’s unique form-as-function.

Meanwhile Addy affects the same elongated, sarcastic drawl as Lee Marvin’s character in The Dirty Dozen whilst dealing with a recalcitrant lout, suggest both actors might well be purposefully mimicking Aldrich himself. It’s Addy’s Murphy who finally has to clue Mike into what he’s been buzzing around the edge of throughout the story, as he’s stricken with contempt for his friend in his blunderings after Velda is kidnapped and Gabrielle’s deception is revealed, and Mike goads him back for the cops’ blundering attempt to keep Christina locked up to sweat the Great Whatsit’s location out of her. When he sees the burn from the case on Mike’s wrist and realises he’s been close to it, Murphy finally offers what he describes as “harmless words, just a bunch of letters scrambled together” but which have great import: “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.” Flirting with spilling state secrets is also a risk of blasphemy: the dark god of the Great Whatsit can only be invoked by describing the contours of its temples, the mystery of its nature. Here, at last, Aldrich gets to the centre of the maze, diagnosing the wellspring of a curious kind of madness starting to eat up the world. The terror of all the characters Mike has met through the movie isn’t just rooted in fear of some thugs but in the thing at the back of the drama, the mysterious and deadly box loaded up with Armageddon fuel. Murphy spots the burn on Mike’s wrist, a veritable mark of Cain for a new anti-Genesis.  

“There’s a new art in the world and this doctor’s starting a collection,” one character reports to Mike, describing Soberin’s new, alarming hobby-cum-business, signalling the need for new aesthetics to go along with new reality. Soberin with his highfalutin’ reference points proclaims it Pandora’s Box and invests Gabrielle as Lot’s Wife turned to a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom, and likens himself to Cerberus guarding the gates of hell as he warns her not to open the case. Aldrich might well have cast Dekker as Soberin with recollection of his role playing the mad scientist of Dr. Cyclops (1940), who similarly monkeyed around with atomic stuff with sardonic pronouncements filled with mythical references. Kiss Me Deadly’s dark and febrile texture finds its logical endpoint in the brilliance that escapes the box when Mike fingers it open, Let There Be Light recontextualised as the harbinger of cataclysm. Soberin is both the conduit for the literary and intellectual pretences Aldrich and Bezzerides invested in the film and also an insta-lampoon of those pretences: even after he’s been shot in the gut he still won’t shut up with the mythopoeic references. Not at all coincidentally, a few years later when Aldrich would go to Italy to get in on the historical religious epic craze, he chose to make a film about Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) as Kiss Me Deadly’s woozy prequel.

Bezzerides later claimed he was chiefly driven by a desire to have fun when he was thrashing out the script given his contempt for Spillane and his writing. And yet there’s coherence to the film’s vision as a whole that becomes apparent as the last pieces of the story click together, and it becomes clear what the Great Whatsit is. In the book it was merely a shipment of dope: here, it’s a consignment of radioactive material purloined from some Promethean government experiment, the threat of the atomic age enclosed in a box and possessed with atavistic power that collapses all boundaries between past and present, myth and reality. Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) had already breached such territory as it concluded with its legendary vision of the last gangland musketeer consumed in an erupting fireball that looked awfully like an atomic bomb blast, the old school wild antihero laid waste by, and laying waste with, the power of a new age. Aldrich and Bezzerides went a step further in Kiss Me Deadly in making the nuclear age itself the ultimate plot device and also the negation of all other concerns.  

Many critical interpretations were spun off from a slightly edited version of the climax circulated in Europe that made it seem as if Mike and Velda are consumed when Gabrielle finally does open the case, whilst the full version makes it plain our two antiheroes do escape, at least as far as the beach, barely reassuring as that is. The climax also finally resolves the gendered conflicts running throughout with a death’s head smirk appearing on Gabrielle’s face as, confronted by Mike after she’s already shot Soberin and claimed possession of the Great Whatsit, she entices/threatens Mike to advance to her: “Kiss me Mike – I want you to kiss me. The liar’s kiss that say ‘I love you,’ but means something else…You’re good at giving such kisses.” But the real “Deadly” Gabrielle wants to be kissed by is whatever is in the case, a need that overrides all caution and sense, so she shoots Mike in the gut and opens the case, the glowing pile within glimpsed with a creepy, sucking, whispering sound. The Great Whatsit immediately turns her to a pillar of flame, her wildly agonised and exultant screams echoing Christina’s. Mike has enough strength to get up off the floor, escape the fire, and save Velda from where she’s being held, and the two watch as the atomic hellfire burns out Soberin’s house up, a new star born and blazing on the coast, the surf lapping around their legs. This ending is scarcely more reassuring than the edited one, as Aldrich leaves the possibly dying Mike and Velda, last remnants of their kind, driven into the western sea. The logical end of the American dream.

