1930s, Action-Adventure, British cinema

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

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Director: Harold Young

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.

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Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.”

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Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama. The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything.

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The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken to Robespierre.

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But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.

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The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too.

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When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.”  Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities. True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies.

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The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.

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Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.

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One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.

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The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.

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The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.

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Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.”

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Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm. Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her.

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Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.

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1930s, War

Hell’s Angels (1930)

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Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1930s, Action-Adventure, Film Decade, Foreign, Historical, Russian cinema, War

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, Dmitri Vasilyev

By Roderick Heath

In the decade after he reshaped cinema with his then-experimental technique in works like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), Sergei Eisenstein became a peripatetic semi-exile when Stalin’s rise made life uncomfortable for him at home, and the international film scene beckoned. And yet he became a world-famous artist without a friendly harbour to anchor in. A visit to Hollywood had seen him patronised by David Selznick when he handed in his screenplay adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “It was for me a most memorable experience,” Selznick wrote to RKO executive B. P. Schulberg, “The most moving script I have ever read…Is it too late to try to [dissuade] the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” An attempt to make what Eisenstein described as “a shabby travelogue into a really major film,” Que Viva Mexico!, with the backing of leftist writer Upton Sinclair as his producer, resulted in an unfinished pile of beautiful fragments. Eisenstein slunk back to the USSR, fortunately having missed the worst years of the Great Purge.

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Eisenstein’s return seemed well-timed as he commenced work on a film that would evoke historical parable for resistance against invasion, as a dread pall was hanging over Soviet Russia as it was Europe, expecting conflict with Germany’s Nazi regime. Eisenstein’s credited codirector Vasilyev and coscreenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko were imposed collaborators, charged with the job of keeping the taint of “formalism” out of the project. When the movie had been completed and rushed into theatres, Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, and Eisenstein found himself and his film embarrassedly stowed away, only to be rehabilitated when war between the two superstates finally did break out. In spite of all these weighty matters, Alexander Nevsky in many ways sits with some comfort amongst other historical adventure films in the late ’30s, particularly the Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Cecil B. DeMille films like The Crusades (1935). Unlike those brash, breezy, technically more polished films, Eisenstein pares back as much drama as possible to concentrate on the synergistic flow of his shots and carefully built rhythmic intensity. The storyline operates on the most primal of levels.

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Set against the macrocosmic drama facing the assailed city-states of the Rus, with oppression by the Mongol Golden Horde on one side and the advancing fanatical forces of the Teutonic knights on other, Eisenstein pits characters who might have stepped directly out of a folktale: warriors Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov), best of friends competing to win the hand of beautiful Novgorod maiden Olga (Vera Ivashova), who declares she will marry the man who proves himself bravest in battle; Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilov), whose father is executed by the Germans when the city of Pskov is captured through treachery by the Knights, takes up a sword herself and joins the massing Russian resistance; Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov), an aged armourer who becomes embodiment of native pluck in venturing into battle; and Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov), warrior chief of Vladimir who gained the sobriquet “Nevsky” for beating off a Swedish army on the banks of the Neva, the embodiment of sober, conscientious kingship.

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Alexander is first glimpsed when a train of Mongols dragging captive Russians off for forced labour pass by a fishing party, and the peasants and Mongol soldiers begin to clash. Alexander shouts from the water, “Quiet! The fish will take fright!” Striding ashore, he exchanges loaded words with the smiling, autocratic Golden Horde khan (Lyan-Kun). Apart from his cutting, commanding voice and bright, challenging, innately intelligent eyes, Alexander is indistinguishable in his manner and dress from the men he leads, and his casual willingness to get his feet dirty in leading the fishing party contrasts the Mongol, who has a soldier prostrate himself to make a step for him to get into his litter. This scene serves a double purpose: it helps the film overcome the inevitable problem in a Soviet work of the era of how to make a hero of a king, and, more pertinently, establishes Alexander’s character: making no more fuss than necessary and with a goal in mind, he’s receptive to any incidental intuition. Later, he gets the inspiration for his battle strategy from a bawdy joke. In my favourite moment of Cherkasov’s in the film, Alexander paces in distraction and quiet agony around his palace where two of his liegemen mend their fishing net, anticipating the call to fight the Germans and wondering how to beat this formidable enemy. Alexander contemplates the strands of the net, and then tears them apart in frustration: “This is delicate work…not like fighting Swedes…”

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When the delegates do arrive to beg his aid, he declares with new life: “I know nothing of defence! We attack!” Alexander becoming captain to the Rus is preceded by a fierce communal argument in which the citizens of Novgorod, closest to the onward sweep of the Germans, listen to the testimony of those who have escaped from Pskov. Rich merchants and paid agents argue to make a deal with the knights, but the evidence of mangled survivors and treachery infuriates the patriots who shout down the rich men and demand competent leadership: Domash (Nikolai Arsky), a warrior of standing who is their initial choice, turns down the job, insisting that only Alexander can win for them. Alexander replies that the warrior elite of Rus can’t win, and calls for a national uprising; the very earth itself disgorges streams of peasants used to hiding from marauders converging on Novgorod for an exultant expression of fighting spirit.

