1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean, who then had a clash of vision of Foreman, who pulled out of the project and suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony in the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, and the film’s screenwriting Oscar was instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Western

High Noon (1952)

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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon stands in popular moviegoing memory as perhaps the most famous and purely emblematic of Westerns, and yet what made it stand out in 1952 was the way it violated conventions over the look and sound, as well as the deeper themes, usually found in the genre. It’s also one of two films made in the 1950s that provide a perpetual blueprint for modern action filmmaking, the other being Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Kurosawa’s film set the template for tales about a group of warriors with diverse talents and qualities drawn together for righteous battle. High Noon, its immediate precursor, by contrast portrays the crucial vision of a fighter forced to stand alone, with a title that became a by-word for moments of fraught confrontation. Both films, of course, were themselves condensations of earlier movie and storytelling traditions and particular influences, but each managed to winnow their concerns and approach into such precisely articulated iconography that they became henceforth the instant point of reference. Despite eventually being accepted as not just a classic but a perfect totem for an attitude of fortitude and resolve, Zinnemann’s film became a contested moment in screen history: greeted with general but by no means universal plaudits and solid popular success, it nonetheless irritated many, including John Wayne, and Howard Hawks, who felt the film’s basic premise so wrongheaded he made Rio Bravo (1959) as a riposte. High Noon was nominated for multiple Oscars and yet the disquiet behind the story it told probably resulted in losing out for Best Picture against reactionary chieftain Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. Ironies proliferate, as a movie specifically birthed by, and depicting, the failure of political and social leaders became a morale-boosting favourite of both American Presidents, as well as the Polish Solidarity movement.

 

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The story behind High Noon’s making is now impossible to detach from the film itself, even as most viewers in its time were unaware and indifferent. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, working from an outline he had penned and a short story called “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham, claimed his completed script was an allegory for the anti-Communist McCarthyist furore casting a torturous and destructive shadow over Hollywood, an episode where many hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee suddenly found themselves without support or backing in the climate of fear and fecklessness. Foreman himself was called before the committee as High Noon was being made, and began revising the script to incorporate some of the things happening to him, particularly the church argument sequence. Foreman’s refusal to name any people he had once been members of the Communist Party with left him vulnerable to blacklisting. As if fulfilling his own prophecy, Foreman’s producing partner Stanley Kramer immediately severed their association. Whilst a political conservative who had given friendly if trivial testimony to the HUAC, Cooper disliked the blacklist and backed Foreman, helping keep his name on the film, to such a degree that Wayne and others threatened to get him blacklisted too. Foreman eventually moved to England, and rebounded in Hollywood years later when he pseudonymously wrote David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), another tale of resisting oppressive power that shades into oblivious collaboration with that power, and then officially by writing and producing The Guns of Navarone (1961).

 

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Polish-born Zinnemann saw the project more universally, later noting that there was “something timely – and timeless” about the story, and perhaps with a degree of pretension declared that he didn’t see it as a Western but simply a story taking place in a particular historical setting. For Zinnemann, whose parents had died in the Holocaust, High Noon presented the perfect myth of civilisation standing its ground against malevolence, anarchy, and most insidious of all, cravenness. Certainly he would return repeatedly in his career to the concern of a protagonist wrestling with moral dilemmas and forced eventually to face a reckoning, whether it be with their own conscience, like the heroine of The Nun’s Story (1959), or, as in High Noon, From Here To Eternity (1953), and A Man For All Seasons (1966), being forced to take a stand against bullying and bludgeoning power despite the inevitable cost this invites. Zinnemann had made his prototype with 1948’s Act of Violence, a movie crucially depicting an inexorable march towards a potentially deadly confrontation that also, crucially, hinged on a demand for justice and accountability, in the tale of one war veteran hunting down a former fellow inmate of a POW camp he believes betrayed his comrades. Decades later Zinnemann would invert High Noon’s focus to an extent with The Day of the Jackal (1973), depicting an icily detached assassin’s exacting preparations for killing a political leader at a fatefully appointed hour.

 

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If High Noon’s standing has declined over the years, part of it’s because of greater recognition that it didn’t spark the “adult Western” movement of the ‘50s, although it certainly seems to have helped define it in certain key qualities. Zinnemann, whose defining traits of fine-grained, carefully sober, borderline minimalist style has gone in and out of critical fashion, moreover worked to purposefully reject the visual sweep and epic lustre associated with the genre’s leading exponents like John Ford and Hawks, despite the film resembling a feature-length take on the ending of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby studied Matthew Brady’s Civil War-era photographs to and recreated their look, stripping away all hint of painterly gloss and what Zinnemann later called the “religious ritual” quality of most Western cinematography, instead shooting the film in a unsoftened, unfiltered black-and-white. The unvarnished approach gave the film a level of visual similarity to what was emerging as the distinct aesthetic of the era’s television, which seemed all the better for putting across studies of psychological angst and moral drama. At the same time, Zinnemann and Foreman’s key storytelling touch laid down a template for more recent crazes in trying to create a sense of unified realism in cinema, in labouring to make the film play out in very close to real time, with a ruthlessly metronomic sense of editing’s meaning and its relationship with time that finally becomes overt and oppressively intense in the legendary passage immediately preceding the inevitable climax. Time in High Noon is life, and death.

 

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The story is simplicity itself. In the small but burgeoning town of Hadleyville, in the New Mexico Territory, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying his young Quaker bride Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). The wedding, performed by the town judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) in his court, brings together many of the players in the subsequent drama celebrating the hero Marshal’s nuptials, including the Mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), Will’s predecessor and mentor Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), his friend Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), and Fuller’s wife Mildred (Eve McVeagh). After the ceremony he surrenders the Marshal’s star before leaving on his honeymoon, although his replacement will not arrive the following day. Just before heading off, however, two coinciding events ruin the happy day. News arrives by telegram that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a cruel and violent outlaw who used to tyrannise Hadleyville and its residents until Will took over as Marshal, has just had his sentence commuted by the Governor and been released. Moreover, three men who once comprised Miller’s gang, his brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), and Jim Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), have just ridden into town and are now waiting at the railway station for the noon train. This portends an obvious fact: Frank is coming back, intending vengeance and renewal of his reign of terror. After initially continuing on out of town, Will eventually heaves the wagon to and tells his new wife he must head back. Amy retorts with a line of thinking he soon hears repeated in many variations, that it’s not his job anymore. But there’s no-one else to do it, and Will feels the obligation.

 

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Zinnemann commences the film with initially mysterious shots of the three hoodlums assembling in the wilds outside of Hadleyville and heading for the town. The style is immediately unusual, playing out wordlessly under the opening credits but already setting the drama in motion, suggested in the hard, bullet-eyed, expectant faces of the gunmen, set to the strains of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s ballad “High Noon,” sung for the film by Tex Ritter, with its plaintive refrain of “Do not forsake me, O my darling,” which then returns at intervals throughout the film, as if it’s playing within Will’s head, loping, repetitive, nagging, anxious. The song’s popularity and clever dramatic justification sparked a craze for Westerns to all sport their Top Ten-wannabe theme song, but most of those imitators tended much more strident: in High Noon the song is spare, stark, mournfully simple, sounding at once like an authentic Western ballad whilst also evoking the courtly romanticism of a medieval troubadour’s poem. The lyrics recount the film’s plot informally, and suggest the story’s most deeply essential relationship is, ultimately, that between Will and Amy rather than Will and the community: anyone can stand facing the world and its evils when the one person dear to them stands behind them.

 

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Will knows his enemy, sure in his anticipation that Miller and his gang, vicious thugs all with a lode of pent-up anger to expiate, will visit abuse, murder, and rape upon the town, as well as the risk of them running him and Amy down on the road. Will soon forms the conviction that the only way to stop them is to meet them with sufficient force to ward them off. Will soon finds his conscientious sense of purpose, which he feels as surely as any knight or samurai, isn’t necessarily shared by his fellow townspeople. His first major disenchantment comes from Amy herself, as she tells him in a fury that she doesn’t want him risking his life or taking those of others, and swiftly presents an ultimatum, promising to abandon him and head off on the train if he doesn’t immediately leave with her. Will looks pained but makes no gesture to comply, so Amy heads to the station. Will at least knows this was a potential problem with his mate, having accepted her and her Quaker faith, which, as she memorably narrates later, she turned to after losing loved-ones to ferocious violence: “My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn’t help them when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die.” Amy’s moral perspective runs counter to the basic precepts that Will espouses through deed and unspoken feeling rather than intellectual formulae, that certain dangers must be braved in order for society to hold together.

 

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High Noon’s take on an eternal dialogue between pacifism and measured force is cast in the roles of masculine and feminine values, purposefully set at their most polarised extremes with Will’s, but also entangled by the bonds of affection, as well as an incipient trial of strength within the marriage, the marriage of two minds as inevitably fraught contests of moral vision with mutual degrees of incomprehension. This element of the film, which threads right through it both dramatically and philosophically, immediate connects High Noon to the social perspective espoused in Ford’s great Westerns but also confronts it and asks certain interesting questions. In My Darling Clementine (1946) the eponymous lady embodied civilised values the gunfighter hero could dance with but could not countenance settling down with: as he had before in Stagecoach (1939) and would again in The Searchers (1956) despite their divergences in theme and style, Ford conceived of the Western hero as a figure who had substance only in a specific place and moment and had to yield to a civilisation, defined as intrinsically feminine. One thing that’s particularly interesting about High Noon, both within its own narrative and in terms of its genre, is that High Noon actually tells the story after the story. Will’s first victory over Miller can be regarded as the Western genre in miniature: the barbarian has been defeated, civilisation has settled. Now the warrior can turn in his badge and take the bride who will have him “running a store.”

 

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Of course, the narrative compels us to recognise the more imminent validity of Will’s point, because his foes aren’t reasonable men with motives that can be assimilated or negotiated, but rather holdovers from a barbarian past who once might have held sway over the Steppes or the Danelaw, given an historical petri dish to grow again by the Wild West’s disorder. This aspect also both builds upon and interrogates Ford’s concept of the Western, suggesting that barbarity and civilisation exist one inside the other like Matroushka dolls than a rolling tide of colonial superceding, one keeping a check on the other, requiring that certain people, in this case Will, retain their outback bushido as the only way to ensure the world holds together. The message is most easily and commonly formulated by the famous line Wayne delivered in another film, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” But just what is it a man’s gotta do? A phrase repeated twice in the film in variations is an answer to a character’s uncomprehending question as to why Will pursues his sense of duty: “If you don’t know, then I can’t explain it to you,” evoking a realm of ethical experience that almost lies beyond liminal understanding, a sense of personal responsibility for the world that one either possesses or doesn’t.

 

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Will soon finds others want him to move on for a wide variety of reasons. His chief deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a callow and resentful man, is annoyed that he got passed over for being Will’s replacement, a choice Will says was that of the town council rather than himself: where Amy’s resistance is principled, Harvey’s motives are more aggressively perverse, his desire to assimilate Will’s stature plain in not just seeking his job but also in having taken up with his former lover Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado). It’s as if Harvey sees all this as the blueprint for evolving into a similarly potent and sovereign man, also manifesting in a need to hinder Will, to reduce him rather than try to live up to his example. Harvey quits when Will refuses to promise him the sheriff’s job in exchange for his help, and later assaults Will to forestall his confrontation with the gang, not to save him but because Harvey knows it would too sorely expose his own weakness. Mettrick, who passed sentence on Miller, packs up his belongings upon hearing Miller is coming, whilst coolly and calmly explaining his own attitude to Will, recounting both historical precedent and personal, including one from ancient Athens and a similar situation he was involved in himself years before and feeling discretion the better part of valour: “I’ve been a judge many times in many towns – I hope to live to be a judge again.” The rule of law has no strength without its enforcers.

 

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Mettrick is glimpsed, in a mordant touch, taking down and folding up the American flag: afterwards the rectangular imprint of it on the wall behind him remains visible. Invisible presences are important in this scene, nudged more forcefully as Mettrick reminds Will of Miller’s promise to return and kill him, pointing to the chair where he sat during the trial and spoke those words. Zinnemann dollies up to the empty piece of furniture as it becomes the totem of Miller’s tyrannical presence, before making a jagged jump cut to Pierce smashing an empty liquor bottle as he and his companions wait in sweaty frustration. Others in town wouldn’t mind seeing Will go up against the gang and earn a few bullet holes, like the impudently sarcastic hotel receptionist (Howland Chamberlain) and tavern owner Gillis (Larry J. Blake), still annoyed that the process of “cleaning up” Hadleyville cost them their best sources of business. When Will enters the tavern on the search for volunteers to back him up, immediately after a charged, silent encounter with the smirking Harvey, he hears Gillis delighting in the prospect. Will socks Gillis in the face, but immediately apologises when the bloody-lipped Gillis notes he has all the power in their immediate situation. Will tries to find Fuller, but Fuller hides in his house and has Mildred tell Will he’s not home: “Well what do you want, you want me to get killed?” he demands of her when she wears a shameful look after lying to Will.

 

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The central scene sees the failure of support for Will implicate the community’s innermost ranks, when he visits the congregation gathered in the local church mid-service. This scene bears a strong and deliberate-feeling resemblance to scenes that often featured in movies made during World War II where communities argued about the costs of resistance versus passivity, like Edge of Darkness (1943), which also takes place in a church. Except that the upshot of such scenes is inverted, starting off with some of the men in the congregation immediately rising to pledge their aid, only for objecting voices to be raised and stall them, and Will’s hope of forging a unified response bleeds steam and dies. Will’s motives are impugned, accused of wanting to drag others into what is a personal feud between him and Miller. The parson (Morgan Farley), who snippily criticises Will for coming to the church despite rarely visiting it other times and not getting married there, notes with confused gravitas that the Commandments forbids killing “but we hire men to go out and do it for us,” and remains noncommittal. Voice of protest are still raised from those who find the failure to support Will disgusting and those who remember how bad things were before he took up his job and got rid of Miller. The real blow falls when Henderson starts giving a speech that seems to be supporting Will until he suddenly changes tack and argues any gunfighting will ruin the town’s nascent prosperity and that likely nothing will happen if Will doesn’t confront the gang, preferring the illusion of peace and harmony to its actuality. This finally leaves Will without any support.

 

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Zinnemann provides both a dash of comic relief and pointed symbolism as Will leaves the church, as the children play tug-of-war on the lawn mimics the verbal contests of their elders before all falling over. The connection between the church scene and those forebears from wartime movies, with the stinging diagnosis of faltering communal will and purpose, takes aim at the chief disease of a hard-bought peacetime: apathy. The accumulating portrait of a community now paralysed by its own timidity and uncertainty is mediated by a complex sense of individual purposes. Everyone has their reasons, from Henderson’s forced-seeming declaration of faith in simply avoiding the fight, breaking out in a muck sweat as he praises Will to the heavens whilst also abandoning him in his cause, to Harvey’s more personal, egocentric objections. The only men who fearlessly volunteer to help Will are disabled, like the one-eyed Jimmy (William Newell), or addicted, or very young, wanting to prove themselves, and Will must gently turn them down. Will’s last visit to make an appeal for help is to Howe. Howe too elects to stay out of the fight, in part for the right reasons as he’s too old and riddled with arthritis to be of any real help. But he also clearly mortifies Will when he comments on the underlying problem Will’s facing: “They don’t care. Deep down, they don’t care.” Finally the only one of Will’s deputies who shows up, Herb Baker (James Millican), immediately begs release from his duty, and Will grants it, knowing by this point there’s no point resisting this particular tide.

 

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Just about everyone has experienced some moment in their life, perhaps relatively trivial or truly life-and-death, where they’ve felt exposed and alone before fate to the indifference of others. High Noon converted this feeling, this familiarity, into a perpetual legend applicable to any variation; indeed, it might even have incidentally exposed it as something close to the existential state of the modern world. Whilst the genre plot rhythms might disguise it, High Noon is as disillusioned with the post-war settlement as any Italian alienation epic. Despite Zinnemann’s unease with identifying the film as a Western, it nonetheless depends on its genre setting for its potency, and not just to provide an accessible commercial chassis. High Noon annexes the already well-defined capacity of the Western to tell rock-ribbed, quasi-mythic stories about good and bad, about civilisation and its discontents. It’s a genre where the arrival of civilisation is supposed to be a good thing but also an ambivalent moment if only because its arrival chokes of further hope for the kind of violent, freewheeling action the genre required. High Noon, like a sagebrush take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, nonetheless took that ambivalence a step further to diagnose jealousy, selfishness, cowardice, disloyalty, and all the other familiar traits of human beings since time immemorial in Hadleyville. Of course, none of this was exactly, entirely original in the Western. After all, Ford had introduced his heroes in Stagecoach as social outcasts, beset by Pharisaic creeps appointing themselves the defenders of civilisations. Nor did High Noon introduce the idea of a lawman making an appeal to townsfolk for aid: many dozens upon dozens of oatsers had featured the sheriff rounding up a posse to go hunt down somebody. What High Noon did more concertedly than most before it was make the Western a realm for social drama, an idea that ironically helped fuel its explosive popularity over the next 15 years, as now it could encompass analogies for any kind of moral conundrum and interpersonal conflict, but most crucially the fraught relationship between individual and the community values.

 

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Cooper was in a rough patch in when he came on board for High Noon. He’d made several financially disappointing films in a row, he was separated from his wife after a string of affairs with leading ladies, and he was in physical pain from both his hip, which had been injured in a car accident when he was a teenager, and from a recent operation to remove a bleeding ulcer. He only landed the role of Will Kane after several other stars turned it down, including Marlon Brando, the breakout star of Zinnemann’s earlier film The Men (1950), and Kirk Douglas. Cooper had been the top male movie star in the world fifteen years earlier, powered by a rarefied combination of rough-and-ready charm and sanguine cool, able to wear a tuxedo or buckskins with equal ease and as deft at comedy as gunfighting, playing a certain kind of male ideal but never projecting an aura of compensating force, instead offering a gently discursive, off-the-beat rhythm in his dialogue and emoting. His handsome playboys and igneous range heroes often seemed slightly embarrassed, conscious of the disparity between their inner and outer worlds. Cooper had won his first Oscar acting in Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), playing a character who could well be described as a combination of Will and Amy, a pacifist who becomes a warrior through his desire to save others rather than kill.

 

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Cooper’s presence is the life blood of High Noon, his familiarly subtle, discursive acting style helping make Will Kane an unusually realistic, palpable hero, one who distilled Cooper’s entire career and persona into one character. He’s somewhat off the beat for the style of hero gaining traction in 1950s dramas who wore their jagged anger on their sleeves, those played by actors like Douglas and Brando. Will Kane is by contrast an emblematic stoic, and yet Cooper constantly reveals through controlled gestures the troubled, shocked, infuriated soul lurking behind his limpid gaze: Will Kane is compelled by inner virtue to take a stand, but he’s all too aware he’s probably asking to be gunned down in the street, and he’s frightened. The registration of staggering treachery and weakness in his encounters with various townsfolk registers in that gaze like tiny star shells going off, reaching an apogee when he realises Henderson is deserting him, his expression barely changing yet his absolutely beggared shock still apparent, as well as his sense of sudden exposure, suddenly changed from public hero to the indicted problem, a fool at the pillory, his desire to sock Henderson just as he did Gillis plainly simmering even as he keeps his cool this time and offers a single, terse “Thanks” before stalking out. Cooper’s health problems only amplified the performance as Zinnemann and Crosby’s intense, almost excoriating close-ups found the most finite registers of discomfort and disenchantment.

 

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Kelly, by contrast, was the fresh-faced starlet plucked off Broadway, still with a little baby fat around her famous face, easily projects maturity far greater than her 21 years, her posh, cut-glass accent odd in the setting and yet helping give haughty edge to Amy’s vehement, zealous moralism and repudiation of Will when he can’t be swayed. Jurado is the dark and bodied opposite of Kelly’s virginal blonde primness, spindly white-clad form and earthy, fleshy, dark-draped body in strange gravitational proximity when the two meet. Helen Ramirez combines opposites within herself: she is at once a figure of social potency and a sort of anointed priestess in a primeval cult, moving as lover from villain to hero to Harvey, the avatar of a misbegotten species of boy-man hovering in between. Amy, who knew nothing about Helen before Will feels obliged to visit her to ask for her influence, eventually visits her hotel room in furtive fascination. Like so much of the film, they retain multivalent symbolic power, Madonna and whore, Latin America and WASP, independent woman and spouse, and two different but equally fierce private codes. Helen knows Hadleyville’s secret life with unblinkered honesty, grasps its true nature with its supercilious piety and imminent lack of real character: “I hate this town. I always hated it. To be a Mexican woman in a town like this.”

 

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Helen is many ways the most vividly realised and remarkable character in the film, both exemplifying and undercutting the figure of the Latin temptress, a worldly being whose charisma and fecund sexuality, something she has no compunction in bestowing on men who catch her fancy, have ironically made her a potent and respected figure in her community. Helen alone stands outside the communal dynamics being acted out as she coldly repudiates everything that begins to disgust her all at once, most particularly Harvey who finds he has no sway over her at all when tries to force her to stay and kisses her. “I don’t like anybody to put his hands on me unless I want him to – and I don’t like you to anymore,” she states imperiously, and gives him a good slap to seal the deal. Helen may be anointed but also knows her role is to do the anointing of the successor in the chain of masculine maturation, and Harvey just ain’t got it. Helen does what Will most pointedly cannot do, and forsakes Hadleyville and its citizens in her conviction that when Will dies the town dies with him, and refuses to wait around to watch it. Meanwhile the offended and semi-soused Harvey tries to force Will to leave town, finally attacking him physically when he cannot be persuaded, his eyes bright with hysterical need to rid himself of Will. Fisticuffs are sparked when Will finally resists by throwing off his grasp: “Don’t shove me, Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.”

 

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Will wins the brutal fistfight that follows but emerges battered and bloodied and perhaps robbed of his best fighting edge: Will still pauses to tip a pail of water over Harvey to make sure he rouses, a lovely little character touch, as is the subsequent scene where, after writing his last will and testament, he releases town drunk Charlie (Jack Elam), who’s utterly oblivious of the primal drama gripping the town and asks if the saloon is open yet. The film’s real climax is the marvellous montage sequence as Will writes his legacy in his office whilst the clock ticks down the last few seconds to noon. Zinnemann cuts between the various players in the previous hour or so locked in their little spaces of particular feeling – all of them suddenly solitary like Will even amongst community – before returning to the empty chair where Miller sat, in his absence now as powerful as any dragon, whilst Tiomkin’s mostly sparing score gyres up the sense of imminent drama in obedience to the ticks of the clock’s pendulum, until suddenly severed by the whistle of the approaching train, sounding exactly upon the noon stroke.

 

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Zinnemann’s aesthetic for High Noon, which studio chieftains kept complaining about during shooting, helped speed up a process in which Hollywood divested itself of the lingering influence of Expressionism and adopted the look Zinnemann and Crosby created as the new template of realism which was in its way as stylised as what it was supplanting particularly in the flat lighting, quickly travelling beyond the boundaries of the Western. But the harsh, flat look doesn’t obscure the precision of Zinnemann’s framing, his careful use of close-ups and tightly composed images of the actors that still retain some of the flavour of the silent era German cinema he had been involved in, and that cinema’s overriding desire to capture people in both their physical and mental dimensions. Zinnemann’s shots in the countdown montage, like a looming close-up not entirely contained by the frame of the three waiting outlaws looking like the three heads of a sleazy Cerberus, and a glimpse of the Fullers in locked together in their safe, guilty space, have piercing clarity. The countdown montage, endlessly influential in terms of the mounting suspense and rhythmic intensity of a movie, sees Zinnemann and collaborators turn cinematic time itself into an iron maiden squeezing upon each character, not simply heightening the suspense but offering in its way a final signature on each facet of the social drama, each person who has failed Will and themselves weighing up the value of their mortality.

 

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After releasing Charlie and sealing up his will, Will heads out into the street where the only thing that moves is the carriage carrying Helen and Amy to the station: Helen dares a glance at Will alone on the street but Amy cannot. Zinnemann’s deft punctuation with camera movement is as notable as the editing proceeding this vignette, first offering a dolly shot moving away from Will, the act of abandoning him rendered physically palpable. Zinnemann then switches to a crane shot that moves remorselessly upwards from Will until he’s a small, dark, spindly figure alone in a ghost town: Will is at once dwarfed by space, realising just how completely alone he is, but he’s also now the only presence, the rest of the townspeople, as Helen predicted, erased and meaningless. This particular shot has also been endlessly imitated and invoked in heroic cinema, inverting as it does Ford’s introduction of Wayne’s Ringo in Stagecoach, where the hero resolves out of shadow, mythic function, the storehouse of archetype, suddenly loaned flesh; Will instead becomes the focal point of a different mode of cinematic exaltation, one that diminishes him physically but also urges in the opposite direction, from man to figure fit for legend.

 

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Zinnemann continues to keep Miller himself a vague, almost abstract presence even after he steps off the train and greets his confederates; his acne-scarred, crudely charismatic features aren’t seen until he glances up and sees Helen boarding the train. The demon finally has a face, and he’s granted immediate potency precisely because he’s not immediately presented as a frothing mad dog, but as a coldly imperious figure. The businesslike swagger of the gunmen as they head into town has the focused precision of a death squad rather than a gang of scabby desperados, but the discipline is broken when thought turns to the revels to come after the hunt: Ben steals a lady’s bonnet from a shopfront display, the sound of shattering glass warning Will where the killers are and allowing him to lie in ambush, gunning down Ben in the first volley. The first gunfire also shatters Amy’s glaze of resolve, and she dashes off the train and back into the town to find Will, whilst Helen is carried out of town.