1960s, Comedy, Drama, Religious, Spanish cinema

Viridiana (1961)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenwriters: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel

By Roderick Heath

Few names resonate in cinema history like that of Luis Buñuel. For the quality and radical vision of his work, of course, and also because the legend of Buñuel connected far-flung zones in that history, zigzagging from the heady bohemian climes and provocations of 1920s Paris and the violent, reactionary forces that consumed his native Spain in the age of Fascism, to the shoals of Hollywood and the fecund delights of Mexico’s cinema golden age, before a triumphant return to the eye of European film to collect Oscars and Palmes d’Or when he was over sixty without dulling the glint of his wild imagination. Buñuel, born in the Aragon town of Calanda in 1900, was the son of a hardware retailer who had made a fortune in Cuba, and his teenage bride. Buñuel would later succinctly note that Calanda remained in the Middle Ages until World War I. Proving a disorderly youth during his Jesuit education, Buñuel became accomplished at entertaining friends with magic lantern and shadow plays, and was obsessively religious until he broke with the Catholic Church at 16 and declared himself an atheist. Whilst attending university in Zaragoza he became close friends with the quick-blooming artist and gadfly Salvador Dali and the future playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Excited by the possibilities of film after watching Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), Buñuel moved to Paris and, whilst also dabbling in theatre, started working for French director Jean Epstein. Buñuel served as assistant director on Epstein’s 1926 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a work which prefigured much of Buñuel’s cinema.

After breaking with Epstein Buñuel reunited with Dali, and, borrowing money from Buñuel’s mother, the duo made the short film Un Chien Andalou, first screened in 1929. Emblazoned with the helpful caption “Nothing means anything,” Un Chien Andalou, with its signature image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor and other incendiary, delirious vignettes, immediately exemplified the phrase “succès de scandale” and allowed the emerging art mode of surrealism to annex cinema as an expressive realm. Buñuel was annoyed when his aesthetic hand grenade proved a hit with exactly the kind of intellectual in-crowd he meant to piss off, so he might have experienced a more ambivalent sense of achievement when his and Dali’s follow-up, the feature-length L’Age d’Or (1930), attracted furious protests for its anti-Catholic satire. By that time Buñuel and Dali had ended their association over political differences. Once the stones, literal and metaphorical, stopped flying over L’Age d’Or Buñuel, after a brief and wilfully unproductive first sojourn to Hollywood, became deeply involved with leftist Spanish politics. His pseudo-documentary of life in Extremadura, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was to prove his last significant directorial work for over a decade, and was equally infuriating to both the Republican government and the Franco regime for its harsh, ironic portrayal of the country’s most degraded communities.

Buñuel retreated for a time into producing commercial Spanish cinema. When the Civil War broke out he participated in the Republican government’s propaganda efforts, in the cause of which he travelled to the US in 1938 only to find himself stuck there when the war ended. Buñuel had a rough time trying to fit in with the American film world through World War II as his L’Age d’Or infamy was still dogging him, but his work in making and dubbing films for the Latin American market helped pave the way for a move into the Mexican film industry, which was at the height of a boom in the mid-1940s. There, after making a few well-received melodramas, he regained international profile with Los Olvidados (1950), a vivid blend of his surrealist and socially concerned sides. Buñuel’s work through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, chiefly in Mexico but also encompassing the English-language The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), which gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Dan O’Herlihy, was defined by a creative tension between commercial assignment and the director’s transformative talent, and in many ways is his most interesting and diverse period.