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Through his montage theory, probably no other director has had such a consequential impact on the development of cinema in general as Eisenstein, but Alexander Nevsky is the film of his that’s had a more particular influence. It’s the perfect model of the few-against-many, good-against-evil epic. Laurence Olivier pillaged it for his Henry V (1945), and it’s hard to imagine movies as popular and diverse as fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Conan the Barbarian (1982), scifi works like the Star Wars saga, and a raft of historical action dramas (David Lean’s films, Spartacus [1960], Braveheart [1995], King Arthur [2004]), without Eisenstein’s model. They quote his optical and editorial tricks, and replicate the dramatic dynamics of his Battle on the Ice sequence. A significant difference between Nevsky and most of the films it influenced, however, is not merely its immediate consequence as a tool for rousing the audience and telling a good yarn, but that it’s a work that channels anthropological and folk-art influences in an attempt to conjure a sense of the past as living tradition, not mere escapism. Nevsky takes the rules of Norse sagas and iconic art seriously to reproduce in part their aesthetics in the context of realistic ’30s cinema.

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Sergei Prokofiev’s score, with its chorale commentaries on the action, entwines with recurring visual motifs that evoke that state of Rus in the mid 1200s—a land of bleaching bones after decades of massacres by the Mongols and stranded longboats redolent of the Viking founders of Vladimir and Novgorod—in painting a cultural context, and a harmonious concept of the drama about to unfold as part of Russia’s past and present. Prokofiev’s work on the film was and is one of the signal collaborations between a great cinema artist and a highly regarded classical composer, and it’s still certainly one of the greatest film scores ever recorded, especially if sheer dramatic necessity is a yardstick—the score is so deeply woven into the film it wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, making Nevsky a true pan-cultural creation. Eisenstein and Prokofiev used all available means of achieving that linked effect, composer writing music to the script and director cutting scenes to match material already written. Nevsky is negligibly lessened by a few overly arch moments of propaganda, but moreso by its technical problems. The film was made with an experimental sound system that had a muffling effect on much of the dialogue and especially on the score, and the rush to get the film in theatres forestalled any tweaking.

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Eisenstein had one of cinema’s most perfect eyes for composing elements within a frame, and his efforts here both extend the high modernism of early Soviet cinema, evident in occasional semi-abstract arrangements, and enrich his visuals with the squared-off perspective of Byzantine-influenced Russian art. In the first half, his compositions are studiously geometric, his actors carefully posing in declarative attitudes: Alexander surveying the expanse of the green Russian dales with an old peasant at his side, or Buslai and Olexich assuming poses in contending for Olga, who constantly stands with back to the two hovering, towering men. This might sound flat and pompous, and yet it’s anything but. What’s remarkable is how Eisenstein uses these qualities to suggest powerful, composing forces, building tension through alternations of hypnotic quiet and tersely delivered dialogue, and violent communal arguments and celebrations on the path from panic and questioning on behalf of the frightened Rus folk to the moment of fearless readiness for the eruptive chaos of battle.

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Just as deliberately flat, and yet still lovably vibrant, are the characterisations. On an almost pantomime level, good and evil are chiefly a matter of expression and dress. The Teutonic villains are so stylised in their evil they barely seem like part of the same species, which is very much the point. In their warrior regalia they seem less like an army of God, though they wrap themselves in religious paraphernalia and espouse Roman Catholicism as a totalitarian ideology, than stygian beasts: Ignat describes one as a witch after besting him. Even when they take off their helmets, they’re a mob of lean, grim, self-satisfied-looking bastards, the Grand Master (Vladimir Yershov) coldly declaring that anyone who resists them will be slaughtered, whilst handing out stolen principalities casually to his followers. The traitors who have delivered Pskov into their hands through connivance and rumour-mongering are shifty-eyed and dour, in contrast to the beaming, sunny Russians.

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The contrast between Buslai and Olexich is one of two variations on the basic Russian character, made most amusingly clear when they court Olga: apple-cheeked, boisterous Buslai declares, “If you want a fun-loving man, marry me!” To which more somber Olexich retorts, “If want to be beaten with a birch stick every night, choose him indeed.” Olga and Vasilisa, too, form a diptych in thrilling at the great action unfolding before them, but each takes a different path: demure Olga makes her pledge to the two warriors, whilst Vasilisa dons a helmet and chain mail and go to war. It’s Vasilisa versus the Germans, and this time, it’s personal: her father, an elder of Pskov, has been executed before her eyes for denouncing the German invaders—hung from a belltower.

