1910s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Historical, Italian cinema, Silent

Cabiria (1914)

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Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Screenwriter: Gabriele D’Annunzio

By Roderick Heath

This essay is presented as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, an annual blogathon created by James Uhler to celebrate the late, learned cineaste Allan Fish, and showcase writing about films freely available online.

What impact it must have had in some muddy Apennine town where the twentieth century had barely arrived, to file into a jostling, steamy town hall and fight for a seat to watch Cabiria as the days ticked down to the start of the Great War. An experience that would link such hardy viewers with the residents of the White House half a world away, when Cabiria became the first film screened there, albeit out on the lawn. Cinema on the grandest scale, a point of gravity so much of the still-fledgling art form would orbit, taking on a form that undeniably laid to rest any notion film was just another carnival novelty. Giovanni Pastrone’s film, with storyline and titles written by the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, expanded the scope of what cinematic narrative could encompass and how. Although it wasn’t the first film to run over two hours or to offer grand imagery and sophisticated directorial techniques, it was one of the new art’s great synthesising moments. On some levels, the weight of such historical importance can seem misaligned, as Cabiria is, in essence, a rip-roaring adventure story, replete with straightforward archetypes and heady melodrama. It stands as far more entertaining than any movie over a century old has the right to be. But it’s also a relic from a time when the new power of cinema was remaking our ways of seeing the world, even in ways that provoke misgiving in retrospect.
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Compared to The Birth of a Nation (1915), its chief rival as a landmark in feature film development, Cabiria seems much more comfortable to a modern audience with its historically remote setting, outsized, almost science fiction-like recreation of that past, and broad portrait of decency versus depravity as embodied by long-vanished civilisations. And yet aspects of its ultimate meaning and context are just as thorny. Pastrone, who also worked under the professional alias Piero Fosco, had been a precocious kid who made his own musical instruments, developing a talent for finely observed form and function that would serve him well as he turned to filmmaking. He made his directing debut with La glu (1908), and set up the production company Itala in 1909. The same year, he began his string of historical epics with Julius Caesar (1909), following it with The Fall of Troy (1911) and then Cabiria. Pastrone’s directing career ran out of steam in the mid-1920s and he decisively put the business behind him long before his death in 1959. Cabiria meanwhile has a title attributing its vision more loudly to D’Annunzio, who was paid a fat sum to loan his prestige and following to the film. D’Annunzio was greatly acclaimed at the time as a writer and whose life and career say much about the bizarre and worrying twists of Italian social and political life at the time.
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Pastrone’s most famous work was heavily indebted to Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, emulating its setting in ancient Carthage and figure of a royal femme fatale, mixed in with lesser historical novels and Livy’s historical accounts of the Punic Wars. Flaubert’s novel was laced with obsessive eroticism whilst contemplating the fractured political state of his era’s France through the lens of historical dreaming. Pastrone and D’Annunzio’s narrative, by contrast, was rooted in the traditional Roman view of Carthage as an embodiment of antipathetic corruption and perfidy, and they mixed in a familiar, sentimental Victorian narrative of lost foundlings and breathless rescues. The story commences in Sicily, just before the outbreak of the second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Title character Cabiria is the infant daughter of rich Roman Batto (Émile Vardannes), whose villa sits near the foot of Mt Etna – Cabiria’s name is based in the rites of an esoteric cult. When the volcano shows signs of life Batto and his household quickly make propitious offerings that seem to quell the mountain. But during the night the eruption starts up again, earthquakes shaking the villa until it collapses. Whilst Batto, his wife, and the rest of the family flee the building, the servants, including Cabiria and her nurse Croessa (Gina Marangoni) run down a secret passage unsealed by the collapse.
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There the servants discover Batto’s secret treasure horde, and flee for the coastline after looting it. But the thieves are surprised by a band of Phoenician pirates who take them all captive, including Croessa and Cabiria. The Phoenicians sell their captives in Carthage, and Cabiria is singled out for a terrible purpose, as one of the child sacrifices served up to the evil deity Moloch by high priest Karthalo (Dante Testa). After Cabiria is ripped out of her arms, Croessa searches in desperation for anyone who might help save the girl. Quicker than you can “improbable coincidence,” Croessa encounters just the right two men for the job: Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman patrician spying in Carthage, and his slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano). Croessa recognises Fulvius and begs him to help, and gives him a ring she took from Batto’s hoard, which she says is blessed by the gods with propitious powers. Fulvius and Maciste enter the Temple of Moloch pretending to be worshippers and manage to snatch away Cabiria just before she’s sacrificed. They flee and hide in the Inn of the Striped Monkey, threatening its keeper Bodastoret (Raffaele di Napoli) into fending off search parties. Cabiria however can never be entirely safe until she’s away from Carthage’s influence, for until she is sacrificed, the ritual goes on incomplete, and Carthage risks the wrath of its gods.