 

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Will uses his immediate familiarity with the town as his one real advantage, lying in wait, shooting, running, eluding, finally ending up in the hayloft of a stables. He manages to kill Colby when he comes in close for the kill. Will’s innate decency and his quick thinking converge when he’s trapped in a barn and the gang try to force him out by setting fire to it: Will frees the frightened horses and drives them out of the stables, clinging low and hard to one as he speeds out, bullets whizzing around him. The action in the finale is notably intense and realistic – nobody’s a superhuman shot and the violence is quick and frenetic. Men die in the blink of an eye. Will’s tactics and use of the town as an obstacle course not only make perfect sense given his situation but also makes clear why he preferred to make his stand there rather than risk running on the prairie. When, inevitably, Amy intervenes in the fight and shoots Pierce, it’s a powerfully affirming gesture for Amy in intervening to save her husband, but also a distinctly inglorious one: she shoots Pierce in the back from the window of the Marshal’s office when he’s reloading his pistols, and Zinnemann cuts to a close shot of her cringing in horror and pain.

 

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It’s easy enough to see this as the ultimate “stand by your man” message, but it’s more complex upon consideration, chiefly in the fact that Amy likely saves her husband’s life and then saves her own, granting her equity as Will’s partner, and when one remembers Amy’s motives in becoming a Quaker, because of her dead loved-ones: the one essential impulse drives two seemingly contradictory impulses, much indeed as it does Will. Amy’s intervention also makes her a combatant and therefore she immediately becomes vulnerable: Miller takes the chance to sneak up on her and take her hostage. Amy helps save herself and Will by clawing at Miller with sufficient ferocity that he thrust her away, giving Will the chance to gun him down. And just like that, the threat is gone, the dead very dead, the living holding each-other in numbed gratitude. Will’s famous last gesture, picking off the star after giving a long look of disgust to the crowd flocking and tossing it into the dirt, confirms there are limits to even the best person’s sense of duty and responsibility, and Will, fully justified in his house if not his town, leaves with his bride to the lilting refrain of the title ballad. As an ending this still feels daring in its curt diminuendo, the refusal to force any kind of make-nice or underline with bombast: doing right has been a terrible thing, but not half as terrible as watching others do wrong.

 

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High Noon’s impact is such a constant in pop culture it’s hard to summarise, giving rise most immediately to Westerns as diverse as the self-consciously mythic Shane (1953) and the vividly psychological Johnny Guitar (1954), and echoing on in overt variations and tributes. The template was as easily transposed into space for Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) and monster movie for Predator (1987) as into the contemporary landscape for the likes of Dirty Harry (1971), which pointedly invested new meaning to Will’s last gesture, and Die Hard (1988), where duelling memories of the film define the relationship between the hero and villain (“That was Gary Cooper, asshole!”) and the worlds they represent. Despite his lack of fondness for the way the film changed the Western towards something more psychological and moralistic, Sergio Leone offered his own, characteristically magnified tribute in the opening scene of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) as he recreated the vision of three bored, tense gunmen waiting for a train. Sam Peckinpah inverted the march of the villains into the town for the legendary march of The Wild Bunch (1969) towards their auto-da-fe. But as is so often the case, the wellspring retains its own, specific power, one that can still sneak up on a viewer even now.

 

Standard
1970s, Comedy, Crime/Detective

The Sting (1973)

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Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: David S. Ward

By Roderick Heath

Despite winning the 1973 Best Picture Oscar and proving one of the most popular movies ever made, The Sting rarely gets much serious appreciation. Today’s popular hits can very often prove tomorrow’s deflated gasbags, but The Sting retains a kind of perfection, an ingenious and multileveled engine, a film with a narrative that takes the matter at its heart, the arts of deception and dishonesty, and also makes them the framework for its story, with a deft guile and cocksure vigour almost vanished now from popular cinema. The Sting began life when the struggling screenwriter David S. Ward, doing some research into pickpockets, read some books about the classic methods and characters of confidence tricksters, particularly David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, about the brothers and partners in grifting, Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose last name Ward appended to one of his fictional antiheroes. Ward later had to fend off a lawsuit from Maurer, claiming that he plagiarised the book. The Sting eventually reunited the two biggest male movie stars of the moment, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill, after the trio had scored a huge hit with 1969’s semi-satiric, counterculture-infused western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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The Sting pulled off the ultimate trick of beating out William Friedkin’s horror juggernaut The Exorcist for the Oscar after giving it a run for its money at the box office. Of course, The Sting’s upbeat, retro fun was easier for the Academy to embrace than Friedkin’s garish and nightmarish experience, as Hill’s film exemplified old-fashioned Hollywood values in a New Hollywood context, packing major star power together with a sure-fire script. The Sting also rode a wave of nostalgic longing for bygone days, expertly coaxed by the score’s use of ragtime tunes by the near-forgotten Scott Joplin, whose works, as arranged and recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, enjoyed sudden new popularity on the back of the soundtrack’s success. Joplin’s music, most famously “The Entertainer,” used as the film’s main title music and recurring throughout, but perhaps more crucially in terms of the film’s aesthetic the melancholy piano theme “Solace,” punctuates the repeating vision of its heroes as solitary or at drift in the streets of 1936 Joliet and Chicago, dogged by their own strange knowledge of the world and themselves, both a part of but also distinct from the society whose homeless and destitute rejects still litter the sidewalks in the waning Depression.

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The appeal for the Academy might well have been something more subtle too, in the way Ward’s story offered a sharp metaphor for being a Hollywood player, depicting talented people obliged to live in a netherworld in putting their abilities on the line. The con men of The Sting are directors, writers, and above all dynamic actors who put on their shows for the highest stakes, always a twist of chance away from beggardom, imprisonment, starvation or riches and their own kind of hermetic celebrity, needing only a performance so convincing it erases the line between fakery and authenticity, a show of brilliant wit and world-reordering sleight-of-hand. Redford’s character Johnny Hooker, first glimpsed expertly bilking a mark of a bundle of cash in league with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), is a young man with a true gift for his unusual art, but a need for father figures and a compulsion to try and persuade luck the same way he persuades people, a need he fulfils through gambling, at which he always ultimately loses. Despite being young and good-looking he’s so much an interloper and a habitual screw-up he can’t even keep his stripper girlfriend Crystal (Sally Kirland) after blowing his first big score on a game of roulette, and he spends much of the rest of the film running, often literally, from men who want to kill him and from his own shiftless, exile-on-main street lack of identity.

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Film and plot gain momentum from the opening moments where Hill surveys human wreckage on the streets of Joliet, one of many, prickling remembrances that the story unfolds in a time of hardship: the characters on screen have been created by their circumstance. The initial spur of the story is deeply wound into the time and place: a numbers operation, part of the larger crime syndicate run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), making fortunes off ordinary people making their own paltry plays for sudden, unlikely enrichment. The Joliet operation is run by Granger (Ed Bakey), who reports relatively weak profits and a slow count owing to a brief shutdown of the operations in town by a mayor on one of his tough-on-crime kicks, gives the week’s take of $10,000 to one of his men, Mottola (James J. Sloyan), to carry up to Chicago. Just after setting off, he glimpses an aging black man who’s been stabbed and robbed by a fleeing thief: Mottola declines to take down the thief but another bystander does and gets the money back. The old man explains he was heading to make a payoff to some loan sharks he owes money to, and begs Mottola to carry the money there for him. The third man advises him to keep his money wrapped in his handkerchief and stuffed down his pants in case the thief and any pals are lying in wait for him. Mottola takes the old man’s bundle with a kindly assurance to help him and then absconds, gleefully thinking he’s made a killing, only to find he’s the one who’s been ripped off. He’s just fallen victim to Hooker, his mentor and partner in crime Luther, and their confederate Kid Erie (Jack Kehoe).

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This opening employs oblique method to get the story moving, starting with the vignette of the numbers racket and following Mottola as he’s suckered in by the expert flimflam of the three conmen, the wise guy outmanoeuvred when he thinks he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand.” Mottola’s surprise is the audience’s surprise, even as we’re schooled in both the cunning method the tricksters employ, their piercing psychology in counting on the greed and dishonesty of the people they take down in the food chain of street life and the quick twists of logic used to sell the scam. This opening also privileges us with information the conmen won’t learn until it’s too late, the mistake they’re unwittingly making in suckering a man working for a big steam operation like Lonnegan’s. The sociology of the film is also, swiftly established: there are big sharks making well-protected fortunes bilking people and the smaller, entrepreneurial kind living on their wits. Astounded by the huge sum they’ve swindled out of Mottola, the three men divide their share, with Luther happily telling the startled and disappointed Hooker that he plans to use his cut to stop grifting altogether. Hooker meanwhile blows all his share, and is then waylaid by corrupt local detective Snyder (Charles Durning), who knows about his windfall and threatens to hand Hooker over to Lonnegan’s people if he doesn’t pay him off. Hooker gives him the counterfeit money he used in the con and then races back to Luther’s place to warn him about the heat coming down, only to find Luther’s been thrown to his death from his apartment window.

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Vowing revenge and knowing Joliet is now highly hazardous to his health, Hooker heads to Chicago, where, following Luther’s last piece of advice to him, he looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who’s now hiding out from FBI agents after a sting that went wrong: Hooker appeals to Gondorff to find some way of putting the sting on Lonnegan as payback for Luther because “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” Hooker first finds Gondorff lying wedged between his bed and the wall sleeping off a drunk, living as he does with his brothel madam girlfriend Billie (Eileen Brennan) in his efforts to keep hidden from the feds: Johnny’s sour introduction to “the great Henry Gondorff” is a deflating experience. Gondorff, in between soaking his aching face in a sink full of chipped ice and repairing the merry-go-round Billie uses to entertain the children of her clientele, explains the difficulties and deal-breakers, particularly warning Hooker against deciding half-way through that just bilking Lonnegan isn’t enough payback. Nonetheless Gondorff agrees to mastermind the sting not just because Lonnegan’s a big fish who could pay off in a big payday but because of offended professional community pride, a motive he knows others will feel too: “After what happened to Luther I don’t think I could get more than two, three hundred guys.”

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Much as he would a couple of years later in Jaws (1975), Shaw gives proceedings a potent dose of theatrical bravura as Lonnegan, introduced playing golf with a underworld friend-rival, refusing to let Hooker get away after Luther’s death because it tarnish his image as an exacting and omnipotent operator lest men like his current golfing opponent thing they can get one over on him. He snaps his intimidating catchphrase “D’ya follow?” at people in his grating Irish-by-way-of-Five Points accent, as vicious and sharklike as anything in Jaws. Lonnegan is another poor boy made good through criminal enterprise but garners absolutely no sympathy because his type of criminal enterprise demands a ruthlessness he dishes out with relish: it’s made clear that he murdered his way to the top of the rackets and murders to stay there. Of course, Lonnegan needs to be a grade-A bastard to make it easier to cheer along our lesser bastard heroes. Gondorff draws together a team of the best grifters he knows, with the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) acting as his agent in hiring the rest of the outfit and doing much of the legwork; he also draws in the motormouthed J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan). Together they decide to hit Lonnegan with a version of an outmoded con trick called “The Wire,” depending on the brief lag between horse races and the broadcasting of the results, which demands setting up a fake bookie’s office to draw Lonnegan in and get him to put up a big stake on a supposedly sure-fire bet. To get the cash to set up the big sting, a smaller one is needed, so Gondorff swings into action, buying his way into a poker match Lonnegan likes to hold on the train between New York and Chicago, and goes up against him a duel of dextrous cheating.

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Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1972) had staked out similar territory the year before in dealing with Depression-era swindlers, although with quite a different relationship at its heart and its setting out in the dusty Midwest. Like many gangster stories, from any of James Cagney’s hoodlum flicks through The Godfather films and the TV series Breaking Bad, The Sting plays games with the audience’s fantasies. It appeals to that part of the viewer who for a moment forgets the rage and insult of being on the wrong side of a con trick and instead reclines in the wish we too had such talents to ward off the worst abuses of the world. The Sting makes this appeal something of a motif, as the main characters, despite their general alienation and outsider stature, are imbued with fraternal distinction and seedy glamour when surrounded by the victims of the Depression camped out in the street and in tent cities under railway lines. Whilst the conmen might any moment be as broke as the other people, they’re by and large never more than a couple of sharp moves away from cash in pocket as long as they keep their cool. Con artists were usually, in earlier crime fiction and movies, depicted as the lowest of the low on the criminal world food chain, but The Sting converts this into part of the appeal. They’re the mostly non-violent, clever, impudent criminal class, usually operating alone or in small teams but when roused capable of fiendish communal purpose and ingenuity, usually punching upwards in their labours, and absent prejudice in their own circles, a zone where a black man like Luther and a white one like Hooker can work together.

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The greater part of The Sting’s pleasure is the way invites the viewer into this peculiar little subculture and its mystique – the little rituals, lingo, and signs of recognition all concisely captured and deployed, like the nose rub the grifters use to signal each-other, and the tavern haunt that doubles as a hiring hall. The big question before Hooker is whether, as Luther thought, he’s a truly top-rank conman, because he’s never participated in a trick on the level Gondorff has operated on. The price the grifters pay for their kind of freedom is however constantly reiterated in their isolation, only able to relate to women who are prostitutes or fellow rootless drifters, as when Hooker makes a play for the waitress, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss), he meets in a diner who explains she’s only working there long enough to make enough money to get out of town. Hooker’s inability to get laid, despite looking like Robert Redford, becomes a minor running joke in the film as well as a signifier of his character straits, until he makes anxious, self-lacerating appeal to Loretta: “I’m just like you – it’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” 1930s nostalgia, as improbable as it might have seemed to some who lived through the Depression, had become a familiar pop cultural topic by the time of The Sting. But Hill’s restrained but rigorous sense of style and Ward’s writing are particularly piquant in annexing the ghostly echoes of writers of the era like Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett, luxuriating in the old-school streetwise language, and magazine illustrators and advertising as well as, for more elevated reference, artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The division of the film into chapters, each announced with title cards illustrated with vintage Saturday Evening Post-like flavour by Jaroslav Gebr, signals how the film is structured like the ritualistic form of a con game itself.

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Part of the narrative’s wit lies precisely in affecting to let the audience in on the art of the con, making the basic mechanics of the sting aimed at Lonnegan comprehensible, whilst also working to keep a few twists hidden, particularly the subplots involving Hooker, who we’re told is the target of a top-notch assassin named Salino, hired by Lonnegan because his local killers Riley (Brad Sullivan) and Cole (John Quade) failed to get him. Hooker is also picked up and strongarmed by an FBI agent, Polk (Dana Elcar), who has also roped in Snyder and bullies them both into helping him nab Gondorff. Snyder, played by the ever-marvellous Durning, has followed Hooker to Chicago in his determination to nail him for the counterfeit payoff. When he happens upon Kid Erie, who’s also come to Chicago on the lam, in a bar, Snyder slams his face against the counter to avenge a quip. He also tries pushing Billie around when he insists on searching her brothel, only for her to warn him to stay out of one room because the chief of police is in there. Snyder represents degraded authority and a cynical sense of society, the nominal enforcer of the law enriching himself by leaning on criminals and punishing infractions as zealously as Lonnegan: Snyder takes it as a matter of logical course that Luther’s death isn’t worth investigating and that his murderer should be escorted safely and unobtrusively from the scene of the intended FBI bust, as Polk commissions him to do. But he’s not as convincing as the gangster in his badass qualifications, as Hooker keeps managing to give him the slip, most notably when Snyder catches Hooker in a phone booth and surprises him ramming his revolver through the glass, only for Hooker to simply open the concertina door, trapping Snyder’s arm long enough to make an escape.

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Hill studied 1930s movies and hit upon recreating their relatively sparse approach to utilising extras in street scenes, to help emphasise the isolation of the heroes and the schematics of their self-involved gamesmanship. The sense of throwback style is also extended to the opening credits, which mimic the movies of the early sound era in using Universal’s old logo sequence and introducing the cast with their names and roles with images in the opening credits. And yet The Sting is still most definitely a ‘70s movie, with its buddy movie underpinnings, the Watergate-era sarcasm about power, and the sympathy and affection for characters usually designated as worthless riffraff in any other moment. And like many films that seemed like pure popular fodder in that decade like The Exorcist, Jaws and Rocky (1976), today The Sting, with its low-key, melancholy-soaked texture, character-based storytelling, and sense of finesse in historical and plot detail, feels closer to the art house than today’s big, bludgeoning blockbuster equivalents: the biggest thrills in The Sting come from things like a well-played hand of cards. The Sting relies deeply on the appeal of seeing Redford and Newman, two damn good-looking and charming men as well as accomplished actors, hanging out together on screen, although the storyline polarises their roles more than their precursor vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where that film offered a slick and popular variation on the late 1960s’ sense of fatalism for the beautiful loser, The Sting rides its crowd-pleasing impulses all the way, and is the better for it.

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Hill stands today as a relatively neglected figure, despite making a handful of bona fide classics and mammoth hits. Hill, who as a young man had a love for Bach and acting and was at one point a student of Paul Hindemith, also had a lifelong passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s licence at 16. This particular talent made him invaluable in war as he became a pilot in the Marines flying transport planes in World War II, and was later reactivated to be a fighter pilot in Korea. The schism in Hill’s formative experiences, the sensitive young man deeply immersed in art and the active warrior, were mediated through the alternations of striking, gritty realism and flashes of horror and wistful, dreamy detachment in his best movies, perhaps coming closest to articulating this in his underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), whilst his jarring box office bomb The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) revolved around both his love of flying and his trademark sense of dashed and stymied romanticism. Hill, after making a name for himself in the theatre first as an actor and then director, shifted into television in the mid-1950s, including writing and directing for Playhouse 90 a compressed but interesting version of Walter Lord’s Titanic account A Night To Remember two years before the film version. He debuted as a filmmaker with Period of Adjustment (1962).

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His follow-up, Toys in the Attic (1963), a Lillian Hellman adaptation starring an improbably cast Dean Martin, nonetheless first articulated a basic theme of wandering innocents trying to comprehend the world and absorb its evil shocks whilst seeking a home or an ideal, a theme infused in most of Hill’s subsequent works, and it made him a perfect fit for the mood of pop culture in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Hill’s first major film, The World of Henry Orient (1964), worked to evoke a wistful, almost fairytale-like style and poignancy whilst also providing moments of satire and high farce, in depicting two teenage girls obsessed with a concert pianist as a distraction from their unhappy home lives. He subsequently scored hits with the glossy, big budget labours Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): the latter helped define Hill’s lighter comedic talents and feel for nostalgia as a dramatic value in itself in his ability to take a quasi-sociological snapshot. Whilst not a showy director, Hill developed a distinctive shooting style, often employing muted and diffused colour to amplify the kind of strong Americana atmosphere he had a special gift for conveying, culminating in the brilliant Slap Shot (1977), a panoramic study of a changing society at that moment partly disguised by the foul-mouthed and raucous vision of ice hockey. In the 1980s Hill scored his last major critical and commercial success with an adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), before a halting version of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and his last work, Funny Farm (1988), which suffered from fights with the studio over what kind of movie it was supposed to be, after which Hill quit cinema and taught drama at Yale.

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The Sting depends on Hill’s ability to imbue Ward’s script with a sense of place and time as exacting as the machinations. It’s often noted that the use of Joplin’s music wasn’t a great fit for the late 1930s at the height of big band jazz. But the job of a film score is to describe the film’ evanescent emotional plain, and Joplin’s tunes are perfect for this, as well as suggestively evoking a similar meaning for the characters, beset in adulthood and feeling the pensive tug of the past, that the film as whole has for the audience watching it, describing places just over the line of sight in the past. Whilst much of the film revolves around relatively mundane settings and small gestures that have large meanings, Hill injects nods to the slapstick movie tradition, particularly when he lets the camera hang back to watch slim and fleet-footed Redford trying to elude the bulbous but dancer-nimble Durning. Hill plays games with planes within his framing, as Hooker climbs onto an L station roof to elude the cop, or when he vanishes from the frame as Lonnegan’s goons chase him, only to be carried back into the shot as he clings to the side of street cleaning machine, successfully eluding the hoods. The setting has its sleazy side: Hill beautifully captures the grimly funny tawdriness of an old burlesque show with Hooker’s visit to Crystal early in the film, planning to wow her with his new fortune: Hooker waits in the wings for her to get off stage whilst she, nearly naked, shakes her tits at the sparse audience, and is supplanted on stage by a blue comedian.

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As if by counterpoint Hill gains a note faintly surreal and childlike glee in the sight of Billie’s stable of girls gleefully riding the merry-go-round on a quiet night, a vision of strange innocence amidst seediness matching the story’s overall lilt. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees often utilise deep-focus shots and use vertical frames within frames, conveying period flavour in the cramped and pokey urban environs the characters inhabit, the small, dingy back rooms, diners, train compartments, and dens of iniquity, and also capturing the psychological pressure, the tightness of their lives, and also contrasted with the blasted, depopulated city streets. Directorial flourishes often have two meanings in the film much like the grifter’s art – at one point Hill’s camera draws back from a window encompassing Hooker and Loretta in bed, a particularly Hopperesque image in the glimpse through from an urban space into a private world, only to pull back further and reveal an unseen presence watching them from across the street, turning the shot into a giallo movie-like vignette complete with black-gloved hands switching off a light, signalling the presence of lurking threat. Later, in a vaguely horror movie-like vignette, Hooker eludes the hitman Cole who’s still hunting for him, only for Riley to be cornered and shot by an unseen figure he calls Salino – the name strongly suggests a nod to the demonic hitman Canino in The Big Sleep (1946). Here, the film’s own sleight-of-hand involving Salino’s identity is foreshadowed, and a note of real menace is struck here to generate tension in the otherwise, generally jaunty proceedings. There’s also another, wryer dimension to this vignette” Salino’s vindictive brutality, killing a colleague because he didn’t get out of the way as professional courtesy demands, also rather cheekily gives the world of assassins a similar sense of a code to that of the hitmen, even if their way of handling things is far less amusing.

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Hooker and Gondorff are unusual film protagonists, in their unrepentant criminality but also in their essential ambivalence. Gondorff’s reassurance to Hooker in regards to Lonnegan, “Don’t worry kid – we had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody,” reflects Gondorff’s jaded knowledge of human nature, the things that make some people successful also being exactly what people like him and Hooker feed off. Gondorff was initially characterised as an aging, portly has-been in Ward’s script – one reason perhaps in the film’s ill-fated, afterthought sequel The Sting II (1982) Jackie Gleason stepped into the role – but was revised when Newman became interested in the role into a charismatic rogue who knows enough angles to be the Pythagoras of crime but one who knows “I could do a lot worse” when Hooker goads him by asking if he wants to remain Billie’s handyman. Although not seen for half-an-hour, Gondorff quickly dominates the film as he sets his peculiar genius to work, seen in a long, droll sequence where he begins the great game against Lonnegan, first by arranging for Billie to lift his wallet and then going toe to toe with him in the card game, schooling Hooker all the while in touches like what kind of liquor to drink with a mark. The resulting, intimate comic set-piece sees Lonnegan’s habitual ferocity easily stoked by Gondorff’s performance, posing as Shaw, an insolent and besotted Chicago bookie who keeps getting Lonnegan’s name wrong, but also outdoes him in card sharping: Lonnegan’s wrath is potent, but it also blinds him to the game he’s really in, which he doesn’t realise until he’s soundly beaten. Hill cuts at one point to an exterior view of the train passing by the fire of some encamped hobos, another jabbing reminder of the social landscape beyond the hermetic workings of the plot and the obsessiveness of the characters.

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Hooker sets the next phase of the plan in motion by posing as Shaw’s disaffected henchman. The humour has a queasy undercurrent as just how close to the edge the tricksters are dancing is made clear when Lonnegan is swiftly moved to murder Hooker when he reveals ‘Shaw’s’ con, something only Hooker’s self-possession and quick line of patter staves off. Hooker’s role is to pretend to want to draw Lonnegan into his plot to bankrupt his hated boss by feeding him tips on winning horses in races, supplied by a source working for Western Union. When Lonnegan demands to meet the source, Kid Twist steps into the role, he and Singleton bluffing their way in to take over a Western Union office for a few minutes, long enough to pull off the deception. Whilst the mechanics of these scenes carefully lay out for the audience just how the grifters are taking down Lonnegan, other aspects of the plot are still ambiguous, the blow from the mysterious Salino waiting to fall, and the FBI leaning on the anguished Hooker to betray his new pals. These elements threaten to prove the ghost in the well-sprung machine, particularly as Hooker’s habit of keeping secrets from Gondorff has already almost gotten him killed.

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Whilst the star power of Newman and Redford anchor the film with their megawattage charm and crafty performances, the remarkably good cast of character actors giving them support also give it flesh. Some of the strong turns include Gould, whose Kid Twist presents the incarnation of what perhaps every grifter wants to be as they get older, worldly and debonair and sublimely easy in their command of studied surfaces, and Kehoe, whose Kid Erie is the opposite, a small-timer like Hooker who wants a bit of payback and to prove himself capable in high-pressure situations. He gets his chance when Twist hires him and he successfully pushes the hook just a little bit deeper in Lonnegan in playing a gabby gambler hanging about Shaw’s bookie office. Jones, father of James Earl, does an invaluable job in a short time as he gives the film its initial dose of pathos, presenting the more realistic face of the aging con man, tired, greying, happy to take whatever happy exit he can grab. There’s also a great example of how an actor with a small role can almost steal a movie with one well-turned line, in this case Avon Long as Benny, the agent who rents Kid Twist the necessary fittings for the fake bookie’s office who, after Twist asks him if he wants to be paid a flat rate or get a percentage of the score and then learns the mark is Lonnegan, responds with wisest of wiseguy drawls, “Flat rate,” as there’s a good chance no-one might be alive to claim his money from.