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The sequence in Pskov, portraying the evil knights relishing having bound prisoners executed en masse with pikes and screaming children cast into bonfires with the blessing of pet churchmen, is extreme warning and spur to action (one of history’s saddest ironies is that Eisenstein’s apocalyptic manipulation here would soon come to appear too tame). And, of course, in movie language, we know these creeps are ripe to get their asses royally booted. After his advance guard is wiped up thanks to further treachery by the two traitors who are moving back and forth between the lines, Alexander, against the nervous objections of Buslai, decides to make his stand on Lake Chudskoye, on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. There’s actually a lot of historical confusion about just how big (and where) a battle took place on April 5, 1242, with probably far fewer warriors (some place the number at less than a thousand) taking part than is portrayed in the film, but of course, everyone wishes it happened the way this film tells it. The Battle of the Ice sees Eisenstein’s camera, as well as the heroes, let loose with symphonic ferocity, and the build-up to it is one of the great sequences of suspense in any movie.

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The vignettes of the battle are more memorable than most entire films: the early shots of the ranked Russians, Vasilisa and Ignat amongst them, waiting anxiously under stormy clouds on the great white nothing of the lake, peering into the distance as they try to make out the slowly emerging mass of German cavalry; Buslai and Olexich, after days of resenting each other, embracing before taking their posts; the Teutonic knights riding in with their encasing helmets looking like aliens, robots, steampunk tanks; Prokofiev’s music rising to its most menacing and tremendous swells, low chugging horns and high shrieking string, until the two armies crash into each other in whirls of steel and limbs; Olexich and Alexander’s charge to close the trap; Olexich hurling himself in front of Alexander to save his life and getting a chest full of spear points; the horrified expressions of the traitors in watching the knights lose; Vasilisa working up the courage to come out of her hiding place on a wagon, braver and braver in striking out at the Germans.

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Particularly riveting is how Eisenstein switches from occasional long shots, in which the formations of the armies and tussling, fragmented gangs, form almost abstract patterns, to handheld shots within the melee, concussive in their immersive, you-are-there vigour. One moment, when Eisenstein cuts from Alexander’s victories over an opponent to the laughing faces of onlookers and the exultation of musicians cheering on the team, makes the battle reminiscent of a sports film. My favourite moment is when Buslai, losing his sword, is tossed a wooden spar by Vasilisa, with which he joyfully bashes in the stout helmets of the knights, releasing a whoop of exultation as he bounces the spar from hand to hand like a hot potato, high on his own conquering strength; later, when Buslai dresses in a fallen German’s uniform, he clobbers his way out from inside their ranks. Alexander’s final duel with the Grand Master sees him finally topple the villain before the Germans take flight and are swallowed in the Biblical moment when the lake’s ice gives way and plunges them into the frigid brine.

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Fittingly, Eisenstein intended this sequence in part as a tribute to the other great progenitor of cinema language, D. W. Griffith—specifically, the ice-floe scenes in Way Down East (1920). Even greater than the battle, in a more subtle way, is the aftermath, the lake ice a charnel house of broken bodies, wounded and dying men calling for their loved ones, both Olexich and Buslai lying crippled as night falls. The women of Novgorod, including Olga, come out on the ice bearing torches to search for their loved ones, a female voice on the soundtrack voicing the sentiments of the scene in desolate fashion. Rarely has a film of this sort paid such attention to the cost of even heroic triumph. The final scene is, however, one of victory and resolution, as the traitors and captive Germans haul sled-loads of the wounded, and Buslai declares, in defiance of his mother, that neither he nor Olexich were as brave as Vasilisa, allowing Olexich and Olga to marry because he’s found his girl in Vasilisa, a delightfully neat clincher to the quandary. The result is one of those few films that makes the boundary between high art and blissful entertainment melt away.

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1930s, Western

The Plainsman (1936)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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By Roderick Heath

The Plainsman is bunkum. But it’s entertaining bunkum and one of Cecil B. DeMille’s best films. The Plainsman, fairly well-written, and punctuated by neat verbal byplay reflecting DeMille’s recently abandoned interest in racy screwball comedy after the failure of Madame Satan in 1930, is given special force by two grand performances, from Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, as an incredibly romanticized Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It’s also a veritable super-Western, beating How the West Was Won (1962) to the punch by nearly 30 years in trying make a vast historical saga out of sprawling, disconnected events and gilded genre clichés. DeMille stretches truth and credibility to near-ridiculous lengths to provide a streamlined narrative leading from Abraham Lincoln’s (Frank McGlynn Sr.) plans for postwar America, outlined just before he goes to a performance at Ford’s Theatre, to Hickok’s being shot in the back in a card game. At least the movie is honest enough in its credits to admit to compressing events for the sake a dramatic narrative, whilst also being vague enough in its changes to disguise the timeline of events.