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Cabiria engages history but mixes in hype and propaganda, starting with the portrayal of the Carthaginians as bloodthirsty and rabidly superstitious compared to the noble, upright Romans. The film’s basic melodramatic propulsion derives from such libel, however, as Fulvius and Maciste are obliged to save Cabiria, a flower of Roman youth, from the billowing fires inside the colossal statue of Moloch housed in the Temple. This sequence evinces Pastrone’s vision at its height with the “Invocation to Moloch.” Dazzling framings of ranked priests in chiaroscuro lighting, proto-fascist vision of hands raised in salute amidst darkness next to flickering candles, and Karthalo hovering over billowing votive flames performing ritualised moves, come with titles declaring the phrases of the invocation, ablaze with overripe poesy. This is cinema both depicting and becoming an arcane ritual of blood and fire. Pastrone’s long shots of the temple interior with the monstrous idol still easily provoke the awe at the scale and boldness of staging that so struck 1914’s audiences in beholding Pastrone’s momentous set design. Most striking however is the unrestrained vision of sacrificial violence. The priests muster together ranks of children, screaming, wiggling, naked youngsters carried up and placed upon a hatch that dumps them into the idol’s blazing interior, great billows of fire spurting from the idol’s mouth as they’re consumed.
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It’s hard to imagine any contemporary filmmaker daring such a sequence now: only the relative distance of D’Annunzio’s camera is sparing. D’Annunzio’s storyline justifies Rome’s aggression towards Carthage in the face of its alleged brutality (there is some evidence to suggest that propaganda had basis in reality, although on nothing like what Cabiria portrays). Fulvius and Maciste sneak in disguise through the crowd, and finally launching their rescue, Maciste socking the priest gripping Cabiria and tearing her from his arms, Fulvius fending off others. They climb up onto the top of the temple, battling Carthaginian pursuers all the way, and scurry down its vertiginous exterior sculptural forms. When they return to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret sneaks out and brings city guards back with him, forcing Fulvius and Maciste to flee, and soon they’re separated. Fulvius eludes his pursuers by making a dive off a cliff into the ocean. Maciste strays into the gardens of Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, and encounters his daughter Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini), who is being courted by Masinissa (Vitale Di Stefano), the King of Numidia. Fulvius’ escape from Carthage proves to coincide with a fateful moment in history, as Hannibal (Vardannes again) leads his troops over the Alps to attack Rome, signalling resumption of the great contest between the two city-states.
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Pastrone here reveals a finer touch for effectively varying tone through alternations of imagery, as he cuts between hard-charging action as Fulvius, Maciste, and Cabiria flee soldiers, and dreamy, mystical romanticism as Sophonisba makes her invocations to Tanit. Matched with D’Annunzio’s purple intertitles, the effect pushes at the boundaries of mere adventure moviemaking and tries rather to grasp at the essence of a time and vision of society where the immediate and metaphysical worlds had a much more urgent proximity. Moreover it shows Pastrone was keen to the uses of cross-cutting for more than just generating excitement well before Griffith got around to his ride of the Klan. The first glimpse of Sophonisba sees her stroking a pet leopard, marking her instantly as a figure of lethal sensuality and remarkable power in an image many a director making their own decadent historical epic would copy. Sophonisba conflates roles as princess and priestess, elevated far above the gruesome fray of Karthalo’s religious duties but bound just as intimately to her nation’s fate as embodiment of its aspiring self but also its potential amorality. Small wonder D’Annunzio had been associated with the radical “Decadent” movement in art and literature in the 1890s, which was particularly fond of such imagery of supine, bodingly sensual female antiheroes. Sophonisba goes out to meet her Numidian suitor in a moonlit garden just as Macisete steals into the garden in eluding the searching guards. Maciste successfully pleads with Sophonisba to protect Cabiria before he’s captured, brutally tortured, and chained to drive a millstone for the rest of his days.
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The tremendous sway Cabiria would work on so much cinema that followed, directly and indirectly, is impossible to miss. D.W. Griffith saw it and immediately set out to match it: the interpolation of a central melodrama with historical vignettes predicts the structure of The Birth of a Nation and the vistas of cyclopean walls and colossal elephant statues plainly gave Intolerance (1916) its imaginative landscape. Fritz Lang plundered it for Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926), with the latter’s vision of the city machinery as a fiery-mawed, man-eating Moloch a special tip of the hat. German Expressionism in general would take licence from the stylised shadow play and totemic visuals of the Invocation to Moloch scene. Cecil B. DeMille built his entire historical epic style around the impression Cabiria made, an influence perhaps most obvious in the Temple of Dagon and the chaining of Samson in Samson and Delilah (1949). Sergei Eisenstein would suggest some lingering memory of it in his Ivan the Terrible films (1946-58), as well as the portrayal of the Teutonic Knights feeding captive children to the fire in Alexander Nevsky (1938). Federico Fellini would pay homage to it as the epitome of the bygone matinee ethos whilst sarcastically referencing its storyline for his tale of a wandering prostitute in Nights of Cabiria (1958), as well as channelling its imagery for his idiosyncratic tribute to the Italian epic tradition, Fellini Satyricon (1969).
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Through such mediators, generations of historical dramas and action spectacles owe it something, up to and including the lair of the Thugees in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Conan being chained to the wheel and battling with malign cultists in Conan the Barbarian (1982). Moreover, Cabiria gifted Italian cinema with one of its perennial hero figures in Maciste, who would still be Hercules’ rival as a mainstay of the peplum or sword-and-sandal genre in the 1960s (Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans might remember the host comedians mispronouncing his name as “Cheesesteak” when they covered Goliath and the Headhunters, 1962). D’Annunzio named the character after one of Hercules’ surnames reflecting his birthplace. Pagano would return to the role several more times, helping lodge the character firmly in the mind of audiences, in movies that sometimes resituated the character in different locales and periods. Pastrone himself directed several of these, including Maciste Alpino (1916). The character bears some resemblance to Ursus, the embodiment of muscular Christianity in Henryk Sienkiwicz’s Quo Vadis?, a touchstone for many of these early epics.