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Amidst the largely masculine milieu and cast, Arliss and Brennan provide strong, refreshingly earthy presences. Billie’s relationship with Gondorff presents the only strong human attachment anyone glimpsed in the film retains, and she stands up to Snyder with a nonchalance that’s almost transcendental. The turning gears of the plot finally begin reaching their climax after Hill portrays his heroes, and villains, waking and readying on the morning of the main event with a sense of breath being inhaled and held. Hooker is surprised to find Loretta gone from her bed when he wakes up alone, but is pleased to see her in the alley outside, only for a gunman to appear behind her and plant a bullet in her forehead. Hooker, shocked, nonetheless finds the gunman (Joe Tornatore), the man who was watching him from across the street, was actually sent by Gondorff to protect him, and Loretta was Salino, who couldn’t kill Hooker the night before for witnesses but found the perfect way to keep him on ice overnight. A jarring moment but another one where the world of con artistry and professional murder have their common aspects in the game of concealment and surprise, Hooker almost falling victim to someone willing to play a long game.

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The other dangling subplot is resolved at the same time as the central tale, as Lonnegan descends into the bookie joint to place a mammoth $500,000 bet, goading ‘Shaw’ into taking the bet: “Not only are ye a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well.” The last twist of the knife is delivered, as Kid Twist in character as the source drives Lonnegan to apoplexy in his mortified report Lonnegan was meant to bet on the horse to place rather than win, but just as Lonnegan begins raising hell in bursts Polk and his agents with Snyder: Gondorff guns down Hooker when he realises he’s screwed him over, and Polk immediately shoots Gondorff. Snyder bustles Lonnegan out: the gangster should know he’s well out of it, but his fixation on his money almost overrides his good sense. Of course, once Lonnegan’s gone, the dead rise from the floor and wipe away the fake blood, fake FBI man shakes hands with resurrected Gondorff, and the band of merrie men start packing up to head their different ways, much richer and rather satisfied: “You’re right,” Hooker comments to Gondorff, harking back to the older man’s warning: “It’s not enough…But it’s close.”

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Hooker turns down his share of the take, not through some phoney attack of conscience – one thing the movie is blissfully freed from is any kind of official morality – but because he’s gained something in self-knowledge, an awareness of why he does the things he does and a sense of what he needs to do to escape his own vicious circle. So he and Gondorff stride off together, seen off by Hill with the last of his old-timey touches, an iris shot, closing the curtain on this rarefied annex where show business and crime readily commingle. The Sting has remained a permanent wellspring of influence in Hollywood, and not just in providing a reusable template to a subgenre of likeable, swashbuckling criminal trickster movies like Focus (2015) or Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 series, which owes it infinitely more than the movie they nominally remade, and darker but still similar fare like The Usual Suspects (1995), but arguably in the whole craze for twist and puzzle narratives seen in the past quarter-century. But The Sting remains inimitable in its most fundamental qualities, its cast, its insouciant veneer and gentle mockery of familiar movie melodrama, and its old-fashioned faith that, no matter how clever the gimmick, what finally delivers the gold is the human element.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Jungle Cruise (2021)

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Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, Michael Green, John Requa

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…you’ll thank me.

The latest attempt by Disney to spin one of their theme park rides into a narrative, following their very successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise opens with a prologue detailing the disappearance of the legendary conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who as the movie has it was lost whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flowering tree growing in the Amazon Jungle and which supposedly has incredible healing properties. Flash forward to 1916. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is the indomitable, brilliant female scientist bucking the male establishment – is there any other kind? – who wants to realise her father’s dream of discovering the Tears of the Moon. MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) is her brother, who she has deliver an address to some snooty scientific society – the film won’t say which one – essentially as a distraction whilst she breaks into a workroom and steals a priceless artefact, an arrowhead needed to access the tree, which Lily hopes to find using the historical map her father left that supposedly shows the way to the tree’s location.

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Lily manages to abscond with the arrowhead, eluding a German-accented man (Jessie Plemons) visiting the society for some reason and decides to try and impede her getaway. He promptly slays all the men in the room because the man who showed him in uses his real name, a la Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which apparently the screenwriters watched once. You see, he’s Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm, and he was trying to steal the same relic. Gasp, might the rather recognisable woman seen trying to sneak in there a few moments earlier, and created an elaborate diversion to facilitate it, be suspected of the murders and be sought by the police? Ha, no, this little thing of a few dead archaeologists in the middle of London is of no consequence; such things don’t raise an eyebrow, any more than a German prince being at large in England in the middle of the Great War, or gentlemen being invited to give speeches to snooty scientific organisations without rehearsing what they’re going to say. Lily doesn’t even bother going on the search for the relic until her brother’s started screwing up the distracting speech. Next thing we know she’s in South America, looking for a boat to take her in the jungle.

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Soon she encounters Frank Wolff (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), down-on-his-luck everyman skipper who makes a living ferrying tourists around the river. It seems that despite the war going on there were a very large number of very proper English tourists hanging around the Amazon looking for rides from captains who endanger their lives with his ridiculously haphazard behaviour and dubious stunts to augment the experience. Frank owes all his money to Nilo (Paul Giamatti, who I hope made enough on this to retire, or start his own theatre group, or whatever he’s pulling) and is on the verge of losing his boat to him. Now, we never actually find out why Frank is in debt: he seems to do a good business, and later on we find out things about that, well, make it all rather moot anyway. By all reports Jungle Cruise the movie fits in many of the familiar elements of the Jungle Cruise ride, which makes sense. Such elements include the skipper’s awful puns, which Collet-Serra insists on underlining in the visual equivalent of fluorescent ink by having the tourists cringe and groan to each one, down to one mouthing “Wow” in disbelief.

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Anyway, because Frank is in Nilo’s office trying to steal back the keys to his boat’s impounded engine when Lily comes calling, he plays along with her mistaken impression that he is Nilo in order to get hired by her. When he’s busted he still manages to impress Lily and MacGregor by facing down a jaguar that enters the tavern where they’re talking, only for the jaguar to turn out to be Frank’s pet: he arranged the whole thing, somehow. Lily is snatched by some kidnappers who lock her in a cage with some captive exotic birds, but she manages to break out, and she and Frank run around some in a chaotic action interlude. Prince Joachim turns up in a submarine that seems capable of navigating all the twists and shallows of the muddy river, and he madly fires off the sub’s machine guns and torpedos, mostly with the effect of tearing apart the town and eventually the sub crashes into Nilo’s boats – ha ha, he was a jerk, you see – whilst Frank, MacGregor, and Lily get away. Frank insists his boat is the fastest on the river, and at one point in trying to elude a torpedo fired by the U-boat it manages to move like a speedboat despite the fact that it never seems capable of more than slow chug, and Frank is first introduced trying to get the breakdown-prone machine working. The filmmakers seem to think it’s a worthy counterpart to the Millennium Falcon.

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I should note that all of the above scenes I’ve noted constitute the good part of Jungle Cruise, the portion of the film where its excess and inanity at least comes on with a few good gags and a sense that it’s trying oh so hard to deliver giddy fun. Once upstream, Lily demands the best bath in South America Frank promised her, so he points overboard and explains that the river is just that, a few moments before he incidentally demonstrates that there are flesh-stripping piranha in the water. Oh, and Lily, having donned a cliché explorer’s costume during her foray into the society, now insists on wearing trousers all the time, and Frank hilariously nicknames her “Pants.” Now, I can hear you all now begging the chance to say: but Mr Heath old chap, this movie’s supposed to be a jaunty, old-school adventure movie made to enthral kids and for adults to tolerate, it doesn’t need to make that much sense. And I agree – to a degree. But suspensions of disbelief and moments embracing puckish disinterest in logic ought to be like time-outs in American football or basketball, carefully rationed and used only to strategic effect. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) famously, mirthfully neglected explaining how Indiana Jones sails with the submarine to the island, but Jungle Cruise is apparently made by people who think you can make an entire movie on that level.

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Jungle Cruise is so aggressively senseless, so utterly detached from any semblance of narrative control and human content, that it becomes a parade of everything that’s bad and stupid and wrong about contemporary movies. It piles clichés upon clichés and then tries to shock them to Frankensteinian life by amplifying them to garish degrees of excess. We don’t just have banter, we have banter coming on in whiplash-inducing levels of rhythmic sound, like someone tried to film one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s orchestrations of Edith Sitwell’s nonsense poems. The film can’t just have MacGregor over-pack for the journey, no no! He has to come encumbered with huge trunks filled with ridiculous items, all of which Frank insists on throwing into the river rather than letting them be left behind in the hotel. This sort of gag might pass muster in a Bugs Bunny short, but here it’s stupefyingly witless and absurd. The film can’t merely make Lily a strong-willed woman but one utterly bulldozer-like in her life-endangering arrogance, pushing Frank to try braving some rapids that he knows are incredibly dangerous, and their voyage ends up with them almost going over a waterfall.

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Lily and Frank’s feudin’-and-a-fussin’ masking their attraction is pushed constantly to the point where I wanted piranha to eat them both. She and Frank can’t simply strike sparks as polarised characters stuck together like obvious models Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951), but repetitively fall out in whirlwinds of hyperbolic reaction. Lily’s supposed to be a tough, brave person and yet she constantly acts like a reality TV princess, constantly performing her outrage to let the audience know she’s a strong woman, y’all. The inspiration here feels less The African Queen than Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in Stephen Sommers’ goofy, often clumsy, but enjoyable The Mummy films (1999, 2002), because those films, now about twenty years old, officially count as affectionate sort-of-classics for millennials and also just forgotten enough to justify recycling them for a young audience. But where those films’ protagonists at least were characterised with some care, and came with challenges in terms of their own sense of themselves to overcome, Johnson and Blunt are stuck playing mobile assemblages of necessary traits. Every single principle of good film crafting is subordinated here to the need for constant humour and visual stimulus-response.

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Once our insufferable, reprehensible heroes get on their way, Jungle Cruise sets about more thoroughly ransacking the established formula of the Pirates of the Caribbean films in trucking in folkloric and supernatural aspects. As we saw at the outset, Aguirre and some of his loyal men were not killed but cursed after massacring a native village and doomed never to stray far from the river, but they’ve become trapped in a grotto and infested by jungle plants and animals: one can throw out vines like tentacles, another has a bee’s nest in his skull, and Aguirre himself has snakes that writhe under his face and sometime burst out in a manner rather too reminiscent of Davy Jones’ tentacles in the second two Pirates of the Caribbean films. I grew to truly dislike the Pirates of the Caribbean films over the years as I meditated on their superficially energetic and yet perversely enervating take on the pulp adventure tradition. But they at least had pre-cancellation Johnny Depp’s blasé humour and against-the-grain showmanship to invest proceedings with the faintest hint of actual roguishness. Jungle Cruise, by contrast, is a relentless exercise more harmed than helped by its stars’ willingness to play their roles just as written.

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Only Plemons seems to be trying to work slightly off the beat with his part, playing the compulsory German baddie as bluffly good-humoured rather than icily menacing, and getting one of the few real laughs with his pronunciation of the world ‘jungle.’ Trouble is this means he’s never at all scary, and he’s the second annoyingly jovial German character in a big-budget movie this year, after Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, suggesting a new trope is emerging. Somehow Prince Joachim finds where Aguirre and his men are trapped – common knowledge, it seems – and revives them by sprinkling river water on them. Once freed, they agree to help the Prince whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon to cure themselves. The Prince seems quite unbothered by encountering 400-year-old undead conquistadors, to the point which makes you wonder how often it’s happened to him. The script for Jungle Cruise, by the by, is co-credited to Logan (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) co-writer Michael Green, who hitherto has displayed a remarkable capacity for making fantastical material feel bog-ordinary, and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who often work as a directing team including on the likeable I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and the passable Focus (2015). I can’t connect this movie with those beyond a certain habit of hyperactive writing.

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Eventually, when he and Frank share just about the film’s only coherent moment of downtime conversation, MacGregor strongly implies that he’s gay, and has followed his sister partly to avoid disgrace, and partly to honour her for defending him. In its own way this is actually one of the few solid moments of the film, allowing the two men to share understanding with an emotional tug, with Frank extending the calm solicitude of one outsider to another. But in context of the totality of the film, as well in terms of its aim, it’s a dreadful failure. MacGregor is constantly characterised throughout as the worst kind of nelly caricature, posh, unmanly, utterly lost in the jungle. We’re told that Lily spent her childhood moving around from exotic locale to locale learning all of her father’s business, an education apparently not extended to MacGregor. I couldn’t help but wonder if this scene was added after the rest of the film was shot to try and ride the ally wave. In any event it has the opposite effect, not just in making MacGregor, who might just otherwise be a comical dweeb, an offensive stereotype, but also as the Disney paymasters still can’t quite bring themselves to put their stamp on any explicit statement, so the film retains a fig-leaf of deniability so the I-don’t-want-that-stuff-shoved-down-my-kids’-throats-during-a-fun-movie crowd won’t get too hot and bothered.

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This is particularly indecent given the film’s incompetent stabs at bending over backwards to be politically correct. It tries to offer a period feminist message a la Wonder Woman (2017) but doesn’t actually, whilst actually managing to rip off something like Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova (2005) in its method. All the dart-blowing, mask-wearing natives are in on Frank’s act, and the real bad guys are European imperialists. But I get ahead of myself. The natives knock out Lily and MacGregor with darts and put them through a terrifying routine where they’re threatened with torture and death, to the point where Lily starts fighting back only for the leader of the charade, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), to wearily pull off her mask and call time. They also knock out Frank, despite him being their confederate, because the movie needs to fool the audience to make the joke work, and despite the fact that given what we later learn about Frank it’s odd that a blow dart can render him unconscious when a sword through the heart doesn’t bother him much. But again I get ahead of myself. The notion of the unga-bunga natives suddenly turning out to be loquacious and hip (at one point Trader Sam admonishes someone to “be cool”) isn’t new, being a gag that goes back past F Troop and on to old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road To… movies, and Jungle Cruise can’t even land it squarely.

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The film also has an odd, ineffectual approach to Aguirre and his men, who scarcely emerge from sideshow status despite nominally being the real antagonists, turning up now and then to give the heroes something to fight and run from. Aguirre is presented as both the arch conquistador scoundrel, who slayed the friendly Indians who saved his life, but also as a sympathetic figure driven by his need to find the Tears of the Moon and save his sickly daughter, in backstory that might have made sense but seems to have been edited with a garden mulcher. Also, the film insists on playing out the story of Aguirre and crew’s cursing twice, helping pad out a film that, whilst only just over two hours in running time, feels twice that long. Insert joke about Jungle Cruise helping to open up an Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) cinematic universe here. There’s also, weirdly enough, what could be called nods to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) as Prince Joachim sails upriver whilst blaring out Wagner, although I was more reminded of Herbert Lom’s similarly arrogant German villain in J. Lee Thompson’s King Solomon’s Mines (1985), a much-derided film I nonetheless found myself thinking back to fondly during this.

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Eventually it emerges that Frank is actually one of Aguirre’s cursed men, in a twist that’s been weakly suggested beforehand but really comes across like the screenwriters decided to toss it in once they reached this point of the script and then backtracked to make it vaguely sensible. Frank managed to avoid being trapped with his fellows and is the subject of Aguirre’s eternal hatred because Frank, real name Francisco, tried to stop the massacre, giving the tribal shaman time to foil and enchant them. So, Frank isn’t a down-on-his-luck everyman skipper after all, but an eternal Flying Dutchman’s captain, consumed by a sense of existential futility. As absurd as this twist is, it could have been effective and interesting, and demands a performer with a sense of haunted charisma and deeply inscrutable mystique. Instead we get Johnson, who’s always an affable screen presence and a decent comic actor, but also has all the haunted charisma and inscrutable mystique of a Burger King drive-thru attendant, mysteriously sporting an American accent despite being a Spanish-Algerian trapped for centuries in South America.

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Given how entertainment-starved we’ve been over the past eighteen months, it feels like just about any big movie release ought to be worth celebrating. And Jungle Cruise is no slapdash quickie. It’s one of the most expensive films ever made, and it looks it: there are truly brilliant sets and special effects littered throughout, to the degree the film ever slows down to enjoy them. But Jungle Cruise is a timely reminder of just how bad modern Hollywood can be at what it’s supposed to be the best in the world at doing, labouring to do the sort of thing just about any backlot salary director could have tossed off in a hour back in the 1930s. What’s especially galling as the genuinely fun and interesting film this could been is constantly in evidence. Collet-Serra has been one of the more talented genre film hands to emerge in the past few years, delivering strong, no-nonsense but artfully constructed thrillers often starring Liam Neeson. And the best thing that can be said about Jungle Cruise is as frenetic as things get it never quite dissolves into total incoherence on a visual level, and sports some of Collet-Serra’s eye for colour composition. But on Jungle Cruise he seems to have been swallowed up and infested, much like Aguirre and his men, with the pulverising blandness and incoherence of Disney’s corporate prerogatives. It’s not in any authentic manner a Collet-Serra film, but an accumulation of executive notes, Twitter feed ploys, and special effects team make-work taped together and called a movie.

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Part of what’s really, gruellingly painful about Jungle Cruise is how unexciting it is, and how unfunny after its first couple of reels, as the story with its magical MacGuffin begins to congeal into the limpest brand of current digi-cinema. Movie thrills demand that at least on some level the audience be given the feeling that one some level what we’re seeing on screen is dangerous, that it involves some slight blurring of the line between fiction and life, something that used to manifest through the beauties of stunt work. Of the few attempts to deliver any proper derring-do in Jungle Cruise, there’s a scene where Frank tries to swing with Lily on a cable from one side of the native village to the other, only to slip and swing back again. Not a bad idea for a comically deflated swashbuckler move, but Collet-Serra doesn’t offer any consequence to the failure to pull off the move – it doesn’t matter that they don’t make it, so the whole vignette just dies a quiet death. Eventually Lily and Frank forge ahead without MacGregor, who they leave behind when he injures his foot. The film contrives to get MacGregor back into the film by having him get snatched by Prince Joachim. In the end he mans up enough to suddenly throw a few good punches at the Prince, knocking him prone and inadvertently cause his death. Which somehow only manages to increase the embarrassing patronisation of the anointed gay character, in a movie set at a time when T.E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon were jousting with empires.

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Finally, Lily and Frank track their goal to a remote waterfall basin called La Luna Rota, and manage to brave an underwater mechanism that closes a lock to block the waterfall and drain off the water, so the basin drains out and reveals some ancient Mayan ruins containing the Tears of the Moon tree, which I shall henceforth call the wondrous Avatar tree. Before diving in the water Lily makes Frank turn away whilst she strips down to her long underwear, although a couple of seconds later they’re both swimming together en deshabille: we just needed to sneak in that little bit more banter and violate what little we know about these people. At least the scene where Lily gets trapped whilst trying to close the lock whilst Frank is attacked by piranha was actually filmed underwater and so there’s a tiny flicker of suspense. The wondrous Avatar tree is an enormous thing that flowers when moonlight touches it, and we get one of those climaxes where the characters have to rush to pluck some of the petals before the moon moves on despite the fact they could reasonably wait until the following night. In a climax the film seems to think is rather apt but is actually grotesquely horrible, Frank eventually elects to entrap himself with the other Conquistadors, returned to their petrified fate by cutting off the water flow into the cavern: Aguirre manages to shout, “This is worse than torture!”, and he’s entirely right. Fortunately Lily uses the one petal she managed to pluck to save Frank, but apparently leaving the other men to suffer there for all eternity.

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What nice heroes. I mean, yes, Aguirre and his crew did terrible things once. And that given, isn’t 400 years of being the living dead punishment enough? There’s some kind of unpleasant pseudo-morality at work here I found disturbing. Some of the petals bloom anew and the heroes return to civilisation with the prize in hand. Lily again has MacGregor lecture the society, only this time to inform them she’s been made a Cambridge professor on the back of discovering the flower and he tells the society all to stick it, because apparently Cambridge is good and has no connection at all to whatever society this is and there will be no professional consequences to such an act whatsoever. Now of course this kind of movie always has a bit of fun with historical licence, but where Raiders of the Lost Ark handled the hero’s success in bringing back an impossible relic to an inimical world with economy and a beautiful kick, Jungle Cruise begs the question of just exactly what will be made of Lily’s world-changing discovery of a magic curative plant. Despite having a narrative about discovery and recovery, nobody learns anything in the course of the movie. Jungle Cruise is a fascinating, perhaps even ultimate example of what happens to movies when they’re made by people with no apparent connection to anything even vaguely like the real world, but simply take the phenomenon of mixing together other movies and acts of corporate branding, ultimately debasing the adventure movie tradition.

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2000s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, New Zealand cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) / The Two Towers (2002) / The Return of the King (2003)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair (The Two Towers only), Fran Walsh

By Roderick Heath

For over forty years, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings defied all efforts to adapt it as live-action cinema. The requirements of such an adaptation, including a large budget, advanced special effects, and an intelligent filmmaker with a feel for the fantasy genre, put it beyond the scope and interest of movie studios, although a fascinating array of directorial talents, particularly John Boorman, confirmed a desire to try. Stanley Kubrick, an admirer of the novels, turned down an offer to film them because he thought it impossible at the time. There was even an aborted attempt to make a version starring The Beatles. Tolkien, a philologist, Oxford don, and First World War veteran, spent most of his adult life creating his beloved and endlessly influential legendarium, drawing on the classical and medieval myths that were the marrow of his intellectual interests along with the languages they were told in. Tolkien’s stated aim was to synthesise a specifically British equivalent to the tales of Homer and the Norse sagas as he felt the cultural core of the ancient land had been erased by the Romans and subsequent invaders.

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Tolkien’s earliest forays on this project were scribbled out when he was serving in the trenches during World War I, at first for private amusement and then with increasing purpose that crystallised when he wrote a short novel for young readers, 1937’s The Hobbit, rooting it in his invented world. That book’s success spurred him to start work on The Lord of the Rings, which took nearly twenty years. An immediate hit as the three volumes were published, the work only grew in popularity, particularly as its themes and imagery concurred with the emerging counterculture in the 1960s. Tolkien gave new and powerful life to the fantasy genre, which had its roots in the backwards-looking wistfulness of late Victoriana and branched off into the arcane macho fantasias of pulp magazines. Tolkien was dismayed by the first BBC radio adaptation in the mid-1950s, a version that no longer exists: it took time for the lexicon of high fantasy which Tolkien had all but birthed to permeate pop culture enough to be used to retranslate his imaginings into other forms. Maverick animation director Ralph Bakshi bypassed many of the difficulties by making an animated version, but the result, released in 1978, told only half the story of the novel and its indifferent reception meant the project was left unfinished. The BBC’s second radio adaptation, broadcast in 1981, was on the other hand richly detailed and much admired.

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The man who finally talked a studio into backing a multi-episode adaptation produced on the most lavish of scales was as unlikely in his way as Tolkien’s diminutive, world-defying heroes. Peter Jackson had made his name in low-budget, freakish punk-gore comedy-horror films in his native New Zealand, beginning with 1987’s incredibly cheap and patchy but ingenious Bad Taste and pushed to an extreme with 1992’s Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive), strongly influenced by fellow no-budget provocateur Sam Raimi but with new, baroque dimensions and a gift for blockbuster-like narrative intensity and spectacle. Heavenly Creatures (1994) marked Jackson’s sudden swivel towards international respectability in tackling a notorious and deeply tragic true crime tale, whilst still drawing on a fabulously fecund and bizarre imagination, as well as the new realm of digital special effects through the burgeoning Weta Workshop, to illustrate the hothouse bond of two young women who committed a murder in 1950s Christchurch.

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Jackson’s first film made for Hollywood, if still shot in his homeland, was The Frighteners (1997), a return to his earlier gore-comedy fare, only slightly toned down for a wider audience. It proved a flop, but Jackson, undaunted, gained the approval of rights holder Saul Zaentz and got Miramax and New Line Films to fund his grandiose Tolkien venture. Some of Jackson’s value for money would still have been obvious. He was a hot young property despite a commercial stumble, he proposed making the films back to back in New Zealand to save costs and exploit its variety of locations, and knew how to ride the cutting edge of digital special effects. The novel’s popularity also promised a ready-made audience. To a certain extent. The Lord of the Rings had to win over the ordinary moviegoer as well, something fantasy film had long had a hard time doing, without a major hit in the genre since John Milius’ take on its gamier, pulpier wing, Conan the Barbarian (1982). But 2001 was an auspicious year, also seeing the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and for a while at least pure fantasy became a popular movie genre. Jackson, his partner and collaborator Fran Walsh, and writer and fellow arch Tolkien fan Philippa Boyens, approached their adaptation with wise scruples.

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The challenge, and the films’ subsequent success, can be summarised with one key word: balance. Jackson and company had to even the scales between the many frames of reference that had become part of the mystique of The Lord of the Rings as well as the intricacies of its writing and story. Jackson avoided either becoming mired too deeply in the esoteric aspect of Tolkien’s tales or trying to revise them into something more contemporary, finding more room for creativity in extrapolating and amplifying the action aspect of Tolkien. The books had become signal works for fans in their preoccupation with a fictional world where everything has multiple dimensions of history, language, and symbolic portent, and the protective concept of nature as an interconnected system matched to a hostility towards industrialism. This also lurked behind the material’s popular perception as something beloved by asocial nerds and patchouli-soaked collegians, an association Jackson played up with unobtrusive mirth in making the Hobbits’ tobacco-like “leaf” rather more suggestively pot-like. In any events, the three films’ success made them an immediate pop cultural standard, the third instalment netting the Best Picture Oscar for 2003 and the trilogy more or less defining for the last generation or so what people think of as epic cinema. The Lord of the Rings incidentally created instant visual clichés of the new digital effects era, like the opening shots of CGI armies marching across the screen.