The oft-recycled, epic plot, follows the efforts of dastardly financiers with investments in repeating rifles who are unlikely to be paid back after the Civil War’s end deciding to sell them to Indians, hiring seedy trader John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) to do so. The Indians, unhappy at the large number of young men following the advice to “go West,” start agitating more aggressively than expected. Hickok, returning from war service, runs into old pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to a dainty, peace-abiding Eastern miss (Helen Burgess) and fretting irritably over ex-flame Jane, who’s working as a stagecoach driver. They’re all soon embroiled in frontier skirmishes, and both Bills are sent off on disparate missions by General Custer (John Miljan) in an attempt to head off a war. But war comes anywhere. At one point, renegade Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair (Paul Harvey!), tortures his captive, Will Bill, to loosen Jane’s tongue about where Buffalo Bill is leading a relief column. Because she’s a girl, she spills the beans, and the two Bills end up holding off a massive assault on the train whilst Jane tries to alert Custer.

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Needless to say, they get out of that scrape. When Hickok attempts to bring in Lattimer, he instead has to gunfight with three soldiers who are his partners, killing them all but suffering wounds himself. Custer, believing Hickok to be a murderer, wants him arrested and sends Cody after him. Both men soon find out that Custer and his men have been killed at the Little Bighorn with guns sold by Lattimer to Sitting Bull. Hickok tracks Lattimer down to Deadwood, takes out the nefarious villain, and decides to wait out Cody’s return with the cavalry to round up the rest of them. He plays a game poker with them, where he draws a hand of aces and eights.

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It’s balderdash, of course, but not quite as big a load of it as I first assumed. Jane, prone to romancing, did claim to have worked as a scout for Custer at the frontier Fort Russell, but was all of 13 when the Civil War started, possibly lending a weird subtext to Hickok’s prewar affection for her. The two Bills were indeed acquainted, having met before the war when Hickok was 18 and Cody 12. But Hickok didn’t meet Jane until a couple of years before his death in 1876. Hickok’s assassin, mining roughneck Jack McCall (Porter Hall), is reinvented as a dapper, craven associate of Lattimer’s. The screenplay is, nonetheless, amusing and clever in how it weaves together vignettes in the legends of all four into a tight story that rockets along. Arthur’s wondrous Jane ought to be more famous than it is as a landmark screen heroine who, in one particularly delightful scene, strips off the sable dress she’s wearing to reveal britches, wields a Winchester, and rides off with rare zest to fetch Custer. The problem is she’s undercut by DeMille; he was fond of willful, rule-breaking heroines but always made sure they were taken down a peg for it, becoming overwrought and eventually either deliberately or inadvertently treacherous. Jane is properly disgraced for being weak enough to spill the beans to Yellow Hair, but it does give Arthur a marvelous moment, when Jane lolls in pure, self-loathing despair.

DeMille was the most famously and proudly chauvinistic of filmmakers, yet also a man of curious contradictions—the devoutly religious, intensely patriotic patriarch whose sex-and-drug orgies were famous in Tinseltown, and with a biting cynicism about the expectations of the American public he went to such great effort to entertain. When they rejected Madame Satan and jazz-age raciness, he turned to religious subjects; when they rejected The Crusades (1934), he abandoned world history for a time, and did it always with a smirk. Despite his strictly conservative bent, sympathy for the oppressed and degraded is a theme in his work: he reassures us of Lattimer’s total villainy when he kicks a black porter in the head for dropping a crate of rifles.

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Despite that, it’s not exactly PC in terms of its portrayal of Native American interests. Like many films of the period (They Died with Their Boots On, 1941; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, 1948, etc.), the blame for the Indian Wars is put more on irresponsible arms dealers, sharklike profiteers both individual and corporate, and renegade bigots of both races, clearing guilt away from government policies, callous military ventures, and endemic racism. As in They Died with Their Boots On, Custer is the perfect cavalier forced into a war and final destruction by forces beyond the ken of both him and the Indians, rather than the crazed, messianic butcher we’d be getting by the time of Little Big Man (1970). Far more so than John Ford’s films, which, even when portraying Native Americans at their most villainous, bestowed a certain dignity on them, DeMille is happy shopping out patronizing attitudes, for example, showing them behaving with childish fascination when Jane distracts a war party by interesting them in Mrs. Cody’s hat collection, and then moving to destructive tantrums and grotesque torture sessions. You can see variations on the same plot, each time tweaked a little further around the dial in meaning, through Rio Grande (1949) to Major Dundee (1965) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Whereas Ford found the theme of former enemies of the Civil War fighting together on the plains intriguing and volatile enough to generate several movies, for DeMille’s it’s a throwaway comedy touch, as if the war was an automatically healed wound in the great march of American history.