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Maciste is the model for the peplum hero, as a being of great physical strength matched to an unswerving willingness to fight for the bullied and distressed and take on tyrants, traits fully displayed here as he saves young Cabiria and wrenches apart prison bars so he can take a poke at Karthalo. When Bodastoret torments him in bondage, Maciste calmly waits for the right moment to send him flying with a kick. This is made all the more interesting given the fact that the original Maciste is a dark-skinned African, making perhaps cinema’s first black action hero, with the inevitable corollary that he’s played by a white man in body paint, and as Maciste gained independent popularity he quickly became a general-purpose white strongman. In Cabiria he’s also, at least nominally, a servile character, albeit one who shares bonds of amity and respect with Fulvius: they’re very much like the Batman and Robin of the ancient world. Maciste’s ultimate resilience is illustrated as he spends a decade chained to the grindstone but, so overjoyed he is when Fulvius comes to rescue him, he quickly tears loose his chains and returns to the fray.
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During the years of the war Fulvius becomes a commander of the Roman fleet besieging Syracuse, and he’s shipwrecked when Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli) uses his famous, if probably apocryphal, ploy of starting a blaze amidst the fleet with a reflective dish. Although fighting for the Carthaginian cause, Archimedes is presented as a nobly ruminative mind. The chaos of the fleet’s destruction is well-illustrated with some simple but effective special effects, much like the early eruption of Etna, mixing foregrounded live-action elements and model work. Fulvius is washed ashore and taken to Batto’s villa, where Batto recognises the ring Fulvius is wearing, and the connection is soon made. Fulvius promises to rescue Cabiria from Carthage if he gets a chance to. Joining the army of Scipio (Luigi Chellini) in North Africa, Fulvius is granted his chance, as Scipio assigns him to enter Carthage and spy out its defences. In another of the film’s famous images, used like the Moloch sequence on some posters, ranks of Roman legionnaires form a human pyramid for Fulvius to climb the huge stone walls of the city: the human becomes the architectural and geometric, anticipating Lang’s obsessive engagement with such visual design. Once he’s fulfilled his military mission, Fulvius resumes his personal one, tracking down and scaring Bodastoret into helping him find Maciste. Once Maciste is freed and Fulvius brings him back to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret is so frightened of Maciste’s wrath he drops dead of a heart attack.
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The grown Cabiria (Lidia Quaranta) is now the handmaiden of Sophonisba, known as Elissa. Sophonisba has married to Syphax (Alessandro Bernard), the King of Cirta, who deposed her former fiancé Masinissa and fights with Carthage, whilst exiled Masinissa has allied with the Romans. After escaping from Carthage, Fulvius and Maciste wander in the desert and almost die before they’re captured by some of Syphax’s raiders and taken into Cirta, where they’re imprisoned. Elissa’s innate decency is illustrated as she serves water to the prisoners, but fate catches up with her as Sophonisba has an auspicious dream telling her of Moloch’s wrath over Cabiria’s escape. When she reveals the dream and the truth about her handmaiden to Karthalo, who’s also in Cirta as an envoy, Karthalo demands Cabiria be handed over to him, with lascivious intent. As Masinissa lays siege to Cirta, Maciste breaks himself and Fulvius out of jail with raw, vengeful strength and Maciste kills Karthalo as he tries to rape Cabiria, but he and Fulvius are driven into the city keep by guards, where they command a great larder and are protected against assault. Meanwhile Masinissa, having captured Syphax outside Cirta, now gains entry to Cirta and lays claims to Sophonisba, but she tries to use her wiles on him to break his alliance with the Romans.
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Although for the most part largely interchangeable with any number of exotic adventure stories written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cabiria and others films like it rode a wave of Italian nationalist confidence following the country’s occupation of Libya in the 1912-14 war with Turkey, part of an attempt to build colonial might. Cabiria readily presents a popular metaphorical lens for that victory. Within a few months of the film’s release World War I broke out. D’Annunzio, who saw himself as a Nietzschean superman, would go on to become a successful fighter pilot and then leader of an aggressive populist movement that saw him briefly rule the city of Fiume and surrounds as “Duce of Carnaro.” During that brief rule he formulated customs and paraphernalia, as well as methods of brutal repression of dissent, which would be annexed and amplified by Mussolini into the trappings of the Fascist movement, although D’Annunzio would remain aloof from Mussolini’s version. D’Annunzio’s fascination with such systems of symbolism and obeisance is plain in Cabiria, most notably in the Invocation to Moloch sequence, which details the usage of such imagery and ceremony to unify an audience and dramatize collective identity. Cabiria itself has even been called the key moment in formulating the Fascist aesthetic. But the interesting disparity here is that Cabiria attributes such pomp and ritual to its villains, with a dark and ominous portrayal of communal hypnotism and performed allegiance in conjunction with acts of mass sacrifice. Perhaps this says something about how the interim of war and political upheaval in Italy altered D’Annunzio’s sense of such devices as well as that of his nation.