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The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment, grabs attention nimbly from its opening moments, utilising Cate Blanchett’s sinuous narration in playing the lovely, ageless Elf lady Galadriel, to narrate and with Howard Shore’s tingling, elegant, gently foreboding string scoring lacing around the images like the curlicues of medieval penmanship. The quasi-mythic background of the ensuing drama is sketched in a few brief, spectacular scenes, as the Dark Lord Sauron, a fallen angel-like being who served the Legendarium’s great Satanic figure Melkor until his defeat, and then tried to gain control of the world called Middle-earth by sharing out magical rings of influence to the lords of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, all bound secretly to his own ring which can subjugate others to his will. The kings of Men given the rings became the Nazgûl, undead, completely enslaved beings, but the various races of Middle-earth formed an alliance to take on Sauron and his army of brutish beings called Orcs in their hellish wasteland home of Mordor. In the final battle Sauron seemed completely unstoppable thanks to the ring, until the human king Isildur (Harry Sinclair) managed to slice off Sauron’s fingers along with the ring. Sauron’s physical form exploded and the armies of darkness were pushed back, but Isildur, ignoring the pleas of the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to throw the ring into the volcanic pits of Mount Doom where it was forged, decided to keep it. But the ring, an object inculcated with the pure malice and treacherous wit of Sauron as well as his life-essence, contrived eventually to bring about Isildur’s death and be lost, eventually claimed by Sméagol (Andy Serkis), a being so susceptible to the ring’s consuming power he is taken over by a rival personality calling itself Gollum, and becomes its perfect protector in the long wait for Sauron’s power to re-emerge.

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The theme of the cursed ring, based on several mythic objects including Andvaranaut from the Völsunga Saga which also supplied Wagner with the chief basis for his version of the Nibelung legend, is used in Tolkien’s story rather differently to its source, where it was an object hazily symbolising greed, misused authority, and grave legacy. Tolkien reforged it into a catch-all symbol of demonic corruption, working insidiously on every psyche it encounters. The abstract power of the ring was one of the more difficult ideas to communicate cinematically, with Jackson pulling every trick in the book to give it a menacing gravitas, from shots using forced perspective lensing to capture its mysterious and subordinating charisma, to menacing, simmering voices heard on the soundtrack when its power is stirred, as well as dramatically stylised visions when people don the ring and behold the shadowy world of spiritual energy usually cloaked to mortal eyes. The ring eventually came into the possession of a Hobbit – a race of very short and stocky people who like to live prosaic lives on the fringe of the great world of Middle-earth – named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who found it during an encounter with Gollum. But the story only truly starts when the ring is passed on to his nephew and ward Frodo (Elijah Wood), a gambolling innocent who proves, thanks in part to his native Hobbit qualities and his own character, the only being capable of resisting the ring’s influence long enough to stand a chance of taking it back to Mount Doom and destroying it.

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Sauron, still only a spiritual entity after losing his body, has nonetheless regained enough power and dread purpose to manifest as a cloud of fire shaped like an eye atop his grim fortress in Mordor, and it’s time for him to send out his minions in search of the ring and unleash his new project to enslave the world. The ring’s true nature is recognised by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) after Bilbo bequeaths it as well as his underground house Bag End to Frodo on his 111th birthday. Once certain of its identity he urges Bilbo to carry it out of The Shire to Elrond’s home at the Elf city of Rivendell. Gandalf pressgangs Frodo’s friend and gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) into accompanying him after catching him eavesdropping on their conversation. Frodo gains more company when they run into his relatives, the perpetually hungry gadabouts Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took (Dominic Monaghan) and Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck (Billy Boyd), on the road. Eventually the foursome are taken under the wing of a friend of Gandalf’s, an enigmatic warrior commonly called Strider but actually named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who tries to lead them safely through the increasingly rugged and dangerous country east of The Shire. Meanwhile Gandalf, planning to rendezvous with the Hobbits, visits the most powerful and respected of Middle-earth’s small clique of wizards, Saruman (Christopher Lee), at his tower in Isengard, to warn him of the portents of Sauron’s return, only to find Saruman has already cast his lot with the Dark Lord, and Saruman uses his superior power to imprison Gandalf.

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The central metaphor of Tolkien’s story, that the little people – the figurative made literal here, in a touch at once faintly ribbing but also self-mythologising in its attitude to Englishness as a pure-sprung virtue – are the most truly heroic, was never meant to be subtle, and it’s a deep-wound part of the story’s universal appeal. The Lord of the Rings plays with the usual substance of warrior culture hero myths to place the usually unheroic at the heart of the tale whilst the emissaries of martial vainglory are more often than not held in suspicion until they prove worthy. Crucially, Jackson purveyed the twee existence of the Hobbits, with their idyllic version of a rural English lifestyle, and the mock-classical speech and concepts with dashes of good-humour but without any concessions to modern incredulity. Jackson himself swore off inserting any message of his own in tackling Tolkien, but there is, in the first film’s quick portrait of The Shire and its denizens, dashes of the satirical eye Jackson turned so scathingly on the New Zealand bourgeoisie in his earlier films, in the glowering Hobbits who dislike any sign of disruption or peculiarity. For Tolkien the road out from The Shire was a fraught and half-dread one for a man who knew what marching off to and home from danger felt like; for Jackson, there’s the squirming provincial creative person’s suspicion the risky path is the only way out. Jackson’s directing approach is quickly in evidence in the thrusting camerawork and wide-angle lensing to give the actions and objects a looming, overlarge force, giving the expensive blockbuster much the same visual energy as Jackson’s marauding B-movies.

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The sequence of Gandalf’s return to Frodo’s home after confirming what the ring is an excellent thumbnail of Jackson’s technique. After creating the sense of looming and imminent danger with a vignette of one of the mounted Nazgûl questioning a hapless Shire farmer, Jackson depicts Frodo coming home after a night drinking with his friends. A lurking presence is suggested via hand-held camerawork peering through a grill. A long shot of Frodo entering the house dollies slightly to note papers flitting about in the breeze and then then forced-open window it blows through. Frodo pads into the darkened house, the camera moving hungrily from behind Frodo to before him: a hand reaches out of the shadow behind him, grasping his shoulder, with Gandalf suddenly looming out of the dark, his face lunging forward and the camera moving to meet him so his dishevelled, wild-eyed visage entirely fills the screen, before his totemic question – “Is it secret? Is it safe?” The actual revelation of the ring, performed by throwing it in fire so that the ancient words written on its surface are revealed, and Gandalf’s grim news about how the Nazgûl know it’s now in the hands of a Baggins, is then followed by a swift cut to one of the searching Nazgûl beheading a challenging watchman somewhere out in the Shire night, a jagged illustration of nightmarish danger moving inexorably closer: cut back to Frodo’s panicked reaction and his plea for Gandalf to take the ring.

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The visual and storytelling cues here are all straight from horror cinema, nodding to Dario Argento and John Carpenter’s use of negative screen space as the place where threat lurks as well as Raimi’s hypermobile camerawork. Expectation is raised only for what is suggested to be a lurking danger to prove a friend, but the danger is real and now feels omnipresent. Such a trick Jackson plies arguably once or twice too often but certainly as a consistent tactic to keep the narrative in agitation, playing games throughout with his style of set-up and follow-through, in contrast to traditional approaches of screen epics and fantasy. The style informs the sudden transformation of The Shire from a place of hermetic stability into one charged with threat, but doing so in a manner that emphasises the building menace as intimate: the colossal, world-reshaping supernatural force lying out in the vast wilds in the east manifests locally to Frodo through troubling portents and roaming assassins. The actual trek for Frodo and Sam is momentarily halted when Sam notes they’ve reached what was previously the furthest point he’d ever travelled from The Shire’s centre, the moment of leaving behind home and known things and venturing into the world identified as something crucial in the course of the quest and the heroes’ concepts of themselves. Soon they’re eluding the Nazgûl on the road, Frodo resisting the urge to put on the ring as they come close, and racing to beat them to the only ferry across the bordering river.

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A heavy dose of jolly comic relief counterpoints the high drama, largely provided by Merry and Pippin, whose minds initially, scarcely rise above their stomachs and thirsts until they’re immersed in the great conflict, and even once they join battle they still know how to take time out for a puff of weed and a spot of carousing. The Hobbits hover on the border of the childlike in their personas and wide-eyed approach to life, an aspect Jackson emphasised by casting youngish actors in the roles in contrast to other envisionings that often made them lumpen. They’re also in their provincialism ideal tourists in this world to discover everything for the first time, insular in the best sense in representing homey values almost undiluted, and good for speaking exposition to. As innocents abroad they need a protector and find one in Aragorn, introduced as a shadowy, knowing figure who embodies the promise of classical heroism but disdains the trappings of it, for very good reasons. Aragorn saves the Hobbits from an assault by the Nazgûl, but Frodo is stabbed with a cursed blade, beginning his slow transformation into another wraith. Luckily, the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorn’s lady love and Elrond’s daughter, intercepts them on the road and makes a gallop on horseback with Frodo to the safe harbour and healing arts at Rivendell.

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Once Frodo recovers, and Gandalf joins them after escaping Saruman, they call a meeting of envoys from the various Middle-earth races, including the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the human knight Boromir (Sean Bean), who represents his father Denethor (John Noble), steward of the Italianate human realm of Gondor. These three join Gandalf, Aragorn, and the four Hobbits in a Fellowship that sets out for Mordor. During an attempt to make passage through the Mines of Moria, a subterranean former Dwarf city now abandoned to Orcs and an enormous fire demon called a Balrog, Gandalf seems to die fending off the Balrog. The rest of the Fellowship find refuge briefly with another Elven commune ruled over by Galadriel, with her great arts as a seer and sorceress. After boating downriver, Frodo, with Sam in tow, is obliged to split from the Fellowship when Boromir, unbalanced by the ring’s influence, tries to snatch it, and they trek off alone. The others in the Fellowship are attacked by a new breed of Orcs reared by Saruman called Uruk-hai: they kidnap Merry and Pippin, think them to be the Hobbits carrying the ring, and kill Boromir. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas set out to save the two captives, ending the first film. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam continue their arduous trek and form an uneasy partnership with Gollum, who’s been tracking them across country. Stricken by the pathos of Gollum’s state and feeling discomforting kinship with him, Frodo agrees to let him guide them to Mordor. They’re briefly held captive by Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), but eventually he is convinced of the necessity of letting them go.

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Whilst Frodo is the linchpin of the narrative, he is bound through his general if tested decency and enforced passivity to be the least compelling figure, worn down to a husk by the weight of the burden and the effect of the ring: the challenge of his character is not his growth but his need to remain the same, to retain his essential goodness and optimism. The former child star Wood’s innate likeability and large blue eyes go a long way, but it is nonetheless not an easy part to play, as Frodo’s deterioration and increasing attitude of grim knowledge, in both his sense of impending personal doom and his battle with the ring, demands careful shading. Meanwhile Sam, his most stalwart companion, grows ever more valiant as the quest unfolds, until the dramatic crescendo when Sam, unable to carry the ring himself, decides instead to carry the exhausted Frodo on his back. By contrast, the humans are more fretful, complex creatures most vulnerable to the ring’s predations because their best motives are often close kin to their worst, the temptation to try and wield its power to protect their communities the most devious potent of its manipulations, the one that ruins Boromir.

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But the most heroic human characters like Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden (Bernard Hill), and Éowyn (Miranda Otto), are defined as such in overcoming their sense of inner frailty and unsureness in their identities, a process of becoming that makes the humans, by the tale’s end, the inheritors of a world where the fixed and unchanging races are moving on to “undying lands,” fading in their power and relevance. Aragorn is very much the central figure in this, a man who steadily resolves from a shadowy outsider by choice to a nascent warrior-king as it emerges he is the descendent of Isildur, the line of kings having abandoned the throne of Gondor, but still retains a quiet fear he will ultimately prove as weak as his ancestor, a fear he must eventually quell when he faces situations requiring exactly his gifts. With Mortensen expertly depicting steely fighting pith balanced by a rather gentle, philosophical spirit, Aragorn represents the complex balance of forces required in being a civilised and civilising man, whilst possessing all the ancient virtues, the ideal fighter and eventual king because of, rather than in spite of, his complexity. He’s also the only true romantic figure in the film, once who suffers as well as feels anointed through his apparently impossible love for Arwen.

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Gandalf, based broadly on versions of Odin in his wanderer guise in Norse tales, is the chief engine of the storyline as the being who urges the others into the quest and who knows a deeper lore about the world, from his introduction where he seems little more than a gentle entertainer and old smoking pal of Bilbo’s, through to his rebirth as a white-robed, priestly figure who barely remembers his old identity and represents a divine promise throughout the fearful onslaught. McKellen was cast with surprising astuteness (considering he had revived his movie star fortunes playing the relished villainy of Richard III, 1995) as the inscrutable but paternal wizard, a figure who much like the other characters must pass through his own trial forcing him to evolve into something else, but in his case treads somewhat closer to an outright act of transcendence. McKellen provides the three films with their backbone of gravitas and authority infused with a gruffly avuncular streak and a dash of plummy humour. Gandalf’s travails as a large man in Bilbo’s burrow as built for small people provides more than a dash of slapstick, as it helps underline his position as the figure providing a vivid connection between a world like our own and the larger fantastical zone.

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There’s a fascinating, likely coincidental similarity between Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog and the scene in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) where McKellen’s character Cuza stands up to the demonic entity Molasar. Both scenes involve McKellen’s aged, wizened, but uncorrupted character standing up to a monstrous avatar, wielding a totemic object – in Gandalf’s case his staff, in Cuza’s the cruciform talisman that keeps Molasar imprisoned – and rising to a titanic pitch of resistance in facing down all the evil in the world personified. Both scenes require McKellen’s capacity to turn his voice from something soft and reassuring to a booming, powerful device. Gollum, a creation that broke ground in the mostly seamless fusion of digital effects and Serkis’ brilliant performing, is by contrast one of the great screen grotesques, representing debased spirit. Gollum alternates shrieking, cringing pathos and crafty malevolence depending on which personality is in charge, delighting in his diet of raw insects and animal flesh, singing ditties to himself when happy, and speaking in mangled syntax often delivered in a sibilant purr. Serkis surely built upon Peter Woodthorpe’s characterisation from the 1981 radio version but added his own, most insistent quality in emphasising Gollum’s own, aggressively perverse childlike streak, often acting like a playground tyke, sometimes taking delight in petty cruelties and his peculiar appetites, other times viciously jealous of Frodo. Gollum counterbalances the Hobbits with a different brand of essentialised human nature, driven back into a kind of prelapsarian innocence except one that’s cruel and driven by a singular elemental need that has displaced and combined all the others.

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Gollum winnows the vast world and grand military, political, and spiritual crises down to one fixated urge, plotting to regain the ring and revenge himself on the “filthy, tricksy Bagginses,” with Sam warning Frodo all the way and Frodo daring to take the chance because he knows the way but also because of Gandalf’s prediction that Gollum’s role in the drama might still be crucial, and indicative of Frodo’s own fate. Sméagol briefly resurges thanks to Frodo’s kindness, but when Frodo is obliged to betray him to Faramir’s men to save his life, Gollum returns more dominant than ever. Serkis’ genius in the role helped it do something that the Star Wars prequels failed notably to do with Jar-Jar Binks, in making a CGI character substantial and dramatically dominating. Jackson starts The Return of the King with a prologue flashback to Sméagol and his friend Déagol (Thomas Robins) first discovering the ring: the bauble’s immediate, deadly effect on Sméagol drives him to strangle Déagol and claim it. This scene turns the movie immediately towards a film noir-like underpinning in noting that obsessive jealousy and greed motivate one of its most crucial elements. It also lets Serkis appear on screen as the character.

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Whilst Jackson and his co-writers reshuffled some events and employed a cross-cutting structure more reminiscent of the Star Wars films than Tolkien’s segmented narrative, and stealing some of the fire of those films with their heavy debt to Tolkien back, the three films correspond generally to the three volumes of the novel. The Fellowship of the Ring offers a pure, picaresque quest structure after its carefully laid story gambits. Jackson’s translation of Tolkien’s concept of an Anglocentric folklore presents its mythical, distorted prehistoric Europe as a place of untold ancient wonders and malignancies, monsters and spirits permeating taboo places, Elves lurking in woods and hills trying to maintain natural balance, and the industry of the Dwarves with their works remaining long after their builders have been wiped out by dark monstrosities. The beautifully blasted visions of arcane ruins, deserted chthonic cities, swamps littered with preserved corpses from long-ago battles, and volcanic wastelands, are always counterpointed with scenes of fecundity and splendour, particularly the Elven realms. Rivendell, pitched somewhere between storybook illustration and Chinese scroll painting in visions of jagged gables and hewn-wood decoration hovering weightlessly amidst soaring mountains, foaming waterfalls and delicate footbridges and shafts of soft light tickling gleaming bowers in the gloaming. The demesne of Galadriel with homes woven around and dug within the trunks of colossal trees. All filmed with unstinting excellence by the late Andrew Lesnie.

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Another consequential choice Jackson and company made was to minimise the impact of the background lore on how the plot onscreen plays out. The film still retains constant hints of this extra dimension in the dialogue, so the random references to Melkor or Helm Hammerhand or Númenór mean something to people immersed in the books, but don’t trip up entirely fresh viewers. Such streamlining is one of the trickiest of arts in adaptation for this sort of thing and one the filmmakers did exceptionally well from one point of view, compared to, say, David Lynch’s zealously detailed yet corkscrewed approach to Dune (1984). Despite the general determination to stay true to the defiantly anti-modern lilt of the source material, they also sheared away some portions of the story, most particularly the puckish sprite Tom Bombadil, most likely to turn off a contemporary mass audience. The arguable unfortunate collateral cost of this is subtle: for Tolkien, the lore, the world that surrounds his characters and provides them with their legends and histories and reasons why things stand as they do in Middle-earth, was as much the point as the immediate melodrama, if not moreso. By stripping away Tolkien’s songs and parables and hushed little reveries on the meaning of things the heroes witness, a crucial part of his work essence is minimised. It also, to a degree, makes Tolkien’s world over in the image of some of its lesser imitators in the world of fantasy, where things simply are what they are in obedience to general generic dictum: Sauron is the Dark Lord, and that’s that.

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And yet Jackson, as a director in full command of his medium, is able to communicate much of this flavour through his imagery. Sights like the grand statues of the ancient Gondor kings called the Argonauth looming from cliffs in the midst of wilderness, or the decapitated head of a statue and other ruins littering the landscape, convey the impressions of this vast and layered history as well as a dozen pages of written lore, a world pitted with the scars of primeval wars between demons and archangels and the refuse of civilisations risen and fallen. This connects with Tolkien’s obsessive refrain of damage and regeneration, sickening and healing, permeating both the storyline’s preoccupation and its visual realisation, inculcated in very human incidents like Frodo’s poisoning and revival and Théoden’s recovery from his withered, enslaved state, through to entire socio-political structures, in Aragorn’s coming presaging the recovery of Gondor. Just a little too often, Jackson uses bright glowing light to signal the presence of the ethereal, although it’s certainly in keeping with Tolkien’s imagery chains and Manichaean conceptualism. The trilogy also constantly sees Frodo swooning and falling when he feels the ring’s influence for little good reason except to amp up the drama, to the point where you wonder if he actually has an inner ear infection.

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The Two Towers sees Merry and Pippin escape from their Orc captors when the raiding party is attacked by horsemen from Gondor’s neighbouring human kingdom, Rohan. After encountering Gandalf, reborn as a higher order of wizard through defeating the Balrog in battle, the two Hobbits are taken in hand by Treebeard (voiced by Rhys Davies), a member of a species called Ents who look like walking, talking trees and consider themselves shepherds and protectors of the forests. Merry and Pippin set about trying to convince the lethargic but hulking Ents to attack Saruman’s stronghold. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas also meet up with Gandalf, who leads them on a visit to the king of Rohan, Théoden, knowing that human realm lies in the path of Saruman’s legions. They find Théoden has become decrepit and wizened, as Théoden’s minister, the magnificently named Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), a minion of Saruman, has helped the evil wizard control Théoden as a puppet. Gandalf proves now powerful enough to break Saruman’s hold over Théoden and he returns to his normal state, whilst Gríma is exiled. With an army of Uruk-hai marching their way and many of his best fighters exiled by Gríma including his heir apparent Éomer (Karl Urban), Théoden decides to hole up with his populace in a fortress called Helm’s Deep, where they’re reinforced by Elf warriors come to honour their old alliance, but thanks to Gríma’s advice Saruman mixes up an explosive device to shatter its defensive wall. The defenders prevail thanks to the last-minute arrival of Gandalf with Éomer and a force of Rohan’s mounted riders, the Rohirrim, whilst the Ents, stirred to wrath by Saruman’s predations on their forest, assault Isengard and lay waste to the wizard’s doings.

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In The Return of the King, the Rohirrim move to help Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith which comes under siege by Orcs out of Mordor led by the strongest and most evil of the Nazgûl, the Witch-King of Angmar. Gandalf’s efforts to stir the city to defence are treated disdainfully by Denethor, who mourns Boromir’s death and has heard about Aragorn. Pippin volunteers as a warrior of Gondor to pay the debt he feels he owes as Boromir died saving him. Consumed by a need to enact the world-ending sorrow he feels as a literal cataclysm, Denethor sends Faramir out to die in a suicidal assault on the advancing Orcs, and then arranges a funeral pyre for them both despite Faramir, as Pippin notices, not being dead. Meanwhile Sam and Frodo are led into a trap by Gollum, who promises to show them a pass over high, jagged mountains in Mordor, neglecting to mention it’s inhabited by the huge, carnivorous spider-demon Shelob, as Gollum hopes Shelob will eat the two Hobbits so he can claim the ring out her spoor. Realising the Rohirrim aren’t strong enough to defeat the Orc army, Aragorn, with Gimli and Legolas in tow, heads into a haunted cave inhabited by the men who broke their oaths to Isildur to fight for him only to be cursed and linger in an undead and abhorred spectral state. Wielding Isildur’s reforged sword, gifted to him by Elrond as a totem of hope, whilst also testing the strength of the legitimacy of his claim on the throne, Aragorn obliges the dead men to follow him to help lift the siege of Minas Tirith.

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Middle episodes of movie trilogies often represent a special challenge, and The Two Towers struggles with a disjointed narrative line including Gandalf’s deus ex machina return, a relative lack of real drama for the two pairs of Hobbits to play out, and the introduction of many characters of consequence to the rest of the tale, particularly Théoden, Faramir, and Théoden’s niece and ward Éowyn, who yearns to fight and falls for Aragorn. Jackson’s desire to hit the ground running is made a little too literal as he opens with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas jogging endlessly in their pursuit of Uruk-hai with Merry and Pippin: where Conan the Barbarian made its montage of its heroes dashing across the steppes lyrical and ebullient, here it feels oddly laborious and overextended, like fantasy workout video, despite Gimli’s comical complaining. The little dramas playing out in Théoden’s realm have to be quickly sketched. The structure, unlike the open-road narrative of the previous movie, demands more attention to the slow build of suspense before the final battle, with relatively little action in between. Nonetheless, The Two Towers eventually turns most of these potential problems into unusual strengths, allowing for Jackson’s most poetic visual flourishes and character touches, like Theodon holding a flower whilst standing before his dead son’s grave, and Gríma making a romantic overture to Éowyn so surprisingly lush in its longing that it momentarily arrests Éowyn’s justified loathing of him.

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Particularly effective in this manner is the mid-film sequence where Elrond, trying to convince Arwen not to remain in Middle-earth pining for the mortal Aragorn, paints a picture of future grief as the unchanging Elf weeps over Aragorn’s sarcophagus under billowing wintry leaves, one of the many images in Jackson’s repertoire that seem stolen from some pre-Raphaelite painter. Jackson’s approach had plenty of cinematic forebears too. The feel for grandeur both natural and architectural and the basic lexicon of this kind of screen fantasy can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), and some of Jackson’s shots might as well have been clipped out of it. There’s also the strong imprint of Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981) with its careful visual contrast between sleek and brilliant, fashioned textures of armour and gleaming pseudo-classical buildings and the crude earth and fecund nature, but Jackson can’t quite reproduce the directness of Boorman’s gleaned concept of the human social order and natural flourishing as entwined. There are flashes of Conan the Barbarian and Krull (1983), along with King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy films: Kong shaking the log informs Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog whilst the heroes sailing past the feet of the Argonauth nods to the equally dwarfed heroes of Jason and the Argonauts (1963). There are some tips of the hat to Hong Kong wu xia cinema in the gravity-defying athleticism and deftness of Legolas as well as the balletic camerawork, harking back to Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1980) and Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), an influence that would grow more pronounced in the prequel The Hobbit series.

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The battle scenes draw on suitable models ranging from Alexander Nevsky (1938) to Seven Samurai (1954), Spartacus (1960), Zulu (1964), and Waterloo (1970) with their sense of how to handle large masses locked in deadly, diagrammatic symmetry, delivering moments of raw cinematic spectacle like the defenders of Helm’s Deep beholding the awesome host of their enemies in flashes of lightning, before Kurosawan rain begins to fall upon the assembled armies. The war movie influence becomes stronger in the second and third episodes of the trilogy as the narrative switches from quest to combat. Jackson’s most vigorous innovation on his influences lies in his attempt to make the films studies in near-constant motion both narratively and stylistically. He exploits the digital effects to present an unfettered use of the camera, whilst still trying to retain a sense of contiguous gracefulness, creating something distinct from the increasingly hyperactive approach of some Hollywood directors in the 1990s whilst still declaratively modern. One great example comes when Saruman stands atop his tower using incantations to foil the Fellowship’s progress, the camera sweeping down with a bird’s-eye-view, conveying all the wild drama and shamanic natural communion inherent in the scene. Another, more traditional piece of camera dynamism comes in the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring with a long tracking shot that starts on ground level and soars to high overhead, following Uruk-hai as Boromir blowing the Horn of Gondor brings them running to that fight.