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But The Plainsman feels like a generic textbook for other reasons. DeMille had the classical director’s understanding of how audiences respond to detailed flourishes of action, and Cooper, at his youthful best, is the catalyst. His Hickok is a study in rest and motion, situating himself in easy poses with an unassuming expression, tersely measured motions, and reactions until driven to action. He becomes a blur of brilliance—riding between two horses through a battle, picking off pursuers with a one-handed Winchester shot, spinning his pistols on his fingers and slipping them back in their holsters without taking his steely gaze off the men he’s challenging. Cooper’s Hickok is the perfect Western hero, and perhaps better than any other film, this one shows off Cooper, the lean, sexy, innately physical actor, supremely confident in controlling a scene. One throwaway gesture exemplifies Cooper’s style—trying to avoid discussing Jane’s betrayal with Cody, he ends with a slight move of his head, a momentary parting of his lips, as if to say something more, but then demurs, clamming up, ending the scene with an unspoken tension. It’s the sort of telling, barely noticeable flourish that affirms Cooper as both an intelligent actor and a fascinating star.

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Cooper’s innate sense of subtlety is particularly cool when contrasted with DeMille’s complete disinterest in it. He pursued a kind of illustrative ideal to the point his final—and greatest—film, The Ten Commandments (1956), achieved a kind of perfection in its total, depthless stylization. The themes and characterizations in The Plainsman practically stand on a table and shout, and his schoolbook sense of pictorial history results in some hilariously museum-diorama scenes of Lincoln and Custer’s Last Stand. Yet DeMille warrants more respect as a filmmaker than he generally gets today. Like a relative handful of Hollywood directors of the time—Ford, Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Dieterle, Capra—he had a recognizably individual style of framing shots, more vivid than the standard, dull, medium group shots of the average studio hand and usually handled with the care of a Victorian academic painter. He specialized in finely detailed and composed tableaux vivant, such as those of the battered soldiers hunkered down, but never let such fussiness spoil his sense of high action.

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Moreover, though intended as thundering entertainment, The Plainsman is not stupid. It’s a film that actually manages to be about ethical growth. Hickok, so Buffalo Bill assures his wife pleasantly, has no rival as a “corpse-maker.” He’s the distillation of the violent West’s quick-draw wits and an angry misogynist. He even considers killing Cody when he comes to arrest him. But Hickok’s also decent man, who had taken Lincoln’s utterance about the need to bring order to the West to heart. Hickok eventually comes to the realization that a life of casual extermination is getting old, and begins learning to forgive Jane her failure of nerve and Jack McCall for their sins. The irony being, of course, that McCall will shoot him in the back for his newfound pacifism.

(Trivia note: A very young Anthony Quinn [above], in his fourth movie appearance, plays a Cheyenne warrior who tells Hickok and Cody about the Little Bighorn battle. He bluffed his way into the role by pretending to speak authentic Cheyenne, whilst speaking pure gibberish. Quinn would later marry DeMille’s daughter Katherine and continue a long association with him, directing a remake of his The Buccaneer in 1959. )

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1930s, Horror/Eerie, Scandinavian cinema

Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)

Director: Carl Theodore Dreyer

By Roderick Heath

1931 was a watershed year for horror cinema. With Tod Browning’s crepuscular, but patchy Dracula, James Whale’s Gothic fairy tale Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s vivid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Michael Curtiz’s gleefully absurd and polished Doctor X, the genre found its feet in the Hollywood of sound, and made a big impact at the box office. At the time, they set the pace, created stars, and codified the film concept of Mary Shelley’s homunculus, Bram Stoker’s vampire, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s doppelganger (Doctor X purloined the mad scientist imagery of pulp magazine covers for the cinema). Yet despite their iconic status, the Universal-brand horror films have little relevance to the modern genre. Many of today’s films, however, owe something to another 1931 film.

Vampyr, supposedly inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and other stories in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection (in truth it owes little but mood to Le Fanu), was at the time completely overshadowed. It was directed and written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who had begun with the hit Master of the House (1924). But as Dreyer became more formally rigorous and experimental, exemplified by his now-famous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), he lost audiences. German and Scandinavian directors had a field day with macabre subjects, for visual rhapsodies and post-WWI expressions of mental anguish and collapse. These included Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1920), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1921), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, of course, 1921), Abel Gance (Au Secours!, 1923), Paul Leni (Waxworks, 1924), and Fritz Lang (coauthor of Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919, and director of Der Meude Tod, 1921). Dreyer’s efforts with Vampyr were not about telling a story through the symbolic prisms of Expressionism, but pursuing the tantalizing challenge of Surrealism, to capture the essence of a dream as itself; to replicate the sensations, the elided realities and meanings, the disjunctive perspectives. The film’s dialogue is in English, German, and French, with an eye to making export easier, but also contributing to its “nowhere” mood.