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Such ramifications don’t seem to have greatly preoccupied Pastrone, who found his singular moment of directorial stature putting over a story of such grand scope and immediate, personal travail for his characters. His faith feels more invested in Maciste’s righteous strength and Sophonisba’s suborning charisma. Some of the spectacle is straightforward and would already have been pretty familiar to an audience of the time, like the shots of a hirsute and igneous-looking Hannibal overseeing hordes of extras spilling over the snowy Alpine peaks. But an interlude like the human pyramid scene, with Pastrone’s squared-off perspective, entwine action with design, style with function. The ideal of the humans, with their dedication to making themselves a perfect engine of unified action and resilience, connects to Pastrone’s aesthetic, one that suggests the imagery of the geometric preoccupation of burgeoning, modernist art movements like cubism and futurism beginning a colonisation of cinema. Having invented an early form of camera dolly before embarking on the shoot, Pastrone employed a degree of camera movement scarcely seen in movies before on Cabiria, which he uses mostly to escape the old strictures of the rigid, stage-like shot that had defined much early film.
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The depictions of the siege of Cirta present yet more of the film’s influential visions as the warriors battle on and around massive stone walls, with men swinging on siege cranes and dripping boiling oil on their enemies. This sort of sequence, which still sparks a vague sense of awe in the scale of production and filmmaking chutzpah, explains why many found Cabiria in its day to be the first film to offer a vision of the past that felt not only convincing but palpable, and their influence on Intolerance’s Babylonian battle scenes is patent. Eugenio Bava, father of the great horror director Mario Bava, served as one of the cinematographers and worked on the special effects. Pastrone’s gliding camera still feels surprisingly modern in refusing to let the misé-en-scène become static, and he sometimes uses it for real effect, shifting zones in various sets and spaces to reconfigure attention and offer some dramatic punctuation, as when late in the film Masinissa is led away by some Roman soldiers and Pastrone zeroes in on a frightened serving girl peeking out from a curtain. Pastrone is hardly afraid of editing, with some sophisticated cutting throughout, but the effect of his moving camera feels like the beginning of a way of looking at cinema as an immersive experience, rather than just as a string of visual exposition. And yet the close-up remains alien to Pastrone’s visual grammar, where Griffith would forcefully embrace the dance of distance to create visual music and sharp emotional connections: Pastrone still mostly, merely describes where Griffith would dramatize.
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Fulvius and Maciste’s imprisonment in the Cirta keep sees them trapped in a world of plenty as they’re stuck with great stores of food and wine. Pastrone uses his moving camera here to strike a note of droll character analysis and even a faint edge of self-satire in regards to the historical epic’s idealising tendencies. Pastrone shifts from Maciste ferretting for food to Fulvius idling away time by drawing an elaborate chalk mural portraying an amphora-sporting goddess with a man perched worshipfully at her feet. This feels like the sort of joke Richard Lester or Frank Tashlin might have employed decades later, the improbably good creator of artworks for the ages. Pastrone makes more of it, however, defining Fulvius as a frustrated romantic in search of love and Maciste as a bacchanalian: Maciste offers an improvement by drawing a stream of booze pouring from the amphora. The difference between the two characters also says something about the schismatic impact the film would have on movie culture for Italy and the world. Maciste is a hero for the oncoming age of the everyman, a fond representative of the vast bulk of the audience, where Fulvius belongs to a hierarchy still indulgent as long as it thinks it rules. Sophonisba’s dream, with hovering eyes, reaching hands, and the face of Moloch with Cabiria in its jaws, presents a jolt of oneiric weirdness that also seems exactly half-way, in terms of cinematic style, between the theatrical evocations of George Méliès and the dynamic effects of the oncoming moment of cinema’s expressionists and surrealists.
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Sophonisba emerges as the most complex and interesting figure in Cabiria, where most of the others are simple extensions of their story function. She stands as a genuine antiheroine, standing as the opposite of the eternal innocent Cabiria and representing a radically different value system. Her difference is hinted at as she makes invocations to different gods to her countrymen, and becomes more urgent as she obeys Karthalo’s demand to hand over Cabiria as her dream tells her the fate of her nation depends upon it. Sophonisba is a crafty arbiter of statecraft who knows how to manipulate men and situations and a walking icon of seductive intent, to the point where she manages to convince Masinissa not to let her be paraded as captured Roman chattel. Whilst Sophonisba initially seems sympathetic in her readiness to take in Cabiria, she proves willing to countenance her sacrifice if it means safeguarding her nation. But Scipio’s arrival and determination to see Sophonisba paraded forces Masinissa to fool Fulvius and Maciste into delivering to the princess a means of killing herself to avoid the humiliation. The dying Sophonisba tells Fulvius that Cabiria is still alive, being held in a dungeon for sacrifice: Sophonisba has her released as a show of mercy in exchange for being allowed her own death, and also perhaps because Sophonisba herself takes her place as a state-sanctioned victim, and the two women embrace tearily before Sophonisba expires. Pastrone’s last shot is both absurd and a great example of his art, as Fulvius and Cabiria, now married, ride on a galley’s prow for home with Maciste, a flight of sprites circling in the air about them in celebration of their union. Like many films from the decade of cinema’s adolescence, Cabiria often reminds the modern viewer just how long ago that was. But at its best, Cabiria can still arrest to the point where the interval vanishes.

Cabiria can be viewed here on YouTube.