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The combination of CGI and model work is used to deliver breathless spectacle, like the flying explorations of Saruman’s underground works where Orcs labour constantly, before going in closer for memorable visions of the Uruk-hai being born out mud. Certain sequences in the trilogy have the kind of breathless, super-cinematic power once reserved in reference for the likes of the parting of the Red Sea from The Ten Commandments (1956) or Kong on the Empire State Building or the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and they’re liberally scattered through all three instalments – the chase through Moria and Gandalf’s stand-off against the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring and the return to at the very start of The Two Towers as he and the beast plunge into the bowls of the earth; the ride of the Rohirrim climaxing The Two Towers; just about the whole battle for Minas Tirith in The Return of the King including Éowyn standing against the Witch King and Legolas clambering up the back of one of the monstrous elephant-like creatures called Oliphaunts and felling the beast and all its crew. The heavy emphasis on special effects to make all of this work on screen sometimes results in some tacky interludes, like the visualisation of Frodo’s delirium whilst arriving at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring with faces looming in a digital blur overlaying Elvish architecture captured in swooning camerawork, looking like a TV commercial for a day spa. Similarly misjudged is the depiction of the Dead Men in The Return of the King, who look like day-glo ghouls off the back of some trading cards.

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But other effects are consistently remarkable, particularly the motion-capture work applied to Serkis to realise Gollum and the techniques used to place the actors playing Hobbits and Dwarves in shot with those playing normal-sized folk, effects that are virtually seamless and let the actors interact believably. Most importantly, the effects come on with a level of giddy enthusiasm directly tied to the storytelling, and Jackson’s capacity to make them serve his impeccable sense of staging, particularly when used with a dash of appropriate poetry, as when Arwen summons a flood upon the pursuing Nazgûl, the wave plunging upon them forming foamy shapes of horses on the gallop, or the flood of dazzling light that cascades down the hillside with the Rohirrim charging the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. One critic at the time of the films’ release cleverly likened the smaller, more fleeting effects dropped seemingly casually into shots to Sergio Aragones’ margin doodles for MAD Magazine, like Legolas managing to swing himself up onto a charging horse with a casual show of his superhuman dexterity, and one of the Ents rushing to douse his burning head in floodwater.

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Despite all the outsized trappings and showmanship, the three films nonetheless usually retain a canny sense of when to slow down and contemplate, in vignettes like Gandalf’s famous speech to Frodo about weathering terrible times and deciding “what to do with the time that is given us,” or Gríma’s appeal to Éowyn, and Théoden mourning his son, slain in combat with the Orcs. Whilst it’s not exactly a character drama in the fullest sense, The Lord of the Rings keeps the human level in focus. The sense of the characters’ purpose as mythic emblems is wielded with a Dickensian sense of potent caricature and constantly mediated by humour, preventing any hint of characters becoming frieze blocks of nobility. Merry and Pippin are mostly comic relief figures at first, as is Gimli, whose very real prowess as a warrior is given a constant edge of irony by his need to talk himself up with his outsized pride matched to his small stature, engaging in a running competition with Legolas. Bloom was immediately, if briefly anointed with matinee idol status in playing the longhaired, eternally poised, stoic-faced but mischievous-eyed Legolas, the character in the trilogy most in touch with swashbuckling spirit of movies of yore, thanks to Jackson who hands him some of the movies’ most inventive action moments, as when he surfs down a flight of stairs to save his friends during the Helm’s Deep battle, and the more elaborate set-piece of him bringing down the Oliphaunt.

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Jackson was one of the first directors to truly exploit the new DVD era as he prepared considerably longer versions of the three films for home viewing release – The Return of the King was the first film to capture Best Picture whilst still technically being in production. Not everything added to the extended editions works, like a silly scene with Merry and Pippin in the forest under Treebeard’s watch, and the scene where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chased off by the Dead Men at first with a cascade of skulls is rather pointless. They’re also inevitably less smoothly paced, playing more as TV series-like, and in their way probably helped give birth to the age of binge-watching. Nonetheless, the extended versions are considerably more dense and coherent works, making many relationships and moves of the plot more intelligible as well as more sharply defining the character and events in the context of their world. Particularly valuable is the restored scene where Saruman and Gríma, trapped by the Ents in the sorcerer’s tower, fall out and Gríma kills Saruman before being struck by one of Legolas’ arrows. The scene’s absence from the theatrical version was particularly egregious not dealing with the fates of two of the trilogy’s major characters, and the performances by Dourif, adding to his great gallery of on-screen weirdos, and Lee, capping his career with a role that was important to him as a great fan of Tolkien.

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If there’s a lack in The Lord of the Rings, it’s one inherited in large part from the source material. We’re certainly in mythopoeic territory where the characters, both humanoid and other, exist in emblematic dimensions, ranging from Gollum as pathetic-malevolent greed to Gríma as political corruptor to Shelob as septic sexuality, Middle-earth conceived as a grand Jungian world of archetypes and Freudian dream-symbols. And, of course, a large part of the reason why the story is loved is precisely for the deliverance from sordid realities and entrance into a realm where the beauty and purity of the Elves and humble fortitude of the Hobbits coexist, where the valiant arrive on horseback to charge the lines of pure malice, and the entire universe trembles like a spider’s web to the palpable ruptures of good and evil. The Lord of the Rings, both books and films, is often criticised for black-and-white moral schemes, which isn’t entirely accurate: what it tries to do is allegorically dramatise moral ideas, like Gollum literally split between his good and bad streaks, and the confrontation with evil involving a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, in a manner that is authentically mythic. But it does lack some of that vital fire of human behaviour that drives great epics, both literary and cinematic, particular romantic and sexual desire, and protagonists who battle deep flaws.

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It’s worth noting how vivid the human characters in authentic great myths and sagas tend to be. Any glance at some of Tolkien’s sources like the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga Saga, the Arthurian cycle, Beowulf, and the Greek myths is to behold tales filled with spectacles of human perversity, savagery, interwoven with civilising traits, the tales of mad kings and wicked queens and perfect knights who are imperfect men, wild passion, incest, ego, greed, treachery, murder, and most particularly warring value systems, an essential ingredient of classical myth and tragedy. By creating Sauron and the Orcs Tolkien purposefully removed a rival moral and social faction to the heroes, presenting instead a catch-all Other to be resisted and slain without compunction. In terms of epic movie tradition, too, there’s a lack. There isn’t anything as elemental as the clash of personal and politico-religious urges in The Ten Commandments, or as fervent as Rhett and Scarlett or even Jack and Rose, or the pointed political subtexts and well-parsed metaphors for maturation of the Star Wars films, and despite the similarities in story it never explores the social meaning of a warrior creed like Seven Samurai. The Lord of the Rings accepts the medieval proposition that government is just about as good as the individuals holding power, and whilst Frodo and the other Hobbits all learn they’re stronger than they think, there’s no psychological process to their growth. When characters behave ignobly, like Boromir, it’s the external influence of the ring that causes their lapses. The notion of a personified and objectivised evil is very much at the heart of the story but also one that helps keep the story and its dimensions in the childlike. There is passion, but it’s relentlessly chaste: Éowyn’s love for Aragorn remains unrequited; Aragorn’s love for Arwen is given some body by Mortensen and Tyler but remains an almost entirely ethereal idea. The Lord of the Rings leans heavily upon its audience’s presumed fondness for virtuous simplicity and a boyish idea of the adult world.

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Jackson and his fellow writers mediate the simplicity in this regard by fleshing out the characters’ needs and anxieties. Gríma’s desire for Éowyn is noted as his motive in the novel but given extra dimension in the films. Aragorn’s self-doubt is a recurring note that pays off in one moment of significant suspense when he seems to be arrested by Sauron’s whispered offerings, only to turn his comrades a smile before launching into battle. Perhaps Jackson’s most ambitious moment of grand and lyrical pathos comes in The Return of the King where Denethor, having ordered Faramir’s suicide attack, sits down for dinner and makes Pippin sing him a song to leaven the oppressive mood. Juice from his meal dripping like blood from his lips, Denethor listens to Pippin’s sad, spare lament, intercut with the defeat of the knights. It’s not a subtle scene – the eating is either a bit much or perfectly in tune with the kind of morality play the story emulates, depending on your point of view. But it works a powerful spell thanks to the crafting, the way Monaghan’s beautiful singing is used over images of defeat and death, and the spectacle of the aged potentate’s oblivious arrogance. Jackson touches upon a sense of futility and regret in the warfare the rest of the series generally delights in, examining the difference between selfless communal bravery and the misuse of power, presenting not a meaningful warrior death fighting against bottomless evil but something more familiar, young men dying to satisfy the egotisms of their rulers. Jackson may well have been moved to include the scene given the films’ release amidst the furore of the post-9/11 moment, a moment the films somewhat incidentally fed into and when some critics took aim at the films’ enshrining of martial valour.

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Denethor’s presence in The Return of the King gives the trilogy something it otherwise lacks, a character who might well have stumbled of a Norse saga, embodying the more familiar evils of human nature but also with flashes of its more pitiable side, a wounded overlord whose decline is tied to the teetering state of his realm. To a certain extent Gríma inhabits a similar zone, but he might as well have “villain” tattooed on his forehead: even his last stab at redemption is a pathetic murder. Denethor is splendidly awful with his consuming blend of bitterness, pessimism, pain, and cruelty, constantly belittling Faramir as a fool and weakling, and venerating the fallen Boromir. His gestures of grandiose, nihilistic impulse reach their apex when he tries burn himself and Faramir alive together, only foiled through Gandalf and Pippin intervening to save Faramir. Denethor’s end makes a good example of the adaptors’ augmenting touch: where in the novel Denethor dies in the full grip of crazed will, Jackson votes him a moment of clarity and then pity, noticing Faramir is alive and for the first time seeming to actually love his son, just before he catches fire and dies falling from the city battlements. Denethor’s subordinating use of his sons as mirrors to his own vanity and self-loathing has a clear connection with Jackson’s previous studies in sick psychological dynamics, like the relationship of the two girls in Heavenly Creatures where the offspring elect to annihilate their repressing elders, and in Brain Dead where the son’s squirming Oedipal repression is finally dramatized when he’s swallowed back up his zombie mother’s womb.

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Tolkien always rejected the idea his novel was a metaphor for World War II and Sauron a Hitlerian figure, but it still feels likely the logic of his own time thoroughly informed that of his book as well as his understanding of the historical perspective of ancient Britons. The story recreates a certain parochial vision where evil is out there in the simmering east and south, with the abhorred land of Mordor, and the Orcs, a race of diseased and devolved beings, representing everything foreign and threatening. Tolkien was despite his overall conservatism reputedly firmly anti-racist, and the storyline reflects that, presenting the different ‘races’ who overcome all their sometimes vast differences in worldview and understanding and fractious history to work together, embodied most crucially by the slow-warming friendship of Legolas and Gimli, as well as the army of Elf warriors who come to fight with Men at Helm’s Deep, and the ultimate choice of Théoden to ride to Gondor’s aid despite them doing nothing for Rohan. Another one of Jackson’s great visualisations, something of an apotheosis of epic moviemaking, comes when Gandalf, ignoring Denethor’s hostile refusal, gets Pippin to light a signal fire, one of a chain set up to communicate between the two kingdoms and call for aid: Jackson’s soaring aerial shots of jagged mountains and remote sentries lighting each fire, all set to Shore’s most lushly momentous scoring, capped by the long, boding pause as Théoden is told “Gondor calls for aid,” before he answers, “And Rohan will answer.”

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When anticipating the third film’s release it was difficult to see Jackson topping the Helm’s Deep battle, but then came the battle in and around Minas Tirith, a sequence marked by ever-ratcheting levels of beautifully choreographed craziness, complete with Nazgûl riding their flying dragon-like creatures to maraud over the city, and the onslaught of the Oliphaunts. Théoden leads the Rohirrim in a grand charge, and Éowyn and Merry, both forbidden to enter the fight but doing it anyway, weave their way through the carnage before finally facing down the Witch King after he attacks Théoden and mortally wounds. Éowyn is close to being my favourite character in the trilogy, first glimpsed as the picture-perfect Saxon princess struggling to stay out of Gríma’s clutches and trying to stave off a depressive stupor, before eventually donning armour and riding secretly to war with Merry at her side as another of the heroes determined to prove she’s stronger than anyone knows. Otto, despite a scene when she lapses into a strange mid-Pacific brogue (perhaps a sign of the production’s occasional shifts in direction), is a luminous presence, and gives the film one of its major sources of heart, building to the moment when she reveals herself to the Witch King and declares, “I am no man,” the greatest moment of on-screen girl power since Ripley’s choice words to the alien queen in Aliens (1986).

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Whilst much smaller in scale, Frodo and Sam’s encounter with Shelob, into whose lair Gollum successfully tricks Frodo into entering after separating him and Sam through conniving, is just as potent a scene, thanks largely to the incredibly good effects used to realise the monstrous arachnid and the sickly intimacy of the struggle: the sight of Shelob silently stalking Frodo through crags is something I can easily imagine sending arachnophobes into fits. Sam’s reappearance just as Shelob is about to consume the paralysed and trussed Frodo is the best of Jackson’s many last-second interventions, Sam’s emergence as the ideal yeoman hero crystallising as he confronts the monster with sword and bottled starlight, a magical gift from Galadriel painful to the dark-dwelling monster. Jackson’s gift for staging extends in the final, depleting trek to Mount Doom, whilst the survivors of the great battle at Minas Tirith, led by Aragorn, march to Mordor’s gate to distract Sauron and his legions and give the Hobbits a chance to gain their goal. Jackson’s elaborate tricks to make the experience ever more agonising are deployed to their best effect here as the final yards prove the most gruelling, not just in physical exhaustion but the bitter final twist of Frodo finally succumbing to the ring’s influence and refusing to throw it into the lava, closing the circle as he stands in the same place as Isildur millennia earlier and falls prey to the same, undeniable influence.

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Only this time the joker in the deck proves to be Gollum whose need for the ring seem to even exceed its creator’s, assaulting Frodo at the threshold and biting his finger off to get the ring, only for the enraged Hobbit to push his doppelganger into the fiery chasm, Gollum so lost in his utter joy at reclaiming the precious he doesn’t even notice as he falls, finally burning up with the ring in the lava. Jackson gleefully goes for broke in the sight of Sauron’s tower collapsing, his great eye quivering in agony and despair before exploding, and the ground swallowing up the Orc army, before Gandalf flies in to rescue Sam and Frodo before the perish in the lava streams. The final passages of The Return of the King, which frustrated some in offering several potential endings, see Aragorn installed as king of Gondor and marrying Arwen and obliging everyone to pay homage to the heroism of the Hobbits, who then return home and try to settle back into life, something Frodo eventually finds he can’t do. So Frodo is invited to leave Middle-earth with Elrond, Galdriel, Bilbo, and Gandalf and head off the Undying Lands, making his farewells to Sam, Merry, and Pippin. The embrace of a melancholy tone in the concluding scenes, the awareness of the great conflict claiming costs from its hero that can’t be healed, invests the trilogy with its last and finest flash of stylised truth, Frodo’s ascension to the status of a legendary figure one that also cleaves him from the living, growing, dying world. It’s left to Sam, naturally, to return home and resume the business of living. It’s a reminder that for all the heroic lustre and otherworldly lyricism invested in the material it’s a work written by someone who knew how hard coming home from war could be, and it’s this final motif, at once sobering and yet also deepening the mythopoeic resonance, Jackson respects to the utmost.

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The Lord of the Rings has proved both the great moment and a bit of a millstone in terms of Jackson’s career. His subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), were all greeted with varying levels of disappointment, in large part because each of them was beholden to pre-existing material Jackson’s approach strained against, but also all sported passages of great filmmaking. Whilst there was some legitimacy to complaints The Hobbit films were overindulged, and the attempts to synthesise an equal kind of epic story out of a slim book could not match what came before it, nonetheless Jackson used the second trilogy to explore the troubles afflicting Middle-earth largely skimmed over in The Lord of the Rings films, like the schism of Elves and Dwarves and the general spectacle of greed, and giving greater psychological dimension to figures like Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, the latter emerging as an authentic antihero. Jackson dug deeper to find the material to find more of the satirical aspect he once thrived on, at the risk of spurning the lustre of heroic escapism the first trilogy so perfectly enshrined. The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy has its missteps and hyperbolic passages, but they’re a part of its overall, giddy texture. There were and are few cinema experiences to match it, an achievement that, so far, set the bar for Hollywood just a little too high to reach again.

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Black Widow (2021)

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Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Eric Pearson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It’s odd at this point that a Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster could seem like an underdog, but Black Widow feels like one. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series’ domination of pop movie culture grew wearisome for many well before the clumsy and disappointing but historically successful Avengers: Endgame (2019), and the enforced cessation of it during the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to drain the steam from the juggernaut. Black Widow, the chief victim of the hiatus in being pushed back a year, has then become an ideal target for a takedown. Making a solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s lithe engine of destruction is fraught with ambiguities. Marvel was long weak at the knees when it came to female superheroes fronting their own movies, having previously only dared it with Captain Marvel (2018), a film with an utter nonentity for a protagonist, and might as well have simply been delivered as the succession of internet memes it so patently wanted to spawn. Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff was by contrast the most genuinely interesting of the classic line-up of heroes in the film franchise, a warrior whose gifts were more those of enormous precision and skill rather than force and magic powers, with an enigmatic background involving lodes of trauma and guilt, allowing her to seem more than just another Smurfette in a crowd of fast and bulbous pals. The character, introduced impressively in the otherwise awful Iron Man 2 (2010), was presented as a professional femme fatale, enticing with a passively sexy veneer only to reveal by degrees the hard-as-nails and omnicompetent combatant beneath.

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After numerous stand-out roles as a child actor, Johansson hit stardom with her performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), where she surprised everyone with her display of intelligence and soulful maturity despite still being a teenager, successfully playing a character older than she actually was. Perhaps not since Lauren Bacall had a female star come along who seemed to worldly wise beyond her years, and that aura certainly informed her casting as Natasha, a woman who’s lived ages before her 30th birthday. But Johansson struggled to make good on her promise with lacklustre performances in films like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2004), and she skidded around in the next few years, mostly in middlebrow award-bait movies. It wasn’t until she played Black Widow and embraced a more populist appeal that her screen persona finally resolved, playing deftly off her clammily hailed sex appeal but also giving the perfect vehicle for her to assume a cagey kind of sovereignty, creating an image she parleyed into vehicles as different yet commonly rooted in her persona as Under The Skin (2014) and Ghost In The Shell (2017). Meanwhile Natasha provided a great foil for her co-stars in the Marvel films, particularly Chris Evans’ Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) where the two shared what Natasha wryly noted was his first kiss since 1945.

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Cate Shortland’s Black Widow faces a special challenge, in being both a star vehicle reliant on Johansson in the role – she’s billed as one of the executive producers – and also a salutary farewell to her and a potential set-up to posit her replacement. The character was killed off in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself to obtain one of the super-MacGuffin Infinity Stones to save half the universe. On paper it was a gutsy, nobly selfless end for a character driven by a stinging awareness of her moral compromise, in practice an odd and clumsy outro for a figure who never quite got her due and then suffered from being identified as the expendable one not required for the big punch-up finale where she was ridiculously supplanted by an array of suddenly inducted female superheroes. Black Widow is set in the series continuity between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), avoiding revising Natasha’s death, a weirdly deflating move, but also one the film turns to its own advantage in exploring its own fin-de-siecle mood, trying to give her fate some new meaning. The film begins in suburban Ohio in 1990, depicting young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) playing and strolling with their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Later they settle down for dinner as their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) gets home, only for him to announce that the great adventure he once promised to take them on is now imminent.

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Turns out the family isn’t really a family, but a carefully planted group of sleeper agents sent to steal information by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-mad hold-out from the Communist era still running covert operations. Alexei is the closest thing the Soviet Union ever created to Captain America, a supersoldier codenamed Red Guardian, and he’s seen casually managing feats of strength and agility, including clinging onto the wing of the aircraft they use to flee to Cuba after dodging American agents. Natasha has to fly the plane after Melina is clipped by a bullet. Once they arrive in Cuba, where they’re met by Dreykov, the family is immediately disbanded, Melina spirited away for surgery, whilst Natasha snatches a pistol to ward off threatening soldiers from harming Yelena. But in imagery interpolated during the subsequent opening credits, Natasha and Yelena are glimpsed with a number of other frightened girls being shipped back Russia in a cargo container, deliberately reminiscent of human trafficking. We, or at least anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know what happens to Natasha at least, as she’s put through the ruthless training program for female assassins Dreykov runs called the Black Widows. The program is run out of a secret abode called the Red Room, the mere name of which sends a shiver up the spine of anyone who knows of it, but none of the Black Widows actually know where it is because of the elaborate security protocols.

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Cut to twenty-odd years later, as Natasha is being hunted by former General, now Secretary Ross (William Hurt), the asshole-in-chief overseeing the implementation of the Sukovia Accords designed to put a check on superhero activity. Natasha easily keeps a step ahead of Ross, relying on her fixer pal Mason (O-T Fagbenle) to provide her with equipment and safe houses. He leaves her in a caravan in rural Norway along with a bundle of her belongings transferred from a safe house she used to keep in Budapest. What Natasha doesn’t know yet is that the now-grown Yelena (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, has secreted something very important and very dangerous amongst her belongings. Yelena belongs to the subsequent generation of Widows who, after Natasha successfully defected, were subjected to chemical brainwashing that left them all completely unable to resist any orders from Dreykov. On a mission in Morocco to track down a renegade former comrade, Yelena caught a face full of a red gas that suddenly freed her will just as she fatally stabbed her quarry: an older Widow created an antidote to the enslaving treatment. Yelena is obliged with her new-found freedom to keep it out of Dreykov’s hands, turning to Natasha who had no idea Yelena was still a Widow and thought Dreykov was dead, because she and Clint Barton blew up Dreykov’s apartment in Budapest along with his young daughter.

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On a plot level Black Widow is nothing special, a little bit Bourne, a little bit Bond (Shortland includes a scene of Natasha watching Moonraker, 1979, on TV, signalling which particular Bond template the film will soon follow), a little bit Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It stakes out similar territory to Andrew Dominik’s Red Sparrow (2017), which dealt with the harsh training of Russian female agents and might as well stand in for the mostly off-stage experiences of Natasha, Yelena, and the other Widows, and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). Both of those, whilst not particularly good in their own right, went to places Black Widow might have gone and maybe should have in dealing more overtly with the guilty fantasy figure of the ass-kicking, hard-loving female spy, but Black Widow tries to stay wedged in the confluence of family adventure flick and dark-and-gritty genre film. Hard action aficionados and those who love the Marvel movies for their flashy special effects and generally bouncy tone will likely find it a frustrating watch because the nominal storyline is often placed aside for long tracts engaging in interaction and hard reckoning. Deep down it’s a character drama wrapped in the glitz and glamour of a tent-pole epic, studying the obverse of the usual driving power fantasies of superhero movies, in depicting people who are despite their abilities all human wreckage, stymied by circumstance and conspiracy, trying desperately to hang on to what few fragments of grace and worth they have left.

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Shortland, who emerged with the excellent debut feature Somersault (2004) and eventually followed it up with Lore (2014) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), has been until now associated with quietly intense art house dramas that double as dark fairytales, with a fascination for young and naïve female adventurers abroad, often thrown into situations with complex and duplicitous men who may or may not mean them harm. What’s surprising is the degree to which Black Widow feels of a unit with her earlier work, down to retaining a toned-down version of her trademark jittery visual style utilising handheld cameras and shallow-focus, ever-so-slightly disorientating camerawork. Of her three films Berlin Syndrome, a complex and discomforting work about a young woman held captive by a man she’s had a one-night stand with, probably landed Shortland the job of directing Black Widow, as both her most recent and one concerned with enslavement and coercion, although the opening scene with Natasha and Yelena playing feels closer to Somersault’s portrayal of hapless innocence and a blithe attitude to a world hiding cruel fates. Shortland’s approach is most effective in the early scenes which smartly establish the fake family as nonetheless inhabiting a working simulacrum of normality and functioning, as Melina schools the two girls with her vast knowledge of biology, before returning home to a family dinner where the chemistry of the family members feels genuine, no matter how many secrets everyone is keeping. The escape plays out as a mostly realistic thriller-action scene only punctuated by Alexei’s feats of strength. It all has a down-to-earth quality that worked well in the first MCU entry, Iron Man (2008), before the fantasy and sci-fi aspects trucked in from the source comics took over, and was revisited to a degree in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry in the series Black Widow most closely resembles.

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Of course, that kind of approach isn’t going to last forever in a movie that nods to Moonraker as a style guide, but Black Widow sustains it for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, there’s a surprising level of mostly implied but sometimes quite immediate meditation on cruelty and suffering, stated unnecessarily in the Nietzschean catchphrase Natasha and Yelena learn from Melina: “Pain only makes you stronger.” From the nightmarish tint of the opening credits vignettes Black Widow does its best to consider the process that made Natasha and Yelena so damn tough and capable as involving much pain indeed, including the previously-mentioned but still discomforting detail of their having received forced hysterectomies, which proves to be almost an aside compared to the level of control imposed over the newer Widows, who can be forced to blow themselves up. Young Yelena cries over a scraped knee; the older one uses a knife to cut out the tracking chip implanted in her thigh once she gains her autonomy. Returning to confront the institution that pulled her apart and refashioned her into something both more and less than human, Natasha is obliged to face up to the crimes she committed not only for Dreykov but in her campaign to escape his clutches, which claimed, as Natasha puts it, collateral damage. Natasha is genuinely shocked when she tracks down Yelena and her sister tells her Dreykov is still alive, so the sisters break Alexei out of the Siberian prison he’s been cast into for years hoping he knows the truth. He in turn leads them to Melina, who has remained Dreykov’s thrall and collaborator, having played a vital part in developing his mind-control methods, which Melina demonstrates on one of her pet pigs in a queasy moment.