Viridiana represented the third great pivotal moment of Buñuel’s career, signalling tentative reconciliation with his homeland and a new stature as a major art-house auteur. He was lobbied to return to Spain and make a movie by the young directors Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem, and his project was given vaguely official assent. To the surprise of everyone, the script for Viridiana was approved with only to some requests for alteration by censors, including of the suggestive ending, which Buñuel and his co-screenwriter Julio Alejandro revised to somehow make, whilst seeming relatively innocuous on paper, even filthier in its implications. Buñuel, no fool, still knew what he was courting, and had the film’s negative smuggled to Paris to edit it for its premiere at Cannes. The Spanish government’s film overlord unwittingly introduced it there, and was promptly sacked, the film banned not just from screening in Spain but from all mention in the press until well after Franco’s death. But elsewhere, despite being vehemently decried by the Catholic Church, Viridiana managed to hit the cinema scene at the right time: it only took thirty years, but cognoscenti tastes were ready for Buñuel’s outrageous outlook at its most unrefined and potent. Viridiana was Buñuel’s second, if very loose, adaptation of a novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, preceded by Nazarin (1958), and he would film Galdós a third time with 1970’s Tristana.

In abstract Viridiana reads as exactly what the Franco regime took it to be, a blatantly impudent and iconoclastic jab at the official structures underpinning the type of conservative society they had been brutally enforcing for the previous twenty years. And it’s certainly biting in its portrayal of a rotting aristocracy and the detached pretences of organised religion, both eventually collapsing before the proclivities of an energetic, pragmatic, hedonistically seductive modernity. Buñuel’s art was however more refined than offering mere adolescent iconoclasm. Viridiana is a fable depicting the creation of modern Spain and the world beyond it, a fable laced with ambivalence, sarcasm, horror, and flashes of delirious beauty and weirdness. It also recapitulates the basic concern of Nazarin, which portrayed the remorseless defeat of a saintly priest in the face of a brutish society, whilst swapping the gender of the central character, a move that immediately introduces a different frisson. Galdós’ novel was a direct sequel to his Nazarin, in fact, whereas Buñuel’s extrapolation follows his own bent beyond the book’s premise of an aristocratic woman founding a charitable collective.

Where Nazarin’s hero was tragically noble and genuine despite his luckless passivity, Viridiana’s title character is duly pretentious in her buffeted idealism. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a mendicant approaching the time when she’s to take her vows as a nun after a long, insulated religious schooling and upbringing. The Mother Superior of the convent (Rosita Yarza) tells her that her uncle, Don Jaime, who’s paid for her upbringing and her dowry, has written to say he won’t be able to attend the ceremony. Viridiana is unconcerned, as she had only ever met Don Jaime briefly, but the Mother Superior encourages her to accept his offer of a visit to his home as a show of respect and gratitude before returning permanently to convent life.  Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) himself resides in a large, decaying mansion in a Spanish backwater: his former wife, Viridiana’s aunt, Don Jaime later recounts, “died in my arms on our wedding night,” still clad in her white dress. Upon their reunion Viridiana clinically admits that she feels no emotional connection to Don Jaime after too long apart. She insists on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, and has brought with her an array of religious objects including her own personal crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.

Meanwhile Don Jaime gets his jollies paying Rita (Teresa Rabal), the young daughter of his housekeeper Ramona, (Margarita Lozano) to jump rope so he can stare in fascination at her young, flicking legs, and taking out his wife’s wedding attire to indulge fetishistic communion with it, fitting her gleaming white high heels on his own feet and tenderly fitting her corset to his belly. As he does so one night during Viridiana’s stay, he’s bewildered by the sight of her sleepwalking around the house, engaged in some inchoate form of ritual, obliviously burning the contents of a knitting basket and collecting the ashes to dump on Don Jaime’s bed. Don Jaime becomes preoccupied with convincing Viridiana to stay and marry him, eventually proposing this after he’s talked her into donning his wife’s wedding array. When the appalled Viridiana refuses, Don Jaime, with the aid of his slavishly devoted housekeeper Ramona, drugs her and her spirits her to her bedroom.

Viridiana’s slyly accumulating power lies in the way Buñuel dryly presents its increasingly deviant concerns and storyline with a limpid, becalmed, studious gaze. One quality that always distinguished Buñuel as a director was, for all his reputation as one of cinema’s most committed and peculiar artists, so ingenious at communicating unreal imagery, he had little time for showy filmmaking, preferring instead tightly choreographed camerawork, worked out in advance, and so like Alfred Hitchcock found the actual shooting rather dull. The material here grazes territory often staked out by gothic melodrama, as the young woman comes to the big old house where a troubled male elder resides brooding on ancient losses, and the motif of the eerily glaring portrait of Viridiana’s long-dead aunt and Don Jaime’s desire to transform his niece into the lost lover echoes Edgar Allan Poe stories of fetid and displaced sexuality (“Your aunt died on my arms on our wedding night, wearing that dress”). And yet Buñuel instead plays it not for thrills but as a deadpan tragicomedy. The motifs of the storyline also evoke basic clichés of erotica, with the classic figure of the beautiful, chaste, unworldly young woman placed at the mercy of her decadent uncle who embodies all the threat of a worldly male. Buñuel, who had referenced the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’Or, here offered his own derivation on a Sadean narrative in portraying a young woman at the mercy of the world’s corruption and who eventually embraces it.