Vampyr was produced privately by the film’s star, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (acting under the name Julian West). The sallow-faced Gunzburg plays wandering geek and professional busybody Allan Grey, loosely based on one of Le Fanu’s recurring heroes (he’s called David Gray in the English version), who tramps about the countryside in tweed suit, jaunty hat, with a net on his shoulder, suggesting a holidaying entomologist with a morphine habit and an unconventional sex life. He arrives in Courtempierre, an isolated Franco-German village, passing, at the ferry bell, a black figure carrying a scythe, a sight that would make most men turn and head in another direction. The opening scrawl tells us that Allan has had many strange encounters; he’s a kind of proto-Fox Mulder. He settles into a small hotel room, the walls of which are covered in macabre, medieval decorations. He hears someone muttering outside, and catches a brief glimpse of a gnarled-faced man haunting the upstairs. He is awoken at midnight by a visitor; not, as he may have been hoping, the innkeeper’s daughter, but aged local chatelaine (Maurice Schutz) who makes wordless entreaty to him, as an outsider and therefore apparently trustworthy, to care for a package, marked “Not To Be Opened Until My Death.”

Allan, knowing such packages never bode well, tries to follow the old man. He wanders the day-for-midnight wonderland of the village, where shadows without forms move by themselves and dogs and children moan constantly. Allan explores a ruined chateau, which, with its cavernous rooms and labyrinthine halls, exactly conjures those shifting space-time traps of dreams. It is vaguely inhabited by a soldier and a one-legged man, both of whom, when they sleep, have their shadows walk off and perform nefarious deeds at someone else’s bidding. There’s also an ancient crone (Henriette Gérard) wearing Flemish dress of the 1600s and a bespectacled, meek-looking but creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko – what a name!). In the film’s most bizarre and wondrous moment, the camera explores a vast attic where a populace of shadows are dancing to snatches of Gypsy fiddle, until the crone, on a lower floor, framed by dangling, rotating cartwheels, angrily lifts her cane for silence, which she gains instantaneously. She hands the doctor a vial of poison. Clearly, they’re in league for some awful purpose.

Allan escapes the ruin and reaches the chatelaine’s house just in time to see the shadows of the soldier and one-legged man shoot the chatelaine. His assassination seems almost expected by the household, for he’s been fighting this oppressive, intangible evil. Allan is invited to stay and protect them, Gisele (Rena Mandel, an ex-nude model), the chatelaine’s daughter, Her sister Leone (Sybille Schmitz, the film’s only professional actor) is continually lured into the garden and drained of blood by the crone. In one of the most needle-sharp erotic-horror moments in cinema, Leone awakens from a delirium and latches eyes on her sister, her happy smile broadening into a grin of perverse lust, scaring Gisele away. A servant is sent by carriage to fetch the police; when it comes rolling back, the driver is bloody and lifeless. Allan, exhausted, falls asleep. He dreams Gisele has been kidnapped and tied up in the ruin, and then finds his own body in a coffin; in a bravura long POV shot, we are Allan as the lid of his coffin is nailed on and he is carried by the gloating faces of the doctor and the crone.

Allan awakens with a jolt as panic erupts in the house. The doctor, having called to check on Leone, has poisoned her. Allan and the chatelaine’s loyal servant (Albert Bras) open the package entrusted to Allan by the chatelaine. It’s a book on vampires from the 1770s, based on papers found in Faust’s collection. Despite this lip-smacking suggestion of forbidden lore, it only relates basic stake-in-the-heart stuff, and gives a clue to the vampire’s identity by detailing how, in the 1750s, an outbreak of vampire attacks in Courtempierre were blamed on a dead woman named Marguerite Chopin. Allan and the servant search the graveyard for Chopin’s grave and find it contains the crone. The servant stakes the vampire as Allan searches for Gisele in the ruin. He unties her, scares off the doctor, and gets her out of the haunted village by boat. The servant gets final revenge when he finds the doctor has cornered himself in a flour mill; he sets the machinery rolling and the perfidious medico slowly drowns in tons of white flour, shouting “I don’t want to die!” Might have thought of that before you started poisoning girls and mistreating dogs!

In developing this cryptic, often blackly comic film, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were inspired a flour mill wreathed in dusty clouds they passed while on a train, a sight that inspired the finale and the hazy, washed-out visuals produced by false light shone on the lens. Contributing was Nosferatu’s designer Hermann Warm, and like that film, Vampyr shares an appealing rejection of studio-created atmosphere for careful manipulation of real settings. Vampyr is technically primitive, with poor sound from an experimental system. Dreyer used this flaw to good effect, muting the dialogue and reduces the soundtrack to menacing rumbles and barely heard sonorous music, adding to the ruined look. Dreyer seems to have been the first director to seek an illusion of the uncanny by devolving the techniques of film, something now every film student tries at least once. Yet Dreyer’s camera is sublimely mobile, roaming halls and rooms with restless, hungry fascination.

Vampyr pilots the next few generations’ worth of experimental film in its attempts to capture the uncanny. In The Ring, when one character judges the mysterious videotape as good in a student film fashion, he’s absolutely right, but that tradition of experimental short, and, more recently, death metal music videos trying to recreate the ugly dissociations of nightmares, have some roots in Dreyer’s style. It’s hard to imagine David Lynch’s films, especially Eraserhead, without Dreyer. Much of what Lynch accomplished—weird soundtrack, disorientating editing, sickly half-seen visions—is present here. But Vampyr is gossamer in its invocation of the morbid, more in the key of Mahler than Evanescence.