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There’s an interesting edge of the Sadean to all this, communicated through Shortland’s obsessive use of red as a totem, symbolising, natch, the lingering influence of the Soviet Union but also associated with blood, suffering, plundering, and the loss of (and regaining of via the red gas) autonomy. Background trauma is a fairly compulsory aspect of modern heroic identity in fiction, particularly for superheroes, but Black Widow digs into something more rarefied and disturbing, conscious as it is that everything that makes Natasha a potent figure is also sourced in a history of anguish, down the to eventual, brutal revelation that Dreykov had her birth mother, who Natasha thought abandoned her, killed when she kept searching for her daughter. Shortland’s images, which often manage to escape the blandness of contemporary digi-cinema, feel more attuned to bodies, presences, putting muscle behind Johansson’s cumulatively palpable performance. Winstone’s Dreykov is a comparatively weak villain, but for a purpose. The career soldier and master of puppets is rather than someone actually brave and tough himself someone accomplished at using them: he’s less like an octopus with his tentacles reaching into everything and more like a lobster, safe and strong as long as his shell holds. The organisation he runs is one of the few ever presented in pop culture that feels as insidious and perverting as Fritz Lang offered in his Weimar thriller films, more so even than any of Bond’s antagonists, with Dreykov inhabiting his sky castle, plotting to quietly control the world and army of mind control victims, boasting that he can with one command cause financial chaos and cause mass starvation.

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Not, of course, that Black Widow makes as much of any of this as might have: despite offering something grittier than any other MCU film, it’s still trapped within that universe and all attendant commercial necessity. But it keeps its focus on the characters and the story infrastructure around them provides a blueprint describing their emotional landscape. The film’s best choice is almost entirely excising the rest of the MCU from proceedings, with Yelena making a quip about Dreykov not looking for revenge against Natasha lest he bring down “one of the big ones” from the Avengers on his head, and Alexei waxing nostalgic about battling Captain America in his glory days, only for one fellow prisoner to note that Cap was still in the Arctic ice when Alexei claims to have fought him. Yelena makes an acid comment at one point about Natasha posturing as a hero figure to little girls despite her history of bloodshed and the lack of choice afforded Yelena and the other Widows. It’s a nice line that makes a gesture towards dismantling the much-repeated pieties about superheroes, particularly the few female ones on the Marvel and DC movie rosters, serving as presumed role-models for their young audience when Natasha herself is not an easy identification figure. The film is then reasonably courageous in not trying to remake Natasha as some kind of straightforward character, but letting her inhabit a story with some nasty barbs. Only the character of Mason feels superfluous for someone as skilled in taking care of herself as Natasha, seemingly only really present in the movie to provide a kind of drone male all the better to show off Natasha’s dominant stature.

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The pivotal scene in the film comes once the “family” is reunited, observed in all their mismatched yet oddly bonded identities, cueing a dinner table scene with alternations of grievance, fury, affection, snarky élan, and personal chemistry: it’s a more interesting breakdown of the concept of a gang of would-be heroes as a family than the several others littering the current movie scene because the characters all have pretty good reasons to hate and mistrust each-other on top of sharing a relationship that was only ever a nominal ruse. And yet they find themselves inheriting all the urges and instincts of reality, as when Alexei tries in his oafish yet well-meaning way to comfort the injured and betrayed-feeling Yelena. Harbour’s Alexei is called upon to provide most of the film’s comic relief as the battered faux-paterfamilias, and yet even he’s stricken with an even worse dose of the same crippling melancholia. The once-proud representative of his nation, degraded and imprisoned through treachery, trapped in aging impotence boasting about opponents he never got to face before struggling to squeeze himself into his old costume, is finally given a moment to shine in the climax as he goes up against Dreykov’s secret weapon, the masked monstrosity codenamed Taskmaster.

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Taskmaster makes several attempts to catch up with Natasha and Yelena, almost killing Natasha when tracking down the cure shipped to her in Norway and then chasing the sisters through the streets of Budapest in an armoured car, two strong action sequences that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Taskmaster as antagonist has one intriguing specific ability, to match and exactly mimic an opponent’s fighting style. Taskmaster’s true identity would only be difficult to guess for anyone who’s never seen a movie: it’s actually the now-adult Antonia (a wasted Olga Kurylenko), left badly disfigured and paralysed by Natasha’s bomb rather than killed, and allowed to move by a computer chip installed in her spine that’s made her exponentially more strong and agile, at the price of being reduced to her father’s pure servant of will. This revelation is a bit rich given Taskmaster’s distinctly masculine build when masked, but then again a few dozen horror movies have pulled the same trick. More to the point, Antonia personifies Natasha’s sense of spurring guilt, and her turning out to still be alive helps finally mollify that guilt, whilst also providing her with a Frankensteinian doppelganger, the damaged emblem of what the other Widows only exhibit psychologically.

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Black Widow, as movies of this kind have to at the moment, must walk the middle path between the two most annoying factions in the online world: those policing it for any hint of sexuality that might give a teenage boy even the slightest pretext for a boner, and those policing it for any signs of unwanted “woke” messaging. For the former, well, there’s a coterie of fit women in catsuits, if never lingered on. Despite it being an inherent part of their function and training, the Widows seem to have had their sexual cunning and power removed along with their reproductive organs. As far as the latter goes, the Cold War redux themes are entirely facetious – Dreykov’s project is simply the accruing of power with only a veneer of Soviet nostalgia. The metaphors for villainous misogyny are rather more barbed and tightly wound into the story, but never belaboured through speechifying: they’re allowed to speak for themselves on the essential dramatic level. There’s been controversy recently as it’s emerged that the Marvel production house has been hiring directors from the indie film world to provide a veneer of creative cool and an injection of diversity but not letting them handle their own action scenes. Such a practice was once pretty de rigeur in Hollywood – Michael Curtiz and William Wyler amongst many had practiced action staging hands sub for them – but it does explain why the action sequences in the Marvel films tend to all feel interchangeable. I can’t complain here though: the mostly down-to-earth style of thrills in the early action scenes, and the final eruption of big, Bond-style chaos at the end, are exceptionally well-done, even if noting that a crashing car in the Budapest scene is infuriatingly CGI-rendered. I understand the temptation to take such short-cuts but it hurts the very essence of this kind of movie.

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The scene where Natasha and Yelena break Alexei out of jail, hovering over the prison with a helicopter and trying to scoop the old Red Guardian up before an avalanche hits, is good fun and at its best when the stunts look real and dangerous, like Natasha ducking the choppers’s sweeping tail rotor, but again is hampered by recourse to too many obvious special effects. The reality and film-texture-distorting impact of such effects might be said however to help such movies keep a foot planted in their drawn source material. The crucial dynamic in the film is most obviously between Johansson’s Natasha and Pugh’s Yelena, offering decent chemistry in their alternations of spiky attitude and quiescent affection. Their relationship is also informed by the women playing them, Johansson the still relatively young but by now weathered professional and familiar face pithed against Pugh, emerging as a star of potential after gaining attention with performances in films like Lady Macbeth (2017) and Midsommar (2019) where she played characters who meet evolve into fiends in the course of purging their own torments. Pugh’s still-young yet leonine face provides a great counterpoint to Johansson’s sleek features. Whilst she doesn’t yet have anything like the same following, Pugh offers real potential as a nominal replacement, partly because Yelena is a less sanguine creature partly defined by her edge of disdain, teasing her sister for being nearly as ludicrous as she is heroic, mocking her as a poser for her signature superhero landing in the film’s best running joke.

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But it’s Johansson’s film and she helps put it over the line with Natasha’s climactic meeting with Dreykov, after she and the rest of her “family” are ambushed and captured by Dreykov’s men thanks to Melina secretly calling them in. Dreykov is eager to reclaim Natasha not just for revenge but because she can help him subvert the Avengers and finally emerge from the shadows to become world dictator. Dreykov’s fail-safes include a mental block preventing Natasha from attacking him, triggered by his pheromones. Thankfully, Natasha’s long-established capacity to use her opponents’ overconfidence and arrogance, seen before to best advantage in The Avengers (2012), here resurges in a piece of narrative three-card-monte as it emerges Melina told her what to expect and how to circumvent it. Natasha gains access to Dreykov by wearing a mask disguising her as her mother, whilst Melina, Yelena, and Alexei escape from captivity and set about destroying the Red Room, which is actually a huge flying techno-fort hovering above the clouds.

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The confrontation between Natasha and Dreykov, which nods to RoboCop’s (1987) Directive 4 as Natasha finds herself unable to stab the man who perverted her life and murdered her mother, takes on a real edge of pathology as Natasha provokes Dreykov into punching her repeatedly, grinning all the time as he takes his best, meanest shots with a mocking pleasure bordering on masochism, a willingness to take punishment for her cause usually only reserved to male heroes. It’s a moment that highlights Johansson’s overqualified but definite affinity for the part, and gains its self-mutilating climax when Natasha, disappointed by Dreykov’s blows, instead smashes her nose against his desk to sever her olfactory nerve, freeing her to wail on him with impunity. Intervention by the other Widows saves Dreykov, as Natasha is despite her prowess overwhelmend and brought to the brink of ruin, only to be saved Yelena’s quick-thinking intervention. This leads to a fitting moment as Natasha releases Antonia, trapped by Alexei and Melina after a fight, from a prison cell as the Red Room begins to disintegrate, willing to face Antonia’s augmented wrath rather than leave her to die.

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Yelena finishes up killing Dreykov by thrusting an explosive into the rotor of his hovercraft before it can take off, exploding the craft and hurling Yelena out into a freefall towards earth. Natasha, in a spectacular nod to the famous opening of Moonraker, leaps from the Red Room and plunges after her whilst trying to pull on a parachute amidst falling hunks of flaming debris. Everything ends well, with Antonia and the other Widows successfully freed from the mind control yoke, Dreykov’s network open to dismantling, and the wayward family surviving and making their peace. Natasha heads off to her ultimate fate with her past thoroughly laid to rest. A brief post-credits coda in the usual MCU fashion provides the gambit for a new looming conflict as Yelena visits her grave and some shadowy government screwball (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hiring her to go after the man supposedly responsible for her death, handing her a picture of Clint. Black Widow isn’t a transcendentally great entry in the current superhero cycle, mostly hamstrung by its inability through obeisance to its franchise setting to go as far as it should have in embracing a more grown-up and gruelling type of story. But I still liked Black Widow more than I’ve liked most blockbusters in several years, and it cured some of my sourness towards the MCU, because it goes as far as it does.

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The Traveller (1974)

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Mosāfer

Director / Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

By Roderick Heath

Tehran-born Abbas Kiarostami first dabbled in painting as a teenager in the 1950s, won a competition that got him to his home town’s School of Fine Arts, and supported himself during his studies by working as a traffic cop. Kiarostami soon vaulted into a successful career in advertising in the 1960s, gaining filmmaking experience shooting TV commercials and creating titles for movies. Iranian cinema grew rapidly in terms of films produced in the 1960s, and a New Wave movement began to gather steam, sparked by films like Davoud Mollapour’s Shohare Ahoo Khanoom (1968), Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar, and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (both 1969), with a stringently realistic, neorealist-influenced approach and resolutely earthy and immediate subject matter. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly so impressed by The Cow that it convinced him not to ban cinema in Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Inspired by the burgeoning New Wave, Kiarostami and some other new directors set up the Kanoon Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to make movies for and about young people, and it soon became a notable production outfit for a string of important films. Kiarostami made his first film for it with the 12-minute short The Bread and Alley, leaving behind his schooling in the slickness of commercials for a more boldly original and experimental approach as he infuriated his crew by insisting on shooting a key scene without cuts, testing out his early conviction that he could generate greater intensity and conviction by reducing shots and edits to a minimum.

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Kiarostami officially made his feature-length debut with 1973’s The Experience, but he considered his true debut film to be his follow-up The Traveller. In the late 1980s Kiarostami rose to international prominence, cemented when he captured the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, and helped other Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf present a vanguard reintroducing the country’s culture to the world at large. Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami weathered the Revolution, in part because his sense of parochial identity was a deep vein in his art, even liking to weave classical Persian poetry into his films, although his two late masterpieces released before his death in 2016, Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), were made outside the country. Kiarostami’s mature cinema was equally acclaimed and derided for his peculiar approach to narrative cinema, often eliding seemingly crucial details and dialogue, utilising stringent long takes and a minimalist but beguilingly flexible visual style. The Traveller, an adaptation of a story by Hassan Rafi’i, has many hallmarks of a debut feature, emerging from the earnest zeitgeist of the era’s emergent national and regional film movements, counting the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) as immediate ancestors, and looks forward to subsequent independent films like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), in making a truthful-feeling study of the theme of a young person on an odyssey negotiating a world filled with indifferent if not actively hostile adults.

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Yet The Traveller is also something quite individual, a brief (73 minute) but vigorously expressive statement of intent from a director soon to become a major creative force. Wrought in the starkest production fashion with its lingering shots and cheap, black-and-white cinema verité-style photography, it’s also touched throughout with qualities of humour and flashes of dreamlike wistfulness. Kiarostami opens with images of boys playing street soccer in an alley in of some well-weathered corner of the town of Malayer. The passion of the boys for the game soon becomes quite apparent. There’s not much else for them to do in this place where a lot of them drop out of school and get into trades, and the older boys are already holding down jobs like bicycle repairmen. Kiarostami’s renegade antihero is Qassem Julayi (Hassan Darabi), a scallywag whose obsession with the sport, and the Persepolis football team in particular, is clearly linked with a sense of frustration and ambition he cannot otherwise articulate. The son of a carpenter, Lar, Qassem is becoming increasingly alienated from his family and schooling and pouring himself into his soccer obsession. After playing in the street match witnessed at the outset, he turns up to school with a bandage around his head and jaw claiming to have been delayed by a toothache and a trip to the dentist when he was actually playing, much to a teacher’s deeply sceptical response: “I hope it rots.”

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Qassem spends what little money he has buying a magazine for a photo of one of his player heroes, managing to use his father’s name to get a little credit to make up the shortfall, but he’s later sprung reading the magazine in class, the teacher prowling around behind the class and launching his sneak attack, and it’s clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened all day. His English teacher seems just as distracted by the outside world as his students, like Qassem silently doing sums over costs during class, as Qassem tries to work out how much money he’ll need to catch a bus to Tehran and see a big match live. Meanwhile at home Qassem faces constant pestering from his unceasingly critical and complaining mother (Pare Gol Atashjameh) who berates him for failing to study and pushes for him to quit school and get into a trade too. There’s a note of deadpan humour as her complaints continue all during dinner whilst his father doesn’t speak a word, seemingly having resigned himself both to her talk and Qassem’s errant nature: “It’s all in one ear and out the other,” she decries his lack of attention before asking for money to attend a mourning ceremony. Meanwhile Qassem seems to have trouble doing his studies by the dim lamplight in his house.

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Qassem irritably criticises his friends for playing badly during one of their street matches, but then admits that he didn’t play so well either, because he was too distracted by thoughts of going to Tehran to catch a big league game. His mother comes to school soon after and whinges to the school principal (Mostafa Tari), repeatedly commenting that she doesn’t know how to read and write whilst asking what should be done about Qassem’s bad behaviour, which has taken a new turn as she believes, correctly, Qassem has stolen five tomans she had squirrelled away. “You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school?” the principal demands, and declares: “He is not a child, he is a monster.” After a continuing dialogue of theatrically desperate appeal and contempt, as the principal sighs that he can’t punish the students without risking parental complaints, the mother gives him permission to do what he sees fit, so the principal calls Qassem in and begins caning his hands, the increasingly distressed Qassem nonetheless insisting all the while that he did not steal the money. Kiarostami cuts, with a sense of both dark humour and pathos, to one of the neighbouring classrooms, where the teacher is instructing his class on the workings of the heart whilst trying to ignore the sounds of Qassem’s punishment.

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In keeping with the Kanoon project’s avowed purpose, The Traveller is a film relevant to the kind of young person it’s about, but lacking any kind of pandering or patronising glaze. It’s a rigorously unsentimental, entirely convincing portrait of a boy, doing things many a boy has done regardless of cultural background, allowing the brat to be a brat whilst also understanding him. Whilst the film regards many of the adults around Qassem as vaguely absurd, there’s still a touch of sympathy for his mother, who really does work constantly whilst she complains about his bad attitude. Many films about childhood and adolescence take on a similar shape to The Traveller in depicting a youth engaged in an obsessive quest to realise a personal dream, often taking tentative steps towards adulthood in the process. It’s the sort of storyline that can generally be relied upon to touch a fond chord of memory in grown-ups, if also perhaps one of aggravation in parents. But where many stories of that type are nostalgic in cast, The Traveller is the very opposite, charged with anxious energy as it contemplates a budding antihero whose immediate future is bearing down upon him. Making Qassem a soccer fanatic roots him securely in his world, signalling his desire to join a crowd rather than follow some esoteric path, although his desires and impulses mark him as an outsider.

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Early in the film one boy leads his fellow students at Qassem’s school in a group prayer, a brief spasm of rhapsodic communal inclusion, although of course in their midst Qassem shows to Akbar the pilfered five toman note, his own private religion something rather distinct. The subtle joke about football being something like a secular religion in Iran seems not to have dated, as the theme of trying to attend a soccer match as an expression of both individual will and communal engagement would later be taken up, with obvious shifts in emphasis, by Panahi’s Offside (2006). The attitude of institutional cynicism displayed by the teachers is one of Kiarostami’s targets here, perceiving school in mid-1970s Iran as something like a prison for teachers and students alike, all sharing a penurious, demoralised distaste for their lot. Kiarostami is bitingly sceptical about the efficacy of the corporal punishment constantly turned on the kids, which he sees more as an outlet for adult frustration and aggression than as a cure for bad behaviour.  “He will just hit us – forget about Math,” Qassem comments when debating whether to go to class or get down to his more pressing business.

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As unscrupulous as Qassem’s behaviour becomes at points, the clarity and direction of his passion is singularly lacking in everyone else he knows. With his friend Akbar, Qassem begins looking for ways to add to the five purloined tomans, figuring he’ll need about forty to make the journey. He tries to sell his fountain pen to a storekeeper who coolly rebuffs Qassem’s forceful sales tactics (“You sell to kids but you won’t buy them from them?” Akbar queries incredulously) and calmly explains whilst never breaking from his menial tasks how buying from a wholesaler works to the pushy lads, who then moves on to trying to offload a stamp collection. Akbar steals a broken camera from his grandfather’s shed and the duo try to sell that: one potential buyer notices the camera is missing parts, but offers five tomans for it, but Qassem is angered by such a low offer. Instead, he comes up with a scheme: he and Akbar start pretending to take photos of their schoolmates, affecting a vaguely official mandate to charge them five rials apiece.

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The imprint of neorealism is vital with The Traveller, in the way Kiarostami shoots locations in artful but unpretty fashion and elicits immediate performances from a mostly non-professional cast, and some anticipation of the way he would regularly blur the boundaries between fiction and documentray. Qassem and Akbar run through the streets and bazaars of Malayer, a place that seems perched somewhere between ancient and modern worlds, pungent and ghost-ridden at the same time. Historic town architecture is recorded for posterity by Kiarostami’s camera along with oddities of the moment like the wall in a shop festooned with professionally modelled photos. But there are hints throughout of the unusual blend of impulses that would eventually define Kiarostami’s cinema. The visual texture and language changes during Qassem’s fake photography session, taking on a lyrical quality reminiscent of Truffaut in moving into montage, wielding rhythmic editing with some sprightly music now on the soundtrack, as Kiarostami matches Qassem’s cheeky wit with his own cinematic variety. He notes Qassem tucking his accumulating cash in his back pocket whilst lining up his shots of the other kids, and moves in from regarding the kids in distant poses to close studies that capture the children in all their alternate individuality, some fierce, some friendly, some humorous, some bovine.

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This allows Kiarostami to use Qassem’s eyes in capturing his generational fellows in all their collective and individual qualities, whilst Qassem play-acts something like a movie director as he instructs his subjects in their poses. The first hint here of the kind of meta-narrative play Kiarostami would often return to his movies, like the revelation of the moviemakers at the end of Taste of Cherry and the choose-your-own-narrative-truth of Certified Copy. Where in his later films Kiarostami would often feature loquacious and intelligent adult characters who work to verbalise their worldviews or play games with them in long, rolling conversations, The Traveller is more familiar to a certain extent as a social realist study in dealing with a boy whose age precludes him being able to articulate his problems. His actions are his expressions, but Qassem nonetheless has a certain quick-witted pugnacity in his interactions when he’s trying to gain something, cajoling insistently in his attempts to sell things of no value whilst insisting they do. “I’ve taken thousands of pictures with it,” he protests to the man he tries to sell the camera to, and, when he offers too little, “I passed up a better off last week.” Qassem definitely seems to have the stuff of a businessman in him.

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The problem with the inspired con trick at the school is it just doesn’t bring in anything like enough money. Depressed, Qassem and Akbar try to study for a vocabulary test, filmed in a tableau that becomes for the boys an unconscious lampoon of their school experience: Qassem testily waves a stick whilst Akbar stumbles through an array of thematically appropriate words: “Outlaw – it means a rebel…Discipline, obedience…Ambition, the desire to make progress.” Qassem suddenly has another brainwave to save his project, and sells his street team’s nets and gear, despite the whole team having pooled money to buy them. Qassem justifies himself because as the captain he’s always stuck with the job of lugging it around, and nimbly talks a member of another team into buying them, netting 25 tomans. Finally able to buy his bus ticket, Qassem hitches a ride back towards home from the station on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, perched with dangling feet above the road. This sequence presents Qassem at his height, having actually proven he can, by hook and by crook, affect his own destiny with the gift of the gab and unscrupulous manipulation if with little thought of inevitable consequences, now rejoicing if in bumpy manner in a sense of liberating motion, Kambiz Roshanravan’s sprightly traditional score matched to the whirling wheels of the buggy.

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The very title of The Traveller establishes Kiarostami’s preoccupation with characters whose physical wanderings, their incessant seeking, are matched to their attempts to understand themselves, to strain at the limits of their personal universes with all their small insults and frictions, whether seeking to enter others or even nullify themselves to end the questioning. Kiarostami’s film would later become famously preoccupied by characters driving and the things they do when nominally going someplace, culminating notably in the suicidal central character and his argumentative passenger of Taste of Cherry, their fierce verbal arguments matched to restless voyaging. Qassem is defined specifically as a boy in motion, shark-like in his need for constant forward movement, driven on by a specific motive to try and get something done before a looming psychological hammer, one he doesn’t quite understand, drops. Upon returning home and hiding his ticket in a schoolbook, Qassem faces a long, anxious wait and can’t risk falling asleep and missing the bus which comes through at near midnight. Akbar tosses stones at his window and keeps calling pathetically from the street, his loyal helpmate now unable to follow any further on his grand odyssey. Finally, when the appointed hour comes, Qassem sneaks out of his house. Where earlier in the film Kiarostami noted the streets of Malayer busy with merchants and artisans, now Qassem runs through a silent and deserted labyrinth. He only just manages to catch up with the bus and get aboard, and rides off into the great Iranian night.

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As Qassem’s bus arrives in Tehran, Kiarostami lingers on a shot of a man walking along the roadside as bus after bus arrives, each one presumably packed with travellers who, like Qassem, have their own little odysseys to enact, whilst connecting the heart of Tehran to the body that is the rest of the nation. Kiarostami avoids passing any overt judgement on Qassem’s amorality, perceiving his spurs and his neediness shading into desperation, which registers all the more plainly on his face as the film unfolds: the closer Qassem comes to his goal, the greater the ease and risk of losing it, a principal Kiarostami illustrates with bittersweet clarity. Of course, it’s tempting to link Kiarostami’s sidelong sociological observations and recording with the transformation that would come upon the country a few years later. Even with the pervasive gentle humour, it’s not hard at all to register a miasma of frustration and simmering disquiet, an air of recessive and backward testiness where the illiterate and entrenched incompetently rear the sort-of educated who confront a lack of outlets for their raised expectations. When Qassem does finally reach the football stadium, militaristic-looking policemen maintain a heavy-handed presence to stop any shows of wrath when the tickets sell out, which, of course, they do just as Qassem reaches the vendor.

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As the cops urge away the luckless, Qassem manages to still procure a ticket from a scalper and enters the stadium. Sitting in the bleachers with the adults attending the game, he gets into conversation with a weaver. After all his seemingly selfish and unscrupulous actions throughout the film Qassem is nonetheless generous, even insistent, in offering to share his food with the weaver, and the older man seems to embody something appealing to Qassem, who notes that as an independent worker he’s relatively free in his life. When Qassem furtively asks the weaver if he thinks Tehran kids would be his friends, the weaver replies that he does, but Qassem then recounts how he tried to befriend some who moved to Mayafer only to be rebuffed, and he irritably describes them as snobs: the weaver can only silently muse on this anecdote. When he learns the game isn’t going to start for three hours yet – sitting and waiting and chatting with other fans is something the weaver and everyone else takes to be part of the ritual – Qassem eventually decides to roam around for a while, exploring the environs near the stadium.