Except that Buñuel plays games with such figurations, disassembling their presumptions, as he finds the absurd pathos in both his central characters. Don Jaime, introduced as a figure reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is eventually revealed to be a figure of dank pathos as he’s driven to find some form of catharsis for his long-thwarted desire for his late wife, ambiguously finding both deliverance from adulthood and proto-erotic thrills in watching Rita skipping, and obtaining the ideal body onto which to transfer his fetishist passion in the form of Viridiana himself. Sexuality infuses every gesture and yet is constantly displaced into other, bizarre, often functionally sado-masochistic forms. Don Jaime is affected by the sight of Viridiana’s bare legs in her nightgown – Buñuel films her taking off her stockings as if unknowingly loading weapons for a campaign not yet begun – as she engages in her somnambulist ritual, a display which seems to signal her as another person driven to enact a nocturnal demi-life. Albeit whilst Don Jaime is at least conscious of his yearnings, Viridiana, casting ashes on the marriage bed her waking self has resolved never to inhabit, can only explore her own ambivalence in dreams. In this she becomes the active avatar of the surrealist creed. Ramona has an evident, unnoticed crush on Don Jaime, one she later, speedily transfers onto his son.

Meanwhile Buñuel sets up chains of imagery couched with unsubtle humour but also amassing thorny meaning. He cuts from a shot of Viridiana removing her stockings, revealing her white, gleaming legs, to a shot rising up from behind the organ Don Jaime is playing, her body and his fused, her body dancing to his tune, his own later donning of his wife’s white shoes and Viridiana wearing them both anticipated. Eroticism involves its own mysterious transubstantiation, and the seemingly opposed reflexes of sex and faith, the impulse of the flesh and the ethic of its rejection, are nonetheless conjoined in the desire to become one with the worshipped figure, to experience on levels carnal and sublime. Biblical humour surfaces as Viridiana unthinkingly bites into a piece of apple Don Jaime hands her as he begins to talk her into wearing the wedding dress. Viridiana soon appears in that regalia, complete with veil and candelabra in hand, a puckish anticipation of her becoming a bride, whether it be to Jesus or someone more mortal, her absent intended mirrored by Don Jaime’s absent wife.

Since his debut Buñuel had compiled a catalogue of fanatically fixated themes and images, including the true surrealist’s fascination with “amour fou,” mad and boundless love that persists beyond the grave – not for nothing had Buñuel made an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion (1954) – and his delight in using insect life as strange and unstable symbol for the infesting and eruptive nature of such passion, a motif that flecks Viridiana – a bee drowning in water, the description of a great old house with a floor infested by spiders – amidst an expanded array of animal imagery that maintains its own peculiar, self-justifying context. Viridiana praying over her collection of religious-masochist paraphernalia gives way to the sight of Don Jaime’s farmhand Moncho (Francisco René) briskly milking a cow, a commonplace act suddenly laced with phallic overtones as Viridiana cannot bring herself to handle the stiff, squirting teat, whilst Rita, gulping milk down hungrily, pauses to teasingly pours some on the cow’s nose. Rita also experiences a disturbing premonition of the sexual furore stirring in the house as she complains of being awoken by a “black bull” coming into her room. As he discusses his illegitimate son Jorge with his niece, Don Jaime assures her he intends to make sure his progeny will be taken care of as he plucks that drowning bee out of a barrel of rainwater. This encapsulates both Don Jaime’s humane side but also his incidental resolve to do as little as possible to service it.