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1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Matrix (1999) / The Matrix Reloaded (2003) / The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

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Directors/Screenwriters: The Wachowskis

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or listen to the podcast

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many filmmakers chased a strange new grail of pop culture: to make the first true blockbuster rooted in the new styles in life and fiction provoked by the arrival of computers as part of everyday existence. As the number of computer users grew and gave birth to happily nerdy ranks as well as the shadowy adherents of hacker culture in the real world, an imaginary refraction arrived in the literary cyberpunk genre, initiated by William Gibson. Eventually it became clear that as a potential audience conversant in new concepts grew larger and the innovation they fostered became generally familiar, a whole new movie audience waited in the wings. Soon filmmakers were offering up the likes of Tron (1982) and War Games (1983). The former, an attempt to build a fantasy-adventure film out of novel notions like virtual reality and computer simulation, bombed at the box office, whilst the latter, a straight-laced thriller with a hacking aspect, was a big hit, but neither approach really led anywhere for the time being.
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In the 1990s the possibility of virtual reality immersions and artificial intelligence seemed imminent, exploited in trashy fare like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Virtuosity (1995), whilst the arrival of the World Wide Web resulted in updates of the ‘70s paranoid thriller like The Net (1995) and Enemy of the State (1999), as well as bouncy, digitally enhanced heist movies like Sneakers (1992) and Hackers (1995). The more serious, engaged, imaginative literary takes on a seemingly imminent future union of the human and the machine, the real and the simulated, struggled to gain ground when anyone tried to translate them into cinema, in part because of the failure of films like Tron and cyberpunk’s cinematic style guide, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Scott’s film increasingly proved a touchstone for ambitious young directors however, and dark, perverse, gothic-technocratic visions of the near-future proliferated in the mid-‘90s. The likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) failed to attract viewers for being too weird and spiky in their approach. ‘90s It-Boy Keanu Reeves saw potential in the cyberpunk style, but his first attempt at riding it for a pop hit, with 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, proved an embarrassing debacle despite being written by Gibson himself.
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Meanwhile sibling filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski had become a hot property in Hollywood with their script for Assassins (1995) and their debut feature, Bound (1996). Infamously, rising star Will Smith turned down the lead role for The Matrix, a project based in the Wachowski’s general obsession with not just computer gaming and cyberpunk fiction but also Japanese manga and anime and postmodernist philosophy, a heady stew Reeves proved more attuned to. To keep down the costs of making the film, which would require some groundbreaking special effects, the production was shifted to Sydney, where it was filmed almost simultaneously with a very similar-sounding project, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Much like George Lucas a half-century earlier, the Wachowskis staked everything on a hugely ambitious leap from down-to-earth fare to epic science fiction filmmaking. The brothers were rewarded as 1999 rolled around, and The Matrix suddenly became the eye of the blockbuster zeitgeist, not outdoing the return of the Star Wars franchise that year in revenue but certainly stealing all its cool-kid thunder. Why did The Matrix score a bullseye where so many others missed?
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Series protagonist Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves), whose hacker alias Neo eventually becomes his preferred name, is offered as a wage slave functionary in some general purpose corporation office block. He spends his nights locked in his apartment, trying desperately to penetrate the veil of estrangement and falsity he senses around him, and trying to contact legendary hackers glimpsed speeding through the networks. Before we meet Neo, we see one of those legends, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), battling policemen and mysterious government agents in a seedy downtown area. Trinity is a swashbuckling dissident with superhuman powers, powers the agents also wield; Trinity races to a phone booth as one agent runs her down with a truck, and seems to vanish from the pulverised rubble. Neo gets an email offering him answers to his inchoate searching, and meets Trinity in a nightclub. She soon introduces him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who gives him a choice between maintaining the existence he knows and awakening to a daunting new truth. Neo is arrested and interrogated by the leader of the agents, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who terrifies Neo by somehow sealing up his mouth and implanting him with an electronic bug that becomes a biomechanoid parasite.
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After Trinity removes the bug, Morpheus brings Neo out of the reality he knows, which is actually the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late 20th century. Robotic intelligences, created by mankind but grown too smart to control, long ago won a cataclysmic war for control of the Earth. Faced with a decimated and perpetually clouded world, the central AI unit, called the Source, started exploiting a blend of fusion power and tapped human bioenergy, requiring billions of humans to live swaddled in amniotic chambers, kept lulled by the Matrix. Morpheus believes Neo is “The One,” a prophesised saviour figure with the power to subvert and subordinate the Matrix, and has sought him to fight on the behalf of the one free human outpost left, the subterranean city of Zion. Neo is brought aboard Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, which travels via ancient underground tunnel and sewer networks. He meets the ship’s crew, including Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and is schooled in how to bend the rules of the Matrix and battle within the digital world. Eventually Morpheus takes him to meet the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a mysterious entity in the Matrix who told Morpheus he would find the One and Trinity that she would fall in love with him. But the Oracle tells Neo that he isn’t the Messiah, just a naughty boy.
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The Wachowskis had signalled with Bound, a tale of lesbian lovers trying to outwit one woman’s gangster boyfriend for survival and profit, that their ardour for film noir tropes and new-age mores was more than skin-deep. Where the Star Wars films had purveyed their inspirations like Joseph Campbell as intellectual background radiation, The Matrix films flaunted their conceptual literacy and awareness, down to touches like having its hero grab a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, one of the heady tomes the Wachowskis gave their cast to explain their notions, and a storyline that referenced philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato and Descartes. Great wads of all three films, particularly in the heroes’ exchanges with the various sentient entities floating around the Matrix like the Oracle, are devoted to dialogue affecting dissemination of abstract philosophical ideas around choice and perception, most of which are cardboard. The film’s most famous metaphorical confrontation comes when Morpheus presents Neo with a simple choice between returning to the life he knows by taking a blue pill or confronting the underlying reality with a red pill, a notion that cunningly repurposes the old Counterculture notion of drugs as gateways to new perceptions.