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The climactic scenes wield stinging irony as Qassem’s restlessness, having brought him this far, leads him away from his cherished goal, clambering over scaffolding in an arena being renovated and gazing in through the window of an indoor swimming pool. He knocks on the glass to attract the attention of a kid within, and tries to ask him how deep the water is, but the other kid can’t hear him and irritably turns away. This brief vignette that’s perfectly naturalistic and yet contains symbolic force, crystallising something deeper about Qassem and his journey, his solitude, unable to make himself heard, cut off from the world he seeks and his luckier doppelganger within, the infrastructure of that world a window and also a wall. Tired because he didn’t sleep at all the night before, Qassem sees a number of men sprawled on a grass verge under trees taking a nap before the game, and he lies down to join them.

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Qassem sleeps as the other men awaken and head off, and has disturbing dreams of being hounded and punished, of being caught cheating in class. His school fellows chase him down and take him captive, and then he’s suspended upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, the other kids and his mother looming around him as sentries of judgement whilst he wails in pain, but without sound. Here Kiarostami confirms at least on a subconscious level Qassem knows he’s going to pay for everything he’s done, and it might even be said to finally offer a degree of imminent moral satisfaction. But Kiarostami maintains sympathy for the lad, inverting a usual method in showing us his dreamscape is no place of escape but rather where the things he quells during the day hatch out, with awareness of how all too often people elect to proceed in spite of physical threats with transgressive behaviour because otherwise they’ll kill some part of themselves, and the imagery of punishment is distressing.

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There’s a hint of the underlying influence of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), another classic about needy youth with its patina of surrealism mixed in with the harsh realism. Qassem lying down to sleep with the grown men contains a hint of political as well as personal parable, as if he’s performing an act of surrender. The punchline, of course, is that Qassem finally awakens late in the day, and runs up into the stadium only to find the match over and the crowd gone, leaving behind only their rubbish flitting on the breeze as if he’s the sole survivor of a slovenly apocalypse. Qassem, the boy in motion, lost in finally surrendering to immobility what he tried so hard to obtain, cheated by his own weak flesh. A lovely tragicomic ending, one that also sees Kiarostami perhaps deliberately reversing the cinematic device at the climax of The 400 Blows. Where Truffaut arrested his young runaway in an eternal frieze, poised between past and present, youth and adulthood, Kiarostami’s lingering long shot watches as Qassem starts running again, arcing away out of sight along the rim of the stadium. Qassem can only dash on to meet his fate, at loose and trapped, travelling without moving. For a film as short and straightforward as The Traveller seems at first to be, it’s a work entirely alive with promise.

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Major Dundee from Arrow Films

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Dear readers, if you just can’t get enough of my writing, or if you just want a top-notch edition of a classic film, Arrow Films are releasing a new limited edition blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee on June 28. The release features both the theatrical and restored versions, the former in a 4K scan, commentary tracks by an array of critical and scholarly luminaries, a visual essay by David Cairns, spectacular artwork by Tony Stella, and an essay booklet featuring writing by Farran Smith Nehme, Jeremy Carr, and yours truly. This is a beautiful thing, people.

Here it is at the Arrow site
At Amazon
Via Zavvi, UK
Via HMV
Via DiabolikDVD
Via Grindhouse Video
Via Zavvi, US
Pre-order in Canada via Unobstructed View

You can also read my Film Freedonia essay about the film (not the same one as comes with the disc) here.

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Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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Director / Screenwriter: Elaine May

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Ned Beatty 1937-2021

It’s both excruciating and exalting to note that Elaine May was only the third woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Born Elaine Iva Berlin, May was the daughter of a travelling Yiddish theatre producer. When her father died when she was 11, her family moved to Los Angeles. May finished up dropping out of high school at 14, and later hitchhiked to attend the University of Chicago because it took students without high school diplomas, by which time she had already married her first husband, whose name she took. Quickly gaining a reputation for sparking arguments with teachers and students with outrageous and original statements, May found a simpatico mind in fellow student Mike Nichols. The two of them joined an off-campus theatrical group and began stirring attention, with May’s childhood theatre experience giving her a head start in confidence and authority. After Nichols was asked to leave the group for having too much talent, he and May formed a partnership in a comedy act that was soon generally hailed as groundbreaking and quickly gathered popularity, but their working technique proved to impossible to sustain and they called it quits in 1961. Both started on a path to becoming filmmakers as Nichols concentrated on directing theatre and May started writing for stage and screen and acting in movies.

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Whilst Nichols achieved success as a director with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (1966) and The Graduate (1967), May had to wait until 1971’s A New Leaf until she arrived as a moviemaker. Despite gaining some cult attention, May’s debut effort wasn’t a good experience, as her initial vision for the film was brutally edited by the studio. Obsessive filming practices, arduous and exacting editing process, and clashes with cast and studios became something of a hallmark of May’s productions as well as their odd and spiky brilliance. Her second film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), was written by Neil Simon and proved her only real hit. Mikey and Nicky had a long and troubled shoot despite being initially slated as a fairly modest, low-budget drama, with May gaining industry infamy for the amount of film shot on set in her quest to get the best out of her actors. She finished up hiding two reels of the movie to keep the studio from sacking her and re-cutting the film again, but she finally lost a court case over control of the footage and the studio patched together a version to release that ultimately flopped. This, on top of all the squabbling, meant May didn’t get to make another movie until Warren Beatty, believing she still had unfulfilled potential as a filmmakers after she had written his Heaven Can Wait (1978) and parts of Reds (1981), hired her to make 1987’s Ishtar. But that experience proved another debacle as Ishtar became synonymous with egotistical on-set clashes and messy production resulting in a violently uneven if excessively criticized film. Her directing career finished, May nonetheless had success writing scripts for Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1997).

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Mikey and Nicky is certainly a highpoint and quintessential example of a celebrated strain of 1970s American cinema with emphasis on a raw, urban, unruly texture, as well as Hollywood’s uneasy and ultimately brief turn to auteurist cinema at the time, willing to give much rope to directors on the off-chance they might come back with a hit. Because May, who originally wanted Charles Grodin to play Nicky, finished up hiring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk to play the title characters, Mikey and Nicky is often seen as an extension-cum-assimilation of Cassavetes’ heavily improvised, off-kilter brand of independent filmmaking and narratives often revolving around stressed-out menopausal males. But whilst like Martin Scorsese’s early films and others on the ‘70s film scene May was assimilating Cassavetes’ influence, Mikey and Nicky is subtly distinct from Cassavetes’ films in form and style. It represents amongst other things May’s carbolic portrait of relationships between characters whose surface amity contains aspects of parasitism and destructive intent, sometimes mutual. To a certain extent May’s second two films reflect a meditation on her own artistic method over and above their immediate subjects, fumbling with deliberately errant process towards synthesis and insight in a manner reminiscent of the way she and Nichols made comedy: the shambolic texture, actually, carefully achieved, is the entire point.

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If the dopey songwriters of Ishtar presented a tellingly non-talented meditation on the concept of creative partnership, Mikey and Nicky is quietly vicious as well as wryly melancholic in portraying the hallowed, in pop culture terms, pair of pals from the old neighbourhood who know each-other inside out, resentments and failures of support turning gangrenous. Mikey and Nicky begins with Nicky (Cassavetes) locked in a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, unshaven, filthy, stewing in a zone of fetid fear and paranoia. Having called his friend Mikey (Falk) and begged him to come but arranging a rendezvous down in the street, he sees Mikey down below wandering around in confusion, and gets his attention by tossing down a towel wrapped around an empty bottle. Mikey ascends to his room and quickly gets annoyed and frustrated as Nicky insists on grilling him timorously through the locked door. Once he finally does gain entrance, Mikey learns that Nicky expects he’s a target to be killed by mob assassins, for reasons hinted at throughout: Mikey and Nicky both work for gangster Dave Reznick (Sanford Meisner). Nicky and another employee, Ed Lipsky, who were in charge of the syndicate’s bank, started pilfering funds. Now Lipsky’s turned up dead, and Nicky expects to follow him soon. Mikey’s best advice to Nicky is to get out of town while he has the chance. What Nicky doesn’t know is that Mikey is trying to lead Reznick’s hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty) to him.

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May’s perverse and sandpapery sense of humour manifests in the opening scene of Mikey’s attempts to follow the signs literally dropping from the sky that lead him to Nicky, before attempting to mollify the pathetic man within with gentle, increasingly irked entreaties through the hotel room door. “I don’t want you to see me like this!” Nicky insists. “Will you stop being a horse’s ass?” Nicky retorts: “How’m I gonna see you I haven’t seen you before?” Mikey tries breaking the door down and fails, but Nicky finally lets him in. Nicky is at his most desperately needy, embraced by Mikey and sobbing, and Mikey is soon making like a parent trying to feed an errant baby in trying to give Nicky a pill for his stomach ulcer, a sign of just how well the two men know each-other in all their physical and mental sore points. The latent ferocity and edginess within Mikey contrasts Nicky’s dishevelled paranoia, as Mikey quickly swerves from softly patient appeals to sudden ruptures, first when trying to access Nicky’s room and later when he goes to get coffee for him, an expedition that takes much reassurance and negotiation to undertake. Watched by the frantic Nicky from on high, Mikey enters a diner where the counter man (Peter Scoppa, who was also the assistant director) refuses his request of two coffees with separate milk and cream because that’s not how their orders work: Mikey tries playing along but suddenly leaps over the counter and manhandles the waiter until he surrenders the cream.

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Part of the reason for the film’s long and expensive filming was May’s delight in Cassavetes and Falk’s well-oiled and expert improvisatory energy and underlying friendship. But May wasn’t being merely indulgent, as the film evolves less as a portrait of a couple of mob-connected schmucks than an investigation of what friendship, particularly the male variety, actually means. May covers similar ground in a way to what Scorsese tackled in Mean Streets (1973), in the deep affection and mutual frustration of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters, but more mature, more deeply ingrained and spoiled. The official topic is the complexity and sometimes downright strangeness of male friendship, whilst at the same time, May’s fascination with people locked together in a blend of expedience and needfulness is a connecting thread in the three films she wrote as well as directed, particularly the marriage in A New Leaf where one of the partners is intent on murdering the oblivious other, but here gets its most complete examination. As Mikey and Nicky leave the hotel room once Nicky shaves and regains a modicum of his former savoir faire, they wander around town (May had to shift the shoot from Philadelphia to Los Angeles mid-film because of the budget overrun) and winnow through their lives and keep getting into randomly combative encounters. Nicky constantly seems to sense, however inchoately, the trap Mikey is leading him into, whilst Mikey often seems barely aware of his role in this lurking danger, even at one point deciding to leave town with Nicky to make sure he’s okay, even though he also reports back to Reznick on the phone, who then passes along the mission details to Kinney.

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Mikey and Nicky was a highly personal project for May. She reportedly drew on memories of members of her family connected with the mob, and had been kicking around variations on the material since the 1950s, perhaps with an eye initially to realising it is a theatrical project. The relationship of the two men has a more than faint echo of a classical kind of comedy duo, not perhaps May and Nichols themselves, but with distinct conceptual roots in the same kind of theatrical diptych. A schlemiel Vladimir and Estragon with all the shaggy, disparate energy that can well ironically from mental and moral exhaustion preserved. Once freed from the cage of his room and also set up on the open range that are the city streets, Nicky keeps wanting to go see a movie at his favourite theatre: a true movie lover will defy death to get their fix. This proves a curveball for Mikey’s efforts to rendezvous with Kinney, as he initially manages to get Nicky to settle down with him in a seedy bar to drink beer and milk: Kinney however gets lost when trying to find the bar, having to ask directions, and gets there too late. Mikey this time uses his oblivious wife Annie (Rose Arric) as interlocutor with Kinney by leaving word with her about the movie theatre they’re heading to. But as they ride the bus to the theatre Nicky suddenly decides he wants to visit his mother’s grave as they pass by the cemetery where she’s buried, and the two manage to get off after a fight with the driver (M. Emmett Walsh).

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Nicky’s unique capacity to keep pushing the envelope mixed with an edge of compelling charm, contrasts Mikey’s initially more disarming but also blindsiding blend of the gentle and the eruptive. When the two men go into a bar filled mostly with black patrons, Nicky get into an altercation with a man (Eugene Hobgood) after paying attention to a woman who proves to be his wife (Marilyn Randall). Rather than act apologetic or otherwise back down, Nicky responds with racist provocations, both infuriating but also unbalancing the other men, seeming just feckless enough to make them unsure as to what secret reserves of power or mere masochism he has. When another patron (Reuben Greene) tries to intervene and prevent a fight, he squares off against Nicky and comments, “We might be black, but we ain’t stupid,” to which Nicky retorts, “Then how come you’re black?” Later he insists on smoking on the bus and draws Mikey into helping him wrestle with the driver when he won’t let them get off the bus by the front exit. It’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nicky’s displays of crazy-brave truculence and his ever-ticking metre of macho investment in power relationships are given a rare edge by his fatalistic paranoia and efforts to prove he still has some remnant potency in the world with his refusal to be intimidated, but are also seemingly distinct aspects of his character, only more circumspectly worked.

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Mikey and Nicky roam through an insomniac world of intractable service workers, hostile gun-wielding storekeepers, edgy drinkers, exasperated hit men, sanguine but increasingly annoyed gang bosses, frayed and exhausted wives and mistresses, and all the other flotsam of the great American city at night. Their own messy and random shows of will and wont, incarnating the spasmodic spirit of people adrift on such a night even if they are technically renegades from the daylight world, contrast the people who need rigid lines of demarcation to keep up defences between them and the general craziness at loose. Meanwhile Kinney, who has the demeanour of a travelling salesman and about the same level of passion for his job – at one points he grumbles that with all the expenses he’s occurring the pay for the hit will hardly be worth it – is led on a merry dance through the same nocturnal world looking entirely out of place and sighing his way wearily through trying to find them in the movie theatre and driving around in circles in a haphazard search pattern. It’s hard to believe Kinney is a killer, but as the finale finally demonstrates, he’s good enough at it. Once he and Mikey are thrust into each-other’s orbit they form a duet of mutual aggravation as Mikey tries to guide him to where he last saw Nicky, before they’re forced to go to Reznick and argue over whose fault it is they couldn’t find him.

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“You won’t like ‘em,” ran Paramount’s resolutely uncommercial tagline for the film’s poster, and it is perhaps truth in advertising, as Mikey and Nicky are not particularly lovable or admirable or interesting guys, even as May and the actors makes them so palpable it’s impossible not to identify with them on some level. Nicky’s clammy, heart-galloping awareness of danger loans him a veneer of relevance as a representative of mundanity on the edge, all the voracity, conceit, pathos, and sheer balls of a natural-born shyster amplified and given glamour by proximity to death. Part of May’s fascination with the two, as avatars of the male of the species in general, seems to stem from a queasy amusement and desire to grasp at how they’re essentially a married couple, and have certainly sustained a more profound relationship with each-other than the women in their lives. One portion of Nicky’s seething lode of angst lies in his recent break-up with his wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten), who’s taken their baby to live with her mother after finally wearying of his general bullshit. Mikey by contrast plays at maintaining a stable suburban life with a wife who seems to barely know him but who insists he maintains a respectful and adult relationship with: “I don’t treat my wife the way you do,” he tells Nicky reproachfully, “If I’m gonna be late, or if I’m gonna be out all night, I call.” Mikey’s way with putting people on the spot with peculiar shows of honesty is both fascinatingly unguarded and also explains why he tends to put people on edge.

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Despite their closeness however there are vast gaps in what Mikey and Nicky know of each-other. Their fumbling search through the darkened cemetery in search of the grave of Nicky’s mother becomes a vaguely philosophical and metaphysical quandary couched in resolutely regular guy terms. Mikey bats off Nicky’s questions about his feeling about the possibility of an afterlife, which Nicky confesses he’s feeling keenly with his life under threat, before stating he doesn’t believe in it: “That mishigas I leave to the Catholics.” Mikey notes with a certain remnant resentment how much his late father liked Nicky because he always used to kid him. The two men are just about the only people they remember from their shared youth still alive, and Nicky himself confesses to wishing everyone from their youth was still alive, trying to articulate the feeling of being adrift in a world that has lost all its old markers of insularity and recognition, the gravity of identity that provided some illusion that the world at large had coherence: now there’s only the night world. Eventually it’s revealed Mikey gave Nicky his introduction to Reznick’s crew only for Nicky to quickly take root and become a bigger and flashier success, whereas Mikey learns that he makes Reznick uncomfortable. Mikey’s playing along with the attempt to set up the hit on Nicky is partly motivated through self-preservation instincts, knowing well his proximity to Nicky could make him suspect.

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The apotheosis for Nicky’s brinkmanship tendencies comes when he finally decides to visit his current girlfriend, Nellie (Carol Grace), a lonely woman willing to do just about anything for company. Mikey tries to strike up conversation with her as she explains her liking for keeping up to date by listening to the radio news, but it eventually forced to sit in her kitchen whilst Nicky seduces her and screws her on the living room floor. May shoots much of the scene in one, long, deadpan long shot from the corner of the room, encompassing both the carnal act in the foreground and with Mikey shrunken to his outpost in the adjoining kitchen at the back of the frame: May eventually moves to a shot of Mikey sitting and listening with a queasy look of wonder at how he’s finished up at such a point in life. Nicky however needs to twist the knife in both his companions a little more by convincing Mikey all he needs to do is make a play and he can have sex with Nellie too, but when he tries Nellie bites him and Mikey slaps her back before storming out. Nicky chases him, but Mikey furiously repudiates any remaining friendship with Nicky in recognising this as just the latest in many acts of wilful humiliation and bastardry, and the two men begin a fumbling brawl in the street.

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This entire sequence is remarkable in the fine-tuned inflicting of discomfort on both characters and audience, exposing the cruelly casual misogyny wound into Nicky’s worldview and which Mikey buys into until it literally bites him back, along with the signals of perversity that make all three of act the way they do, their mixture of need and pain and old-fashioned lust that must be worked through in a series of false guises. The encounter also rips the scab off all the wounds suffered by Mikey and Nicky’s supposedly umbilical relationship. Every slight, every piece of Nicky’s macho showmanship and one-upmanship, becomes a seed of grievance, whilst Nicky insists on further provocation and retaliation by smashing Mikey’s watch, which he loaned him earlier, Mikey’s only keepsake of his father, sparking their tussle. May gives away the fact that Mikey is betraying Nicky and leading him to his death so early in the film it removes any hint of suspense or mystery, and instead demands the viewer ponder why Mikey is doing this. During their fight Mikey confirms his belief Nicky sabotaged him with Reznick by “Making me out to be a joke.” Nicky defends himself by claiming he brought Mikey into the bank and also reminds him of the time he loaned him $200 when he needed it. Mikey response is to take $200 from his wallet, throw it on the ground, and tell Nicky, “You’re a piece of nothing,” the gesture that finally drives Nicky to attack him.

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The foreboding, which never really feels like such until the axe drops, invests Mikey and Nicky’s vignettes with implicit irony often intensified by Mikey’s split mind, as when Mikey, offended by Nicky’s suspicious questions, tells him, “I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” Once they split apart, the film changes gear subtly, as Nicky’s peregrinations become a series of encounters that underline how completely he’s managed to destroy his life and alienate anyone who might help him, in a manner that both fulfils the character study aspect of the tale and also its echoes of classic poetic realist and film noir works where a man out of time and luck searches for safe harbour. Meanwhile Mikey, in a manner quietly similar to the way Walter Matthau’s antihero of A New Leaf finds himself trapped within matrimony, is obliged to suffer his way through the rest of the night in the company first of Kinney, and then Annie, who reflect back only incomprehension and pettiness. Mikey finds Kinney in his car still waiting outside the movie theatre and drives with him around the streets where he left Nicky, at one point seeming to finally spot him and chasing him down, only to find it’s the wrong guy. The pair’s low-level bickering and frustration at not being able to find Nicky leads them to both go to Reznick and explain their failure.

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May used two different cinematographers in the course of shooting the bulk of a third and then had Lucien Ballard film the finale. The film’s ragged aural and visual language stemmed in part from the long shoot and the studio’s ultimately dismissive approach to getting it finally finished (at various points in the release version you can see film equipment and crew members hiding in bushes, flaws May cleaned up in her director’s cut), and the technical problems May had in making sense of the footage she had shot, often ending up with sound and vision forcibly patched together, particularly noticeable during the fight with the bus driver. But it also feels entirely appropriate for a portrayal of such flailing straits and exploring the fringes of big city life. May’s vision of her characters’ nocturnal odyssey pungent and authentic in its evocation of dive bars and dirty phone booths, rain-sodden streets and blearily bright shops backed up by the woozily intense and intimate camerawork, very often using hand-held camerawork. Beatty’s Kinney is the most conspicuously lost figure in this world, sometimes threatening to dissolve into the haze of mist and neon. The role deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harbouring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax. Safe harbours beckon but a gauntlet has to be run with so many: the succession of encounters with taciturn workers in boles of commercial life ends with Nicky entering a candy store where he seeks out ice cream and comic books as if he’s reverting to childhood whilst the elderly owner packs a pistol and curtly tells his customer not to get the comic books sticky.

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Mikey and Nicky’s relationship to power, the dynamo of their city’s underworld life however cutely it’s hidden behind the dreary frontage of Reznick’s perfectly ordinary house, is the force that keeps them in an orbit, each allowing them to put up Potemkin villages in their lives to maintain some basic semblance of purpose and prosperity, something Mikey seems better equipped at maintaining than Nicky. May’s simultaneously sarcastic and realistic approach to depicting authority was to cast Meisner and William Hickey as Reznick and his lieutenant Sid Fine as both men were hugely influential and respected as acting teachers more than as performers at that point. Supposedly she originally wanted to cast a Paramount executive as one of the gangsters, only for the studio’s owner to nix the idea, but the mischievous attempt confirms the film is in part a sardonic meditation on May’s own relationship with money men. Meisner is particularly good as the stony, terse mob boss who is nonetheless as much prisoner of his employees’ quirks and incompetency as they are of his power, worn to quiet exasperation by the comedy of errors reported to him throughout the night and then grunting uncomfortably as Mikey insists on apologising for Reznick not liking him before laughing and sending him home. Reznick proves why he’s the man at the top of the totem pole at least by realising Nicky will probably turn up at Mikey’s house at some point and he insists Kinney wait outside for him, obliging Mikey to explain patiently that his neighbourhood has its own patrol service that will swoop down on anyone loitering like that.

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Nicky is at least canny enough to keep dashing into the shadows anytime a car passes by, in between attempts to take refuge first with Jan and then with Nellie. Jan is charged with hissing rage at him, at first barely interested in his protestations that he’s being hunted: “They’re gonna kill me.” “Well, I’m not interested…people get angry when you steal their money.” Nicky’s desperately clingy attempts to wring some iota of affection from her earns her smouldering anger, telling him to instruct her how his girlfriends and Reznick treat him so she can copy them. Nicky’s rejection is compounded as his infant daughter starts crying when he tries to play with her. There’s a final show of something like compassion from Jan as she asks of Nicky before embracing him, “What do you want from me, to die for you?” Nicky’s final scenes have grace-notes of self-awareness, as when he comments toJan about his fight with Mikey, “I did too much to him.” There’s similarity in May’s simultaneously acerbic and empathetic portrayal of Nicky’s unmoored neediness to what Lupino offered the more officially sympathetic title character in The Bigamist (1953), viewing masculinity in its troubled, exposed, love-needing state. At the same time May and Jan and Nellie share a trait of sensing the limits of such empathy.

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Nicky’s return to Nellie’s apartment is an even more telling seen as he busts her door chain and swaps slaps with her, before wearily settling on her bed and confessing he set up the scene earlier because he was angry she slept with two other guys he knows, only for Nellie to retort that he sent them to her, well aware of the games Nicky likes to play and was happy to go along with their subterranean logic, but finally rebelled when it became too obvious, too clumsy, too much about Nicky’s ego rather than some kind of naughty conspiracy. Mikey meanwhile keeps a vigil looking out his living room windows, groaning as Kinney keeps circling the house and attracting the patrol’s attention, whilst Annie insists on staying awake with him, leading to the pair to begin a fumbling conversation as the insecure Mikey asks his wife whether he repeats himself when he talks as Nicky accused him of, and when she says, “I never notice it,” he commands, “From now on when I do something, notice it.”

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May evokes her own character in A New Leaf as Annie is defined as a woman blankly grateful for the semblance of suburban normality Mikey has given her even, half-singing “You walked into my life!” in her gratitude for being delivered from solitude and pining, even if the cost is living with someone she barely knows in the real sense, scarcely aware of what he seems to do for a living or the meaning of all the signs and portents accumulating through the night until the final gunshots. And yet she doesn’t know things that have cemented him and Nicky together in their shared reality. Mikey eventually mentions to Annie his younger brother Izzy who died of a fever when he was a teenager, one of the tales of the past mentioned briefly between Mikey and Nicky earlier. Mikey begins recounting the pathetic story relating to the smashed watch, which his father, who he describes as “a sour man,” gave to Izzy as he was dying, then reclaimed it after he passed and gave it to Mikey. The one totem of Mikey’s father he has had and lost was actually a kind of cursed object reminding him of the paternal love he was never granted, whereas Nicky and Izzy were able to illicit it.