It also prefigures a later, famous vignette of Jorge himself (Francisco Rabal) buying a dog when he’s distressed by the sight of it being forced to walk briskly behind a peasant’s cart to which it’s tied. He walks off with his new pet, oblivious to another dog being dragged along in exactly the same way behind another cart. This vignette says much of Jorge’s counterpoint experience to Don Jaime’s, as a man who knows what it feels like to be the bastard castaway and knows empathy for the literal underdog, and puts his decent streak to immediate, effective employ, but only, again, within a certain limit. This vignette is almost endlessly dissectible, seeming on the face of things to make fun of the charitable impulse, but on closer examination noting that, whilst indeed there’s an aspect of random luck often in who benefits from such humanitarian reflexes, that can have a crisscrossing effect with other gestures, but the eternal problem of social organisation is how to make that effect perpetual and mutual. These seemingly blithe, ironic jokes about the nature of charity see it as inevitably discreet and perhaps only effective when wisely limited in the face of all the world’s pain and suffering. But this eventually plugs into a deeper thesis of Viridiana, when the heroine tries to become a river to the poor and desperate of the district, seeing them not as people but as extensions of her own self-image as a Christ-like fount.

Guilt partly underpins this effort from Viridiana, who, after rejecting Don Jaime, is confronted with the awful consequence in the sight of him dead, having hung himself from a tree near his house with Rita’s jump-rope. This comes after Don Jaime makes a last, feverish play to possess his fantasy by drugging Viridiana after he’s talked her into donning the wedding dress. If it seemed Hitchcock had paid homage to Buñuel’s El (1953) with Vertigo (1958), Buñuel seems to return the favour here, nodding to Rebecca’s (1940) basic plot, offering his own twist on Vertigo’s portrait of a maniacal man trying to reconstruct a lost lover, and quoting Notorious (1946) in the laced cup of coffee that places Viridiana at Don Jaime’s mercy. Don Jaime take her to the marriage bed, laying his face against her revealed, bobbing bosom and kissing her prone form, but ultimately wins the battle against the temptation to rape her. This retreat in proves however self-defeating. Don Jaime first tells Viridiana the next day when she awakens from her induced sleep that he did take her virginity, hoping this will compel her to remain with him, but her distraught reaction causes him to confess to Ramona that he didn’t do it.

Ramona checks his bed for any sign of blood on the sheets to reassure herself he’s told the truth. Viridiana remains understandably determined to leave, but she’s brought back to the house by police to behold the awful spectacle of Don Jaime’s death. The complexity of the aftermath of Viridiana’s drugging suggests possible censor impact on Buñuel’s storyline, but it also undoubtedly helps deepen psychological meaning. Don Jaime’s story, which only occupies about a third of the film, is that of a man trying with all his might not to become a monster, despite being consumed by overpowering impulses that go to a rotten stem of the human being – love, lust, the urge for control, the ever-taunting mixture of the specific and interchangeable in people we as the centres of our own universes encounter. Whilst Viridiana plays the martyr, Don Jaime comes far closer to actually being one, even as he is at the same time just a dirty and pathetic old man. This connects to a credo Buñuel once stated outright, that nothing in the imagination is wrong, only misbegotten attempts to actualise them. Don Jaime’s own, bitter sense of humour manifests in killing himself with the totem of sublimated longings and childhood obliviousness. After Don Jaime is brought down the jump-rope is restored to Rita who resumes skipping with it, despite the angry admonitions of Moncho: youth is as heedless of the pain of age as age often is of youth’s autonomy, and those are two of the forces that wrestle in a traditionalist society.

Don Jaime’s death becomes Viridiana’s load, as she is named as co-inheritor of the house along with Jorge, who arrives with his lover Lucia (Victoria Zinny). Viridiana, after telling the Mother Superior she feels different and won’t be returning to the convent, heads into the nearby town and begins gathering up local paupers, intending to create a kind of religious commune where everyone can do a bit of work to earn their meal and bed for the night. Meanwhile Jorge seems to provide a breath of cleansing air as he lays claim to his legacy. Jorge enters the scene with self-assured masculine swagger, imbued rather than quelled by not having had the easiest time in life, because he knows very well that he is the future. He does note with some resentment that he might, with Jaime’s support, have become a qualified and successful architect by now rather than have merely been working in the office of one, but otherwise isn’t particularly aggrieved by his father (“Anyone can have a fling and then walk away.”). He does quietly admit to Lucia that Viridiana gets on his nerves because she’s “rotten with piety.” Lucia suggests he’s really irritated because she pays no attention to him.