Vampyr is modernist, in its war with perspective, reality, and the limitations of the senses, and feels particularly reminiscent of Kafka—especially in its dark humor, the way Allan keeps walking into the weirdest circumstances without blanching and falls in love with Gisele at the drop of a hat. It’s also a pure invocation of the spirit of the Gothic genre, that European sense of being enveloped and suffocated by history, something that ultimately was lost on Hollywood.

Vampyr envisions a world haunted by loss and a past only visible in shreds, entrapped by identity but adrift between realities. Although Allan and Gisele escape from the fog-shrouded bank, they arrive on the side that our scythe-wielding friend crossed to earlier; it’s hard to tell if the waking world will be better. That waking world was about to collapse in on itself. Under the Nazis, German horror cinema would be extinguished, thanks to their detestation of the psychological and the genre’s too-pointed realisation of what forces were stirring under the surface—Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari envisioned the country as a giant insane asylum waiting for an authoritative administrator.

Vampyr was ignored on release. Dreyer did not make another film for 13 years, until with Day of Wrath (1943) he returned to studying the legacies of historical evil and psychological oppression. Sybille Schmitz later starred in Frank Wisbar’s version of the death-and-the-maiden theme, Faehrmann Maria (1936), which Wisbar remade when he decamped stateside as PRC’s Strangler in the Swamp (1946). Nicholas de Gunzburg became an investment banker in New York, a notable sight for many years walking the streets displaying the same haunted, soulful expression he sports in Vampyr. l

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1930s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie

King Kong, Then (1933) and Now (2005)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack/Peter Jackson

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By Roderick Heath

Most remakes trample their models with disdain, either for greed or scoring cultural points. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic is one of the signal films of my youth, as it has been for so many filmgoers and filmmakers, Peter Jackson included. His new version reeks pleasantly of a kid’s ability to paint in the corners of a film, to expand and create; we’re all, at a certain age, culture jammers. There are many takes on what kind of myth or fantasy King Kong enacts, but the easiest and truest interpretation is as a simple lust for adventure – the idea was conjured by adventurer Cooper whilst seated bored stiff in an office, the sound of a passing airplane caused him to imagine a giant ape seated on the roof of a building swatting at it. This germ, developed by mystery writer Edgar Wallace, was shaped into a script by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, who took care to honor and satirize her life between two he-men – once, on a shoot, Cooper had given her a rifle to scare away dangerous animals that might attack; she did have to kill a crocodile. Carl Denham’s clipped, unswerving purpose reflects Cooper’s own drive, used to taking and living with risks.

The new King Kong honors and reconstructs the original, treading a line between patronizing pastiche and dutiful replication. It’s become just as much a private fantasy for Jackson, wife Fran Walsh and third hand Phillipa Boyens as it was for Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose. Ann can no longer fall for a handsome, sexually virile lug like the original Jack Driscoll; now he’s a Clifford Odets-type earnest playwright shanghaied on the voyage to complete his for-the-dough script, an aptly conscionable, anti-commercial balance to Denham’s ends-justifies-means producer. It’s a loaded and fascinating idea, but Driscoll never assumes narrative import – his role as man out of place who makes good is subsumed by noxious actor Burt Baxter (Kyle Chandler), as lover by Kong – and only Adrien Brody’s sublimely understated ardor makes the character work. Jack Black plays Denham with an amusing manic obliviousness, but with none of the original’s dignity and honesty. Despite this, he still, as in the original where he is both creator and destroyer, gets the film’s final poetic summary; like any classic Hollywood figure, he grasps the arc. That’s another way the original works – it’s a self-reflexive film about a film that explains itself with bookends of cod-poetry to drive home the mythic quality. The professionalism and camaraderie of the 1930s, the Depression, are notably absent in Jackson’s film, although he hammers home the background far more overtly than Cooper and Schoedsack’s casual reportage. The crew of the S.S. Venture no longer venture fearlessly and to hell with the danger; there’s ominous warnings, a cautious and skeptical Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), and an ethical ledger-keeper of an assistant (Colin Hanks). The only person willing to acknowledge his sense of adventure is Denham, and for this the film relentlessly vilifies him despite the fact that he’s providing the story we want to watch. All of this adds a moralizing element to the film which is, frankly, a drag.

The 1933 film’s not-very-noble savages led by Noble Johnson are entirely imaginary – they speak a bogus language cited by the original’s Englehorn (Frank Reicher) as resembling that of the Nias Islanders because Cooper figured no one from Nias was ever likely to see the film – satirized by Jackson when a pastiche of their sacrificial dance and coconut-brassiered garishness forms part of the show Denham’s New York show. But they were also touched with the eye and art of anthropologists. It looked like a real little world the film-makers had stumbled into, with solid references (Driscoll compares the Great Wall to Angkor) and details (they have chickens!). The villagers, at first ruthless and menacing, become sympathetic figures as they try to help the heroes keep Kong out and fight to save their world; the outsiders come to understand just why this world looks like it does when Kong comes after them all. This was supposed to be a once-great, now-degenerated society. The remake, to avoid any such trickiness, elides it entirely by reducing the populace to zombified weirdoes whose motivations are not exactly made apparent, and then disappear. There’s no touching upon who or what built the wall and the ruins we see, an odd blind spot in a film that delights in expanding backstory.