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But where other filmmakers tackling similar material kept their thinking relatively intimate, the Wachowskis dreamt up a dystopian mythology and used it chiefly as a pretext for spectacular action scenes. The Wachowskis were freely harvesting tropes, of course, particularly from manga and anime. Echoes of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Galaxy Express 999 (1979), Akira (1986), and many more are detectable in the concern with unholy fusions of the organic and mechanical and detachment of spirit from flesh. The notion of do-or-die conflict played out in an unreal world had precursors too, in stuff like The Undead (1957), Dreamscape (1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), although those films’ basis in the plasticity of the psyche was rejected. The Doctor Who fan in me long knew a suspicious recollection of that show’s classic episode “The Deadly Assassin” from 1976, where the Doctor linked his mind with his home world Gallifrey’s mainframe computer, called, yes, the Matrix, to do battle with an evil foe in a surreal netherworld. Hiring master Hong Kong fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping to arrange the fight scenes gave a patina of honest connection with wu xia films. The mark of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is likewise detectable, particularly in the theme of a nascent superbeing who may or may not represent a liberating force of renewal, and twists of story like Neo being blinded only to discover another way of seeing, whilst Zion resembles Herbert’s concept of the Fremen civilisation.
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Most importantly, the Wachowskis offered style. The look of The Matrix became its instantly identifiable signature, taking ‘90s alt-culture affectations to a refined limit, with its heroes wrapped in black leather and long spaghetti western overcoats, and eyes hidden behind gleaming sunglasses. Trinity is the intensely fetishized emblem of all, somewhere between a teenage boy’s idea of a lesbian motorcyclist and a rave club dominatrix, delivering crane kicks in zero-gravity and giving displays of the now much-mocked “superhero landing” pose. The look imposed by Dick Pope’s cinematography was as dark and chitinous as a beetle’s back, with cinematography washed in green filters to signify the Matrix environs and pale blues for the real world. This aspect was enhanced by the Oscar-winning visual and sound effects. Some of these were deployed on relatively familiar sci-fi vistas, like the dramatic revelation of the human pod farms, the Nebuchadnezzar negotiating ruined labyrinths, and the squirming, squid-like ‘Sentinel’ robots the Source employs to police and chase enemies. But the effects that instantly became cliché devices in the contemporary directorial arsenal included ‘ramping’ effects that shift camera speeds in mid-shot and move around characters gyrating in slow motion, used to portray the Matrix warriors’ ability to distort perception of time to the point where they can dodge bullets.
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Despite all the hullabaloo, though, I’ve never felt more than lukewarm towards The Matrix and its sequels, and often much less. For films that inspired such obsessive generational loyalty and oodles of po-faced commentary, they’re often incredibly dumb, and staunchly refuse to mine their theoretically infinite malleability, with their basis in a simulated reality, for anything but the most obvious tweaks on action movie clichés. Time has ironically invested The Matrix films with a more interesting subtext than those they so urgently tried to force upon the viewer back when. Larry and Andy Wachowski are today Lana and Lilly, and the films’ obsessive portraiture of an exterior reality that refuses to match up with inner identity now seems immediately inspired by the siblings’ struggle with gender identity. Indeed, they found a uniquely dramatic way of turning that struggle into an experience a vast audience could relate to. Even the near-doppelganger pairing of Reeves and Moss seems to channel this quality, fractured pieces of a whole who border on the asexual. The visions of human bodies riddled with steely portals and subsisting within pods of goo weaponised the body horror of David Cronenberg, so strongly fixed as it was in the anxieties stirred up the changed sexual mores of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Wachowskis wanted to base their drama in a distinctively paranoid, anti-authoritian worldview where the bad guys, with their suits and earpieces, look like Secret Service agents and stand as emblems of malfeasant power. The narrative promised nerdy boys the world over they too could have a hot sporty queer-coded girlfriend if they only learned to code well enough.
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But to me The Matrix films were foiled rather than empowered by their desperate desire to hang with the cool kids and deny their nerdy roots. There is no sense of normality to subvert in the first film. At the outset we get some shots of Neo ensconced as an office cubicle, only to be quickly driven out of it. We only get pop signifiers of social drudgery and reality breakdown rather than engaging it for any sense of personal angst or mounting disquiet. Neo’s briefly-glimpsed freak friends are all cool, kinky party types – basically the same types he breaks out of The Matrix to hang with. The Wachowskis attempt to blindside the audience with Neo’s surreal experience with Smith and the bug, but the mystery isn’t teased for very long, and the sequence where Trinity and others extract the bug from him sees them using a stupid-looking gadget that looks like it came out of some other, lost steampunk movie. Once he does escape the Matrix and begins his evolution into superhero, Neo doesn’t have to master any real abilities or struggle with his identity. The Wachowskis have to invent an entirely unnecessary wrinkle by having the Oracle deny his being The One, to provide the vaguest tension. By the end of the trilogy Neo is still as flat, bland, and numbingly “cool” a hero as he was at the start, an avatar for level-up warriors the world over. Also, I wish some of the slow-motion kung-fu fights didn’t remind me so much of Clouseau fighting Cato in the Pink Panther films.