Contrasting Viridiana’s choice of mission, Jorge sets to work repairing, cleansing, and modernising the house, including getting electricity connected and making the estate’s farmland productive again, and hiring labourers for the job. Buñuel builds one of his more elaborate cinematic jokes as Viridiana leads her collective of paupers in prayer in the estate’s blooming orchard – shades of Buñuel turning a wry salute to Robert Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1948) with its blend of earthy piety and beatific natural surrounds – whilst the labourers work around the house and grounds, bashing at crumbling brickwork, stirring cement, sawing lumber. Buñuel intercuts between prayers and working, forming them into a system of call and response, labour of the spirit and labour of the practical at once set in contention and locked in a sardonic harmony. The old Benedictine motto of “work and prayer,” realised as an elaborate fugue where focused labour contrasts Viridiana’s ambitious but vague attempt to build a mutually reliant religious commune with social dregs as her flock.

Viridiana’s harvested collective nonetheless quickly reveal themselves to be whatever the opposite is of the deserving poor. A gang of miscreants, petty thieves, sex fiends, and the pathetically penurious, the flock go along with Viridiana so long as she gives them a next-to-free ride. Only one, crippled man out of her initial selection refuses to go along with Viridiana and asks for some change instead, noting, superfluously, that he only accepts such charity because he’s destitute. “She has a heart of gold,” one pauper says of Viridiana, to another’s comment, “Yes, but she’s a little nutty.” Far from embracing an egalitarian ideal of collective labour, the paupers have their own caste and class systems. The blind, bearded Don Amalio (José Calvo) and his pregnant lover Enedina (Lola Gaos) become de facto leaders of their group for their amoral and deftly manipulative cleverness. The paupers forcibly eject José (Juan García Tiendra), a man with a bad case of varicose veins, from their ranks because they think he’s a leper and could infect them all, and toss stones his way whenever he hangs around, whilst taking pains not to let Viridiana see. Another pauper, a man with a bandaged foot known as ‘El Cojo’ or The Cripple (José Manuel Martín), appropriates Rita’s jump-rope as a belt for his pants. He also volunteers to paint religious pictures, which he does, roping in his fellows to pose for him: “I don’t like being the Virgin,” one woman complains. Moncho soon becomes so aggravated by the paupers’ presence that he quits working on the estate.

The official theme here is naiveté, with Viridiana doomed to learn she cannot apply abstract pieties to real life. She is confronted with the truth that the poor are not necessarily ennobled or sanctified by their condition, but remain essentially the same as other people, only more so – a free-floating mass of the greedy, cruel, perverse, and opportunistic. Indeed, the absence of social expectation on them frees them from fetters of behaviour beyond the most superficial and self-centred (Amalio, knowing when and how to grease the wheels, refers to Viridiana as “our blessed protectress”). Buñuel here confronts, with abyssal wit and cool candour, the intersection of two potent, long-antagonistic but fascinatingly similar faiths, Catholicism and Marxism, and one point of concern at which they converge, being what to do about people who fall to the bottom of a society, and provoking the eternal lament of adherents of both creeds as to why the masses will never do what’s good for them. The paupers become Buñuel’s impish projections of his most lawless, cynical, and profane impulses, whilst also evoking the hangover of a crazy medieval spirit that could have sprung off pages of Rabelais, embodying the tumult of the boiling mass of humanity in its natural, unelevated, tumultuous state. Meanwhile Jorge comes to represent industrious modernity, effective, efficient, in many way more genuinely helpful, but also casually imperious and immune to moral criticism. Jorge finds delight in finding, amongst Jaime’s possessions, a crucifix with a knife hidden within, a good, practical version of Cromwell’s advice to put trust in God and keep your powder dry.

That Jaime’s house can be taken as an emblem of the teetering, mouldering, pathetically repressed state of Spain circa 1961 is practically self-evident. More interesting is the way Buñuel sets his rival moral schemes in contention, forlorn and septic patriarchy and daffy virgin matriarchy both waning. Which goes a long way to pointing to the deepest cause for the offence Viridiana caused the Franco state. A little blasphemy and sin can be easily encompassed and suppressed, but not the film’s most galling statement, its confident augury that all the old reactionaries will fall before the seductive appeal of a neo-pagan spirit inherent in the encroaching modern world, of which Jorge is the messiah, casually barging through taboos long tended with jealous care, and the nuns and serviles of the past will become the new whore-priestesses. Where Ramona lingered in lovelorn attentiveness to Don Jaime, and transfers that fascination onto Jorge, he quickly and deftly seduces her as they explore the musty attic crammed with the detritus of a festering aristocracy. Buñuel saves one of his most mordant visual metaphors here as he cuts from the couple’s clinch to a cat springing on a mouse. This seems to indicate the ease of Jorge’s seductive ploys, although the cat could also be the long-frustrated and carnally eruptive Ramona: later when Buñuel films them together in a moment of strikingly happy intimacy, it’s Ramona who joyfully bites Jorge’s hand.