When it comes to Kong himself, Jackson gets it just right. Once he arrives, this Kong is a brilliant creation, part raging beast, part lonely sad sack, part dynamic, intelligent warrior wasted on a pathetic dirt pile, he is possibly the greatest invention yet of the digital age, with the indelible work of Andy Serkis as his model – clearly the same expressions, the same face, that drove Gollum are present in Kong’s vital physiognomy. He also plays Lumpy the ship’s Cockney cook, a good comic turn as he and Ann form a codependent relationship; she needs him to see off the dinosaurs, he needs her to make it worth it. In the original, Kong is the purest image of isolated masculinity; fascinated by Ann as an uncommon object, he fights his way through a landscape full of filthy monsters, sick beasts, drooling snakes – and that’s before he gets to Manhattan – proving his strength in the primal world, swiftly destroyed by the technical age. Cabot-Jack develops from a misogynist (his first exchange with Ann is quoted in the remake as an example of cheesy dialogue enacted by Baxter and Ann) under Ann’s spell, Armstrong-Denham is left as lonely chorus in his own life, and Kong, masculinity run rampant, is killed. In Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, a financier looks out from his Central Park West apartment on the same New York landscape, and Wolfe notes that he feels none of the soul-crushing awe normal men feel at this scene. Kong, though he rises to the greatest heights, can only conquer a lonely perch, and he is still brought down by the Empire city that belongs to little men in suits, the kind whose heads he ruthlessly rips off in his furious search for his woman. The original’s Kong is a beast who, although he encourages sympathy as a figure of defeated majesty, is hammered down by forces he can’t understand, a symbol of the kind of wildness that must be destroyed to keep the world, noxious as it can be, safe. The modern Kong is an equal but different tragedy because he is, ultimately, a sensitive brute, a cuddly romantic with Ann as much as he’s a tyrant alone. The society that requires his destruction is held entirely in contempt. He stands tall and goes down fighting in style, and his silent, swooning fall to earth is a gloriously sad moment.

The opening scenes of the original, with Denham hunting for a star and finding Ann, have the harsh, low-key realism of any Warner’s social-realist picture of the time, its sense of time and place pungent, and it is the film’s great achievement to use reality as the springboard into fantasy. The modern film, paints a Depression-era New York in greater expanse but with a pristine prettiness. Ann of ’33 mentions having done extra work for a shuttered studio. The fact she is introduced hardly able to stand from hunger, trying to steal an apple, needed no explanation. Jackson’s Ann – terrifically played by Naomi Watts – is introduced at length as a vaudevillian trying to maintain dignity. Many new characters are added for Jackson’s film, perhaps most effectively Jamie Bell’s charming turn as a young sailor who grows up in the course of this grueling adventure, learns dance moves from Ann, and betters himself by reading Heart of Darkness, coming to realize – in an appropriate metatextual touch – the book, like the events around him, is a nightmare, not an adventure.

Jackson’s Kong is a funny film, an intelligent film, a too-rich panorama. Certain plot turns and additions lead nowhere and spoil the original’s dynamic arc. It is determined to serve up an experience to its audience, but he loses that serial-speed harum-scarum thriller edge. The shtick of darting between monster’s legs and from-the-blue rescues by Englehorn is repetitious (and Cooper was right all along; the icky-crits-in-the-crevasse bit does spoil the pace). Jackson is a very honourable director. He wants to give you your money’s worth in age where too often you want to ask for it back. The original King Kong, a classic too often patronized, is alive as miracle of an almost lost art of cinema construction. Max Steiner’s score drove it with breathless, unashamed hype, and the snatches of it played in this film unfortunately remind us how much better it was than James Newton Howard’s serviceable equivalent. The rhythm of the editing, the efficiency of storytelling, the doubt-free enjoyment of mayhem, slaughter, and cruelty, the nasal voicing of its Depression-era posturing, ties it together into one of the tightest packages in cinema – not to mention its artfulness with visuals inspired by Gustav Dore and the genius of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation, which the modern effects crew pay tribute to, quoting Kong’s actions as when he tests the snapped jaw of a dead Tyrannosaurus (the film’s SFX set piece, and a classic in itself) and the way he rubs his eyes when gas-bombed. Jackson’s film is an overinflated circus of a film, not a classic, but a great pleasure in our under-ambitious era. He is the sole giant of the digital medium, the only one who can conjure sensual possibilities from it. His King Kong is a magnificent miscalculation. l

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