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Whilst the Wachowskis seemed genuine in their progressive credentials, the world they created had a rather fascistic aesthetic and pivoted on adolescent paeans to those turned on and turned off from reality, the shallow, self-congratulatory aspect of their allegories has been thoroughly demonstrated by the way everyone from the far left to the far right has subsumed its red pill/blue pill schism. Anyone has the right, The Matrix ultimately told too many people, to reject the world one shares with other people and substitute one’s preferred way of seeing. Relics of genuine head cinema like The Trip (1967), The Last Movie (1971), or Alejandro Jodorowski’s films were wild portraits of fractured personalities trying to understand their own perverse and destructive selves as well as the crudity of the world about them. By contrast The Matrix offers a profoundly reassuring message: it’s all those people’s fault. The propelling basis in Countercultural outlook is sapped of colour, fun, and imaginative purview, with shiny technocracy, broad paranoia, and chic violence in their place. The notion of a bunch of dissident swashbucklers battling wicked, assimilating forces in a flying ship has an odd similarity to Yellow Submarine (1968), but this was more like Basic Black Submarine. The films were built around some of the more annoyingly shallow aspects of the ‘90s alternative zeitgeist, particularly the kind of collegiate nihilism that had been a dominant mood since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to which the films can only really respond in terribly weak fashion at the end when Smith asks why Neo puts up with so much pain and hopelessness and he replies, “Because I choose to.”
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The Wachowskis worked hard to keep the Matrix contained by some relatively hard and fast rules. The Source only has a limited ability to interfere with the flow of action in the simulated space, which is a bit hard to swallow but necessary to justify the entire proposition. In one of the trilogy’s more memorable lines, it’s revealed that the Matrix was made to resemble the ordinary human world of 1999 because the first version, a becalmed utopia, was rejected by the humans sharing it. Fractiousness, violence, and discord are part of human nature, demanding the concession of forms of pressure relief like The One and Zion. There’s some irony here given that the Wachowskis were determined to create a fantasy universe that sates such desires: rather than gift their heroes any abilities to have surreal fun with the Matrix, to undercut the fascist chic with absurdism, the Wachowskis keep them caged by generic conventions, and send them into battle instead with guns and other conventional weapons. An essential aspect of the classic martial arts drama is the theme of a character mastering spiritual strength in accord with achieving physical prowess, but the Wachowskis undercut this by making such prowess a mere download away. “I know kung fu,” Neo gasps, one of Reeve’s better line readings as he captures Neo’s ability to process new realities at speed as well as a certain delight in such a gift. And yet, despite the films’ affectations of thoughtfulness, there’s never any real interest in questioning what such warlike arts achieve. The focus and stylisation dismisses most of the other human consciousnesses in the Matrix, and it’s stated outright that they’re all to be considered enemies because the Agents can suborn them at will, which raises some interesting ethical questions that are generally ignored. Bring on the guns, lots of guns.
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Undoubtedly, the Wachowskis tried and succeeded in tapping into the sense of eddying entrapment a lot of young outsiders felt in that superficially calm but deeply anxious lull between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Whilst The Matrix decries dull conformism and illusory consumerism, nonetheless the Wachowskis’ method is purveyed in a manner that cuts across the grain of their message, by making their heroes utterly conformist in affect, in settings that are stiflingly brand-aware. Moreover, the Wachowskis suggested in the early reels of The Matrix they lacked the patience to properly build a gallery of characters and worldviews, failings demonstrated all too painfully in the sequels as they tried to expand their universe and ask us to care about Zion and its inhabitants in spite of only introducing them in the most cursory and clumsy manner. Most of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar look like escapees from Burning Man in the real world and Krautrock stars when in the Matrix, and are instantly forgettable. When Cypher turns traitor and kills most of them by disconnecting their Matrix jacks when they’re immersed, it’s impossible to really care. The best non-technical aspect of the first film is Pantoliano, unsurprising as the Wachowskis had already worked with him on Bound and knew he could give a juicy villainous performance on tap. Where the other actors tackle their deep and meaningful dialogue like wading through treacle in heavy boots, Pantoliano offers what might be the only actual fillip of genuinely engaging acting in the trilogy as Smith courts him to turn traitor in a fancy restaurant: he meditates with deft humour on how the steak he’s eating isn’t real but he doesn’t care because it’s so preferable to the slop they eat on the Nebuchadnezzar.
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In a similar fashion, the movies are much more engaging inside the Matrix than without because there the Wachowskis are free to purvey their love of shiny decadence and reality-contorting imagery, but once the game’s given away it’s hard to care that much about what’s going on inside a giant video game, in large part because there’s no interest in the stakes such battles have for the oblivious unfortunates stuck in it. Foster’s intelligent, measured performance as the Oracle almost helped the character overcome its basis in magical negro cliché. Mary Alice had to take over for the last film as Foster died between shoots, but she acquits herself well too, ably suggesting an entity that stands as the weary but soulful repository of all faith. Weaving’s Smith was another strength, if a fairly broad one, his blandly drawling Yankee accent wielded to sinuous effect as he diagnoses the human condition as being the same as a disease. This presages the character’s ironic evolution by the second two films into just such an entity, a perfect engine of ego remaking everything in his image. Weaving brings just enough smug and irksome evil to his role to invest climactic sequences with some rousing need to see him brought down, as he tortures the captured Morpheus only to invite Neo and Trinity’s wrath. As the Sentinels zero in on the Nebuchadnezzar and Neo is shot by Smith in the Matrix, all seems lost, but Trinity’s kiss in the real world revives Neo in the false, and he finally taps his powers as The One, able to tear Smith to shreds from the inside and escape in time so the ship’s crew can halt the Sentinels with the blast of an electromagnetic pulse. The very last image reveals Neo, after vowing to the Source to bring the pain, flying like Superman across the Matrix skyline: at last the naked, boyish power fantasy has hatched.
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Despite his films’ much more naïf and playful approach, it was telling that George Lucas was beginning to dismantle the Chosen One template with a purpose, to increasing howls of protest, at the exact same time the Wachowskis were greeted as heroes by remaking it for a digitised generation. Whilst the follow-up would do some interesting things with the concept, it never is explained just how being The One works, especially as Neo eventually finds he has powers in the physical as well as simulated worlds. The archaic names littered throughout the series feel less like nods to mythical archetypes than mythopoeic bingo, and the series, for all its intellectual affectations, keeps eventually falling back on stale bromides like “belief” and “hope.” The hardest-headed character in the trilogy, Lock (Harry Lennix), who commands Zion’s armies, is offered as an odiously inflexible figure for failing to see the value in all these. Bound still stands as the Wachowskis’ best film in very large part because it’s their most intimate: there the little myth of self-discovery and the fight for agency had a genuinely convincing scale and sense of urgeny. The failure of their later films to cohere, resulting in the ragged if fascinating mess they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas (2012), and displays of empty showmanship in Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015), confirmed the siblings had become entrapped by their most famous creation, forced to subsist in a style of moviemaking against the grain of their subtler but preferable talents. The miniature tribute in Cloud Atlas to their signal hit stands as superior for being briefer, punchier, and more to the point.
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Regardless, The Matrix proved so big and unexpected a hit that the Wachowskis were swiftly encouraged to expand their one-off tale into an ambitious trilogy, and two sequels were released within months of each-other in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The Matrix Reloaded surprised me at the time, as it revealed the Wachowskis as willing to take chances with their property and expand their scope rather than simply continue their original, straightforward dynamic. The Wachowskis this time were confronted by a challenge that often awaits fashioners of cool dystopias, in trying to step out from behind that shield and try to come up with a vision of the opposite. This time they got to portray Zion, envisioned as a gritty, crowded, tenuous space for human life that nonetheless has a utopian aspect, sustainable, harmonious, free of racism and sexism, and led by genuinely wise elders, including Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) and West (Cornel West). The episode’s most divisive scene sees the Wachowskis intercutting between a communal happening where the Zion folk party down with increasingly orgiastic overtones, and Neo and Trinity having sex in their home; physical exultation, communal joy, and weird sexuality are given a uniquely uninhibited place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
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Unsurprisingly, however, the Wachowskis immediately put all that aside and get back on message. The Wachoswkis introduced one impressive-looking new hero, Jada Pinkett’s Niobe, Morpheus’ former flame and a brilliant pilot. The former Agent Smith is now a liberated force, invested with some of Neo’s power and free to set about subsuming every other entity in the Matrix. He even manages to implant his consciousness into a living human, Bane (Ian Bliss), who carries out acts of sabotage in the real world. Perhaps the biggest chance the Wachowskis took, and their most inspired, came at the climax, where Neo encounters the Matrix’s designer program, called the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who represents cynical power and corruption by looking like the tycoon on the Monopoly board game box. The Architect informs him that the concept of The One was an invention designed to deal with a cyclical system flaw based in the tendency of humans to rebel sooner or later. So he and the Oracle, another master program, solved the tendency by giving the humans a saviour figure and allowing a certain number to set up rebel enclaves to keep this tendency within controllable limits, eventually wiping them out when they get too large and dangerous and starting the process over. The original’s power fantasy of liberation and subversion is then actually revealed to be a calculated concession that only reinforces the Matrix’s hegemony, and Neo is eventually expected to choose between saving Trinity’s life or working with the Architect to secure the next foundation of Zion with a small number of humans to ensure the human race doesn’t die out.
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The plot of The Matrix Reloaded was pretty thin by comparison with the incident-heavy instalments on either side, depicting the attempts of the heroes to track down The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a program who can get them into a locked building where the Oracle tells them they can find valuable knowledge, which proves to be the abode of the Architect. Meanwhile Zion prepares for an attack by a colossal armada of Sentinels. The film exists mostly to string together show-stopping action set-pieces. The episode’s failings as narrative only become clear with the third instalment, wasting whole reels with more pseudo-philosophising and feckless character interaction. Most tiresome is the crew’s encounter with two more Matrix entities, the sleazy potentate the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his concubine Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who hold the Keymaster captive. It’s hinted this pair were predecessors of Neo and Trinity as a corrupted One and his mate. Their general function is to tread water between fight scenes with games of mind and libido, as the pompous Merovingian extemporises on the illusion of control, illustrated as he feeds a woman a digital aphrodisiac, and Persephone blackmails Neo into giving her a taste of the sugar he gives Trinity, much to Trinity’s smouldering irritation.
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All this is painfully silly, and wastes running time