The film’s very end sees Jorge ascending to the status of a pagan priest-king settling down to be a fount of sexual beneficence, His coming inscribed in the strains of a new catechism – shake, shake, shake your cares away, declares the rock song coming from the radio. Buñuel doesn’t take this for necessarily a great good, either, in part because an age of happy, straightforward hedonism would rob him of the mine of his art, his delight in human perversity, in the tangled weeds of sad and sorry old repressed Europe and the creatures it births. The epic quality that touches Don Jaime’s fetishistic longings and Viridiana’s blinkered and self-mortifying piety springs from the same fount: the old world fashioned over centuries to provide psychic and physical bulwarks against the chaos of natural forces. Buñuel was driven again and again to study the failure of such social bulwarks, their collapse the one certain thing in his worldview. Buñuel’s constant preoccupying themes had surfaced in precursors to Viridiana like Susana (1951), which depicted with lacerating good-humour the progress of an ironically sanctified harlot through a good Mexican family, her pulchritude easily provoking the men to raptures, and El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), with their portraits of maniacal men whose unstable machismo consumes them and others.

Buñuel’s previous film, the near-equally great but relatively neglected The Young One (1960), although set entirely amongst fringe dwellers, also directly anticipated Viridiana, although with its depiction of the forcible seduction of a girl by an older male guardian edging far closer to outright paedophilia, and the theme of schism amongst the underclass encompassing racial prejudice. Buñuel would also go on to restage Viridiana’s riotous climax from a different angle via the famous conceit employed in The Exterminating Angel (1962), as guests at a bourgeois dinner party find themselves unable to leave a dining room due to some invisible force, and degenerate into brutes, an idea that, despite its purposefully arbitrary fantasticality, laid down a template for post-apocalyptic angst in cinema. Buñuel would return to the basic theme of Viridiana, and some of its jokes, whilst flipping genders again, for Simon of the Desert (1965), this time casting Pinal as the taunting, tempting female devil trying to seduce the pillar-sitting saint, eventually spiriting him from detached pinnacle to raucous contemporary New York nightclub. Viridiana’s own eventual embrace of her carnal side opened the gate for Belle de Jour’s (1967) portrait of a transgressive heroine trying to actualise her erotic fantasies and the brutally ironic feminist revenge motif of Tristana, a film that plays very much as an uglier, sadder, more conflicted remake of Viridiana, essentially positing if Viridiana succumbed to Don Jaime and then became him. Buñuel’s influence would also soon echo through the emerging new European cinema, seen in variations like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

Viridiana finally reaches it long, ecstatically profane climax as Viridiana and Jorge head off to deal with legal matters in town and Ramona takes Rita to the dentist, all expecting to be absent from the house until the next day. Viridiana leaves the snowy-haired, ineffectual Don Zequiel (Joaquin Roa) in nominal charge of the commune. Some of the paupers, seeing a chance for rest and relaxation, decide to kill a couple of the spring lambs on the estate for a roast dinner, and Enedina promises to make custard. The paupers soon sneak into the big house to gawk at its splendours. Surveying the portraits of Don Jaime and his wife, Zequiel comments, “Imagine hanging yourself with that kind of dough.” The paupers elect to hold their banquet in the dining hall and clean it up so their cheeky transgression won’t be noticed. There they merrily gobble up their food and raid the wine cellar too. They’re even so kind as to let José join them, sequestered at a separate table. Amalio regales them with legendary feats of begging in rich churches where the women smelt so good they gave tactile communion. For the paupers, guzzling custard in swank environs is the next best thing to heaven, and once everyone’s in the highest spirits Enedina proposes to take their photo with a camera “my parents gave me.” The beggars eagerly arrange themselves into a pose on one side of the dining table before Enedina, recreating Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Enedina does indeed per the old joke take their photograph, by raising her skirt and flashing her privates at them.