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Annie’s bewildered, empty reactions reveal a total incapacity to process her husband suddenly revealing the void in himself. May here seems to be clawing at some common, barely acknowledged sense of trauma connecting the bodies of American life, ensconced now in prosperity but with feet in the muck of a past that’s still raw in memory. This sets the scene for the devastating climax as Nicky arrives, demanding entry, with Mikey pretending to not be home and getting Annie to fend him off instead. When Nicky spots Kinney approaching in his car, his demands become more frantic and desperate, slamming the wood and crying out “Get me a doctor Mikey!” over and over. Mikey starts pushing furniture up against the door to keep him out, barricading himself against the looming chaos with the stuff of his bourgeois life. Finally Nicky’s cries are silenced as Kinney fills him bullets and drives off with a look of satisfaction. May fades out on Mikey’s haggard expression as he rasps a final request for Annie to go to bed. As May started regarded Nicky’s face in the first seconds of the film, so she ends it regarding Mikey’s look of glazed, haggard fatigue and dumbfounding, as if Mikey is not so much shocked and sad that he finally did such a thing to a friend as he is amazed he had the capacity to do it, that in the end self-preservation was the strongest and most authentic of instincts. Now Mikey is alone in the most profound sense, the last keeper of profound memory, full of stories boring and irrelevant to anyone else. One of the great endings, for one of the great American films.

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The General (1926)

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Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Screenwriters: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Fifth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2021, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available online

Long after most of the continent of silent cinema split away and became the rarefied preserve for a sector of movie lovers, silent comedy has retained its impudent life, its heroes still recognisable. The works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Max Linder, Mabel Normand, the Keystone Kops, and even the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle still have the ability to charm and wow any given audience. Think of how many pastiches of it you’ve seen over the years, automatically making the connection between farce and the stylistics of silent cinema, a language unto itself. Silent comedy survives because the emerging art form and style were uniquely well-suited. Slapstick, loud and crude and personal on the stage, became a weightless ballet of pure movement without sound and the ancient traditions of mime and farceur suddenly found a new and perfect venue, cutting across all conceivable boundaries of cultural and linguistic tradition. Despite an intervening century of argument about the two actor-directors, Chaplin and Keaton merely offered distinct takes on the basic comic concept, of a man fighting both other humans and the random impositions of life in a rapidly modernising world for their share of dignity.

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Chaplin’s Little Tramp, trapped eternally on the wrong side of the glass from acceptance into the world, had a least a certain degree of roguish freedom, a capacity to pick himself up and move on after calamity, to compensate for his eternal exile. Keaton’s characters were trapped within the world, surrounded by bullies and blowhards as well as ornery if not downright malignant machinery, more able to play the romantic lead but always obliged to prove himself, never given the option of failure or surrender. Keaton, blessed with the real first name of Joseph as five previous generations of Keaton men had been before him, emerged from his mother in the town of Piqua, Kansas in 1895, a pure happenstance as his parents were vaudevillians and that was where they happened to be at the time. Keaton’s father was in business with Harry Houdini with a travelling stage show that sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton supposedly gained his stage name when he weathered a tumble down a flight of stairs at 18 months of age, and Keaton himself said it was Houdini who so anointed him. Contrary to his later persona as impassive and unflappable, Keaton’s initial persona in his performances with his parents was a temperamental brat who would fight with them and hurl furniture about.

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Keaton had to dodge enforcers of child labour laws to continue his career but he was on the rise as a teenager as his alcoholic father faltered. Around the same time as a stint in the army during World War I, Keaton encountered Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, already an established and popular comedy star, who encouraged him to try acting in a short he was filming. Keaton adapted so quickly Arbuckle brought him into his company immediately. Initially uneasy about his new medium, Keaton nonetheless became swiftly enraptured by the mechanics of filmmaking, borrowing, disassembling, and rebuilding a camera overnight. After making 14 shorts with Arbuckle, including his directing debut The Rough House (1917), Keaton gained the backing of Arbuckle’s producer Joseph M. Schenck and appeared in the first of his solo starring vehicles, The Saphead (1920). As he moved into making feature films, Keaton tried to stretch his screen persona, but had more luck with stretching his approach to filmmaking to a degree that was at the cutting edge of filmmaking at the time, resulting in exercises like the still-vital experimental cinema of Sherlock Jr (1924) and the self-satirising, proliferating selves of The Play House (1921) poking fun of the one-man-band tendencies of Keaton and many of his fellows.

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Demonstrative in his early appearances on screen, Keaton began perfecting his “great stone face” act. He became the emblematic stoic, beset at all times by the random perversities of the world and muddling through. Keaton was proud that his persona was essentially that of a working man, getting on with things, holding to principles no matter how drastic his situations became. The General, Keaton’s magnum opus, came after an unbroken run of success, but Schenck, who by this time was the head of Metro Films, soon baulked as Keaton spent upwards of $750,000 on the production. Keaton shared directing duties with his constant writing collaborator Clyde Bruckman, and filmed the movie, set in Georgia during the American Civil War, in Oregon instead to take advantage of the old-fashioned railway equipment still littering the landscape, including two vintage locomotives the production bought up for shooting. The shoot became increasingly arduous particularly as the engines kept sparking fires in the locality, and the climactic shot of a train wreck became the single most expensive image created in the silent era. The General proved a failure with the 1926 audience and also critics who seemed bemused by Keaton’s insistence on blending comedy with more serious aspects. This hurt Keaton’s career, compounded when his production company collapsed during the shooting of Steamboat Bill, Jr (1927), and forced him to take refuge with MGM, a partnership that began well with The Cameraman (1928) but soon became a ruinous straitjacket for the creatively sovereign and personally fraying Keaton.

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The reason for The General’s failure seems mysterious today, given that it’s long since taken pride of place as Keaton’s most regarded film and one of the essential works of cinema in general. There are some possible reasons, including the unpopularity of films with its Civil War subject matter, as well as more subtle dimensions to what Keaton was trying to do. The General’s simple plot is also the engine of its purity, a work about motion and possessed of it, the mechanical problems with which Keaton liked to illustrate a proto-existential worldview now become not only an aspect of the drama but its governing and dominating infrastructure. Keaton was inspired by the true story of a raid to steal a train and wreak havoc led by Union soldier James J. Andrews, as recorded by one of his men William Pittenger in his memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. The real story wasn’t a lark – Andrews and several of his men were captured and executed as spies – but a surprising amount of the story’s detail, including the name of the captured train and a pursuit by hand-cart, wove its way into Keaton’s telling. Keaton cast himself as a train driver whose chief motive is recapturing his beloved locomotive, the General, from the men who steal it.

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There’s a touch of irony, given the way even the Civil War seems to be being perpetually refought rhetorically today, apparent in the way Keaton decided to play a character who becomes a Confederate hero because it suited his assailed, everyman persona better, noting that given the South lost the war it was easy to take pity on. The film conspicuously avoids any degree of political dimension beyond automatic sectarian feeling, but the very name of Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, identifies him as the emblematic Southerner. The first dialogue title card tells us, “There were two loves in his life. His engine – and—” before cutting to the photo of Johnnie’s lady fair Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) pinned to the engine canopy. At the outset Johnnie pulls the General and the Western and Atlantic Flyer train behind it into the town of Marietta, Georgia, in early 1861. Johnnie’s simplicity and almost childlike affect are confirmed as he happily shakes hands with a couple of urchins interested in the engine, and the lads bend over in inspecting the pistons in imitation of Johnnie’s focused obsession with the running of the locomotive. The kids follow Johnnie single-file through the streets of Marietta as he advances with intent towards Annabelle’s house, only for him to pass by Annabelle herself whilst she’s borrowing a book from a friend: she spots him and joins the procession to her own front door, before politely stepping before Johnnie and entering her home before inviting him in.

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There’s already an amusing obsession with linear movement, pursuit, and little surprises of chance here that reverberate through the rest of the film apparent in this gently comic sequence. The emphasis is placed on Johnnie’s intense experience of the moment, his tiny gestures and large all part of his attempt to maintain a glaze of courteous eligibility to Annabelle and her family. Inside, the two boys sit in polite attendance whilst Johnnie tries to woo, and finally to get rid of them he makes like he’s leaving, donning his hat and waving the lads through door, before closing it on them. Johnnie’s romantic connection with Annabelle is however immediately threatened with far more dramatic import for him than any other factor as her brother (Frank Barnes) informs her father (Charles Smith) that Fort Sumter has been fired on and war is breaking out. Father and son immediately prepare to go volunteer, as does the virtually oblivious Johnnie, who nonetheless once his patriotic duty is pointed out to him becomes properly determine to follow through.

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Heading to a general store where the clerks have set up a swiftly formed recruiting office, Johnnie finds himself refused induction without reason, although the audience is privy to the recruiters’ conversation about him which establishes he’s far more useful as a train driver than a soldier. Johnnie, in his annoyance, tries again with face partly concealed by a cocked hat, using a pseudonym and, guessing why he was refused, also giving another profession. Recognised and refused again, his next attempt to steal another man’s induction card sees him finally booted out the back door. Walking past Annabelle’s father and brother as they queue, they invite him to stand in line with him, but he sadly shakes his head. Taking this as his sign that he doesn’t want to serve, they tell Annabelle about Johnnie’s cowardice, and Annabelle refuses to listen to Johnnie’s account, telling him no to speak to her again until he’s in uniform. Keaton illustrates Johnnie’s forlorn lot with one of his most famous visual gags, as Johnnie settles wearily upon a piston and doesn’t notice to one of his fellow drivers moving the train down the line, Johnnie lifted and lowered by the motion of the piston in an ingenious counterpoint to his arrested obliviousness. This is one of the great screen depictions of sadness, and one that also suggests a rather bluer joke: Johnnie will be alone with his piston for some time to come.

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Johnnie’s predicament elicits sympathy for his protagonist, in a fairly familiar manner for Keaton, as misread and beset, regarded with suspicion as unmanly and shiftless. When the narrative picks up over a year later, Keaton depicts a Union general, Thatcher (Jim Farley) making plans with his chief spy Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), who wants to raid into Confederate territory, steal a train, and use it as a Trojan horse to wreak havoc along the line to make Thatcher’s planned advance easier. Unfortunately for Johnnie, the General proves in the right place and the right time for Anderson and his men to grab as the train pulls up in their planned rendezvous town of Big Shanty. Annabelle is aboard the train as she’s heading to visit her father who’s been wounded in battle, with Johnnie shooting her mournful looks as he tends to the engine. Annabelle goes back to the train after everyone’s alighted for dinner to dig through her valise for her purse in the baggage compartment, just as Anderson and his men congregate by the train and move suddenly to capture it. Anderson takes Annabelle captive and ties her up whilst the train tears out of the station. Johnnie, seeing only his train being taken, give chase on foot, pursuing along the narrowing course of the railway line into the distance as everyone else gives up.

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The following chase is an extended set-piece where both the orchestration of the great, unwieldy train sections and Keaton’s willingness to constantly put his body on the line, his ability to depict struggle and imagination purely by body language, are equally important. Small wonder Keaton was considered quite the heartthrob by female fans. First Johnnie clambers aboard a handcart and manages to get it moving by utilising his whole body weight upon the crank. He’s given a chance to catch up as Anderson keeps stopping the General so his team can rip up the tracks. When Johnnie hits the gap he’s thrown off the cart as it runs off the tracks, throwing Johnnie off, the luckless engineer landing on his backside whilst the cart tumbles down the slope into a river. Undaunted, Johnnie spies a man who’s just hitched up his early bicycle at his front gate: in a perfect blend of Keaton’s athletic prowess and his skill in framing it, he dashes into the shot, springs upon the seat, and takes off in renewed pursuit without missing a beat. He follows it up with a hilarious travelling shot of him trying to ride the wooden-wheeled bike along a bumpy path only to tumble over again. When he manages to reach the next stop on the line, Kingston, Johnnie finally returns to his native realm as he alerts the soldiers on a pulled-up troop train to the theft, explaining he thinks deserters took it, and leaps to the controls of the engine named Texas, only for him to accidentally leave behind the soldiers as the engine hasn’t been connected to their carriage.

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The General is reminiscent of Keaton’s earlier The Navigator (1924) in revolving around his character’s battle with a large and intractable piece of machinery – there it was a ship, and Keaton was playing a rich kid learning independence. The General by contrast offers up Johnnie as an ordinary man who knows how to do one thing exceedingly well: run a train. He approaches everything else with the same quicksilver inspiration fuelled by necessity, proving himself remarkable if also often ridiculous throughout, which could be Keaton’s ultimate commentary on being human altogether. That Johnnie doesn’t even know that both of his “loves” have been snatched by the raiders gives antiheroic piquancy to his adventures. When they’re finally reunited and Annabelle expresses her thanks for him coming to rescue her, he looks like he’s tried to swallow a doorstop for a moment before simply going along with it. Johnnie ultimately finds himself gaining real heroic status by the film’s end, but he’s also just as often lucky or unlucky. Keataon’s single most famous and endlessly recreated joke, the collapsing wall in Steamboat Bill, Jr that falls upon the oblivious hero with his life only saved by his body lining up with a window, contained a similar sense of both the haphazardness of life and the vulnerability of people as well as the mysterious grace that pulls them through danger.

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Today, it feels as if The General has had its deepest impact less on comedy than on modern action cinema, with its depiction of chaotic events caused by a similarly blend of heedless motive and snowballing cause and effect. The film’s imprint can be registered in sequences as disparate as the climax of Stagecoach (1939), the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a vertical edition in Die Hard (1988), as well as overt tributes like the climax of The Lone Ranger (2016). One of the few followers who genuinely grasped onto what Keaton had demonstrated with the film has been Jackie Chan, who set about emulating him in both his action and comedy staging and dissolving any conceptual distance between the two, as well as playing with Keaton’s mechanistic sensibility. Of course Keaton didn’t invent a connection between slapstick comedy and action: it was lurking since the very beginning of cinema, Chaplin had done funny-thrilling cliffhanger sequences like the finale of The Gold Rush (1923), and Lloyd made a career out of them. But the way the action plays out in The General, hinging on details like the rate the trains burn wood at and use up water in their boilers, and the limitations of the trains as machines that can only move where track lets them, tries to take a certain realism as a starting point rather than a burden or nicety for Keaton in creating his epic slapstick.

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Decades later, in an interview for the book The Parade’s Gone By, Keaton would recall the problems presented for comic filmmakers by moving from short two and three-reel films into features, because previously none of them had ever done anything as undignified as write a script. Longer films demanded strong storylines rather than haphazard farce, unless they could fit in a dream or fantasy sequence. Writing films for them became chiefly a matter of coming up with a good start and a good ending and everything in between would take care of itself. The situation presented in The General could almost be a commentary on this creative process, setting up the motivating idea and finding every way possible of impeding the rush to the end. With Sherlock Jr Keaton had taken the dream option to dig into the very workings of cinema and correlating them with the malleability of the psyche, The General instead surrenders most of the way to the working of the world, the machine, the narrative. One possible reason the film didn’t quite land with its contemporary audience might well lie in the fastidiousness of Keaton’s method in this regard: the situation isn’t just a pretext but a structure, the necessary linearity of the train chase Keaton’s vehicle for exploring cinema narrative itself as a chain of events.

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When Johnnie loads a cannon he’s hauling in his attempts to halt the other train, only for the cannon to start losing inclination: after haplessly detaching the cannon car, Johnnie flees right to the very cowcatcher on the train’s front in his fear of the cannon going off: right at the last moment the curving of the track abruptly opens a clear field of fire for the weapon, which goes off and blasts a crater narrowly missing the General and the raiders. In another ingenious bit, Johnnie, trying to clear the tracks of sleepers the raiders drop behind them to impede their pursuer, balances uneasily on the cowcatcher and fumbles to grab up one sleeper and uses it to flip another out of the way. This stunt, exceptionally dangerous and utterly beguiling, is also in the flow of Johnnie-as-dynamic-problem-solver a rough draft for video gaming. In terms of staging and technique this sort of thing wasn’t so different to the meticulously orchestrated automobile and trolley car chases Mack Sennett had done with the Keystone Kops, but Keaton’s more meticulous, slow-burn method approach resists their frenetic tenor.

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The paradox in this is it helps Keaton achieve a more authentically absurdist tone. Johnnie keeps blinking in bewilderment when an unhitched carriage from the train ahead seems to appear and then vanish, and twists in seemingly settled forms and functions, like the missing rails that throw him from the handcart: everything works until it doesn’t, and the tunnel-visioned Johnnie is as helpless despite his proactive efforts in the face of such undermining as the audience. Keaton illustrates how and why Johnnie keeps getting this impression, but the man himself is left with the woozy impression of reality suddenly rewriting itself. So whilst The General doesn’t entirely lack the flecks of surrealism in his earlier films as inanimate objects do strange and unexpected things and quirks of chance and fate unspool with teasing wit, Keaton nonetheless insists on a precise sense of how his jokes connect with the necessarily rolling logic of the situation. Keaton was making a movie for a cinema age that was evolving, becoming more technically and aesthetically engaged with its own nature: whilst radically different in form from what the Soviet realists were doing, Keaton nonetheless explores his awareness of cinema as a system of images.

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At the same time The General also nudges the melodramatic style of early silent film in a manner that suggests Keaton was already feeling and playing upon a certain tide of nostalgia. When Anderson ties up Annabelle, the film recalls the straightforward suspense scenarios of the days of Pearl White, whilst the storyline as a whole nods back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1906). Keaton makes sport of the melodrama elements, of course. Once Anderson is knocked out during Johnnie’s recapture of the General, he starts reviving at one point, potentially threatening a fight or hostage-taking, only for Anderson to be accidentally knocked out again, and he doesn’t stir again until the very end. Nostalgia is indeed a powerful impulse throughout The General with its blend of dreaminess and immediacy in looking back to days of yore. The storyline pastiches the romantic mythology of the era with Annabelle the curly-tressed maiden of good white Southern stock who must be rescued, but Keaton teases it in ways D.W. Griffith never would have. Annabelle’s name pays heed to Edgar Allan Poe’s lost heroine. Keaton had poured over photos by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to absorb the period look, and the influence is plain, both in the crisp approximation of the old daguerreotype image and the sensitivity to light and shade in the moments of scenic beauty he allows, glimpses of flood-flooded forests and glistening hills of grass.

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Indeed it’s easy to see Keaton lampooning Griffith, making sport of one of Griffith’s famous “iris” shots when Johnnie spots the captive Annabelle through a hole in a tablecloth, and in the finale when Johnnie advances with a flag like Ben Cameron in The Birth of a Nation (1915) only to accidentally take up a heroic pose on what he thinks is a rock but proves to be an officer bent double. Keaton’s take on Johnnie’s loyalty is hardly antiheroic – actually Johnnie is one of the great screen heroes, almost casual in his acts of astounding bravery once properly motivated. But he does incidentally deflate any sense of grand and noble motives beyond wanting badly to be perceived as worthy by Annabelle and to do a good turn for people he knows and bewildered by everything outside that frame of reference: Johnnie is utterly ordinary in this regard. In the motif of Johnnie being ostracised for not becoming a soldier Keaton seems to have been more thinking of the schisms over such things that gripped all sides during the decade-past Great War, offering implicit sympathy for anyone who couldn’t serve as they might have liked. In the climax Johnnie reverts to a childlike state as he playacts a leader of importance whilst a proper Confederate General (Frederick Vroom) rides a white horse behind him, men gesticulating in imperious manner, the real manipulator of life and death on a mass scale and his impish, accidentally satirical mirror.

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Johnnie’s distraction is at a zenith when he keeps laboriously chopping wood for fuel whilst the General and the Texas barrel past the Confederate and Union armies, breaking the handle on his axe and leaving him still trying to chop with the head. If as Talleyrand said treason is a matter of dates Keaton offers it more as a matter of place: Anderson hurriedly changes out of the Confederate uniform he’s donned as they enter the Union zone, and later Johnnie has to reverse the procedure, casting aside the Union uniform he puts on to rescue Annabelle. The Union raiders think the pursuing train is packed with avengers on their trail, and so throw everything they have in Johnnie’s path to hinder him. They only, finally realise their pursuer is a single man when they halt the General atop a trestle bridge and rain down firewood on him. Johnnie stops the Texas and runs off into the woods as a driving rain starts. Soon he happens upon a farmhouse which the Union soldiers are using as a headquarters Johnnie sneaks into the house and finished up hiding under a dining table the Union men gather around to discuss the next part of their campaign, alerting Johnnie to the army’s planned sneak advance across a railway bridge at Rock River. Keaton’s delight in discursive twists in the scenes he sets up extends here as the scene seems set up for Johnnie to be exposed and chased out, but even getting burnt by a cigar and almost sneezing, not to mention beholding the captive Annabelle, don’t manage to overwhelm his composure.

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Johnnie’s rescue of Annabelle is a more subtle example of Keaton’s gift for deadpan staging – a club clutched by a disembodied hand reaching out of a doorway knocking out a sentry; Johnnie dresses in his uniform and then wallops another guard with his rifle butt with the same cool sufficiency. A toppled vase during Johnnie’s plucking Annabelle from her room doesn’t attract attention, but when she’s caught in a bear trap Johnnie extracts her only to get himself caught three times. The pair sleep out the dark and stormy night and find the next day what seemed like the middle of nowhere is adjacent a Union army camp. Johnnie and Annabelle prove an able team as Johnnie proposes to sneak Annabelle onto the train by stuffing her in a sack that was filled with boots and getting close enough so that she can pull a pun detaching the engine from the train being formed behind it, before Johnnie stows her in a boxcar. Johnnie then springs into the cockpit, knocks out Anderson as he oversees the operation and pushes out a couple of other men, before gunning the engine and tearing out of the camp. Union soldiers immediately give chase in the Texas. This time the reverse chase is faster, more urgent affair, as Johnnie tries for most part to maintain his lead on the chasers, but faces a lack of fuel.

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The wry spectacle of Johnnie and Annabelle working to keep their escape going in their different ways helps elucidate another dimension to the film, as Keaton’s musing on coupling as the natural and unnatural consequence of love. In this regard Keaton might have been taking a little inspiration from Arbuckle, whose comedies often revolved around trying to settle into domestication only to be faced with mounting chaos. Keaton had built his film persona around the disparity between his own wiry, hangdog appearance and his physical dynamism, and the constant motif being underestimated. This motif is linked here to the way Johnnie proves simply doing his job is heroic and worthy of mythic valorisation, where it’s initially read as a moral failure by those who require more exalted proofs, insufficient to win Annabelle’s hand. Their intuitive partnering whilst on the run sees Annabelle as inspired in helping foil their pursuers: at one point she ties a rope between trees on the trackside, a device Johnnie doesn’t think will work, but it proves to slow and stop the chasers: the couple are already married in essence as a working partnership. At one point Johnnie gets left behind when he jumps from the train to work a switch, so he runs down the slope to where the railway doubles back, only for Annabelle to manage to throw the train into reverse, returning the way it’s come and forcing Johnnie to dash back up the slope again.

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But Annabelle also tries to domesticate Johnnie’s work space, cleaning up the cockpit with a broom and carefully selecting pieces of wood worthy of fuelling his engine. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a twig to add to the fire which she happily does, whereupon he starts throttling her, before suddenly kissing her, and turning with equal suddenness back to his tasks. It’s both a funny and faintly shocking moment, then and now, capturing something violently bipolar about love, both delighted and infuriated by the cost of surrendering personal realm to another. Finally Johnnie and Annabelle reach the Rock River bridge and set it on fire. When the Union commanders try to send the Texas through after it as they launch their assault, the bridge collapses as the Texas passes over, dumping it into the river below. This amazing shot – the one that cost all that money – is the climax not just of the railroad action but of Keaton’s entire, life-sized aesthetic, and one that counteracts the absurdist pull of his jokes. Here, finally, the laws of gravity and probability assert their usual, implacable prerogative – on Johnnie’s enemies.

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Johnnie and Annabelle deliver warning to the Confederates about the attack, and the battle sees the Confederates managing to beat back the Union soldiers. Johnnie is an amusing spectacle acting like a commander whilst waving a captured sword, the blade constantly flying out of the hilt, but he becomes more engaged as the General sends him down to instruct an artillery battery as the Union soldiers are creeping their way across the river using boulders as cover. As Johnnie tries to explain himself to the gunners, a Union sniper keeps shooting them down one by one, Johnnie increasingly bewildered by why soldiers keep dropping dead as he speaks to them. This is probably as dark a piece of humour as Keaton ever offered, punctuated when he draws his sword and the blade flies off again, only to land right in the sniper’s back. As he tries to fire off the cannon himself, Johnnie misfires the cannon, but his wild shot knocks out a weir holding back river water that crashes down upon the Union soldiers and drives them back, helping end the battle. This finale offers a key change from the structure of the rest of the film, and Keaton was criticised at the time for mixing in straight warfare with comedy. It nonetheless a brilliantly filmed sequence that contains some of Keaton’s most gorgeously crafted shots and elegantly sarcastic humour.

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Johnnie finally becomes not just a hero but a soldier, the trade he happily declares his profession as he’s enlisted into the army. This comes after the Confederate General commands him to take off Anderson’s false uniform in what seems to be a moment of punishment and reckoning, only for the General to then procure him a Lieutenant’s uniform, donning it before the delighted gaze of Annabelle and her wounded father. The film’s very last joke revisits the sitting-on-the-piston gag but now with Johnnie settling down to kiss Annabelle, adjusting their position so he can rapidly salute the enlisted men passing by. If the first version of this moment contains an extremely coded masturbation joke, this one is about getting properly down to business. It’s also poking fun at the natural next stage of Johnnie’s journey, negotiating the perversities of a different kind of machine: the military. The General was first screened on the last day of 1926 in Tokyo of all places, with the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Sergei Eisenstein’s October, William A. Wellman’s Wings, and a host of other films all released within the months on either side, a moment that marked the high-water mark of silent cinema’s ambition and genius. But the form’s apotheosis was also its sunset, and the transfer to sound would claim many victims, including Keaton. Either way, The General is one of the great films, silent or talking. It’s also something better than great: it’s actually, genuinely funny.

The General can be viewed for free on YouTube and innumerable other places.

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