This famous vignette offers a pure crystallisation of Buñuel’s humour, at once larkish and vicious, seemingly casual but carefully prepared. The “Last Supper” pastiche provided subsequent directors with a ready-made icon of irreverence to pay homage to, ranging from Robert Altman on MASH (1970) to Mel Brooks on A History of the World, Part I (1981). Buñuel’s is the coldest and most merciless however: Amalio holds the place of Jesus, flanked by sleazy weirdoes. Handel’s “Messiah,” heard in the opening credits, is played by the beggars on the gramophone whilst several begin dancing to its strains with sprightly, satiric energy. Jose dons pieces of the wedding dress and swans about as a sickly drag act. Here the paupers rejoice in their freedom to casually disrespect every yardstick of the society whose fringes they persist on, all charged with childlike glee – Buñuel zeroes in on the dancers’ legs, which recalls Rita’s as she used her jump-rope. But other urges are stirring, at once more adult and more animalistic, as the party degenerates into squalid chaos. Enedina is grabbed by one of the men, Paco (Joaquin Mayol), dragged behind a couch, and raped. “Let ‘em scuffle,” Zequiel declares in his besotted state, and gets a face-full of custard tossed at him. Amalio, thinking Enedina is willingly screwing Paco, starts furiously smashing everything on the dining table with his cane, and Enedina, released, dismisses Amalio’s display: “If he were my husband he’d be entitled.” Some of the paupers flee the house as Viridiana, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita return unexpectedly by car, and the others shuffle out more pretentiously, facing up to the astounded Jorge with varying attitudes of proprietorial surprise, or, in Amalio’s case, a blessing for providing a blind man with sustenance.

Where other filmmakers might have felt licence to make their style frenetic to mimic the mounting craziness in such a sequence, or to have the paupers become theatrical in their destructiveness. Buñuel simply and methodically documents the mounting bedlam, only in the “Last Supper” tableaux delivering an arch cinematic joke. Otherwise he maintains deadpan observation, as with Enedina’s assault. Buñuel seems to be dramatizing the worst nightmare in the reactionary mindset: the filthy, ignorant scum erupting to despoil civilisation and take advantage of their benefactors. But their actions also, pointedly, recreate things already seen in the course of narrative – sexual assault, fetishism, transvestism, contempt for tradition, heritage, autonomy, and responsibility – only without any veil of pretence or obfuscation, simply embracing wild impulse. Don Jaime’s drugging and suborning of Viridiana, halted by whatever lingering ethic persists in his person, is soon reproduced in blunt and brutal fashion as El Cojo and Jose collaborate to knock out and tie up Jorge so they can rape Viridiana.

Buñuel dives in for a close-up noting Viridiana’s failing fight against El Cojo, noting her hand tugging desperately at his belt, which is of course Rita’s jump-rope. Buñuel deploys another of his wicked ironies, as Jorge deploys the oldest and most essential art of the capitalist to save the day – using the promise of reward to turn one member of the proletariat against another and forget his own interests, albeit in this case for an urgently righteous cause, as Jorge convinces José, who waits for his turn, to intervene in the rape by offering him money. José promptly and enthusiastically uses a fire shovel to bash El Cojo’s skull in. Calm is restored as the Guardia Civil arrive to round up the ratbags. A gentle inward dolly shot of Viridiana the next day, watching Jorge as he resumes his reordering, confirms the inevitable without words, that she’s fallen under Jorge’s spell, and in her room weeps as she casts off the last of her previous identity and, using a cracked fragment of a mirror, refashions her new one, unleashing her blonde hair.

Meanwhile her religious iconography burns up outside, Rita studying the blazing crown of thorns in bewilderment before tossing it on the flames. Viridiana appears at Jorge’s bedroom door, charged with sullen, silently communicated need, only to find him ensconced with Ramona. Jorge, immediately deciding how to handle the quandary as is his wont, proposes they settle down to play cards, noting “All cats are grey by night,” before commenting, as he suggestively takes her hand and uses it to cut the cards, “The first time I saw you I though, ‘Cousin Viridiana and I will finish up shuffling the deck together.’” Perhaps cinema’s greatest dirty joke and fade-out punchline, but again realised with Buñuel signature mixture of economy and attentiveness. Buñuel spares shots to note Ramona’s hesitant fear of rejection and competition and Viridiana’s blank gaze as she ponders the question as to whether this is who she actually is, before moving to a long shot, retreating slightly as if with a sense of decorum whilst peering through an open door, noting the emergent ménage-a-trois simply and calmly getting on with life in the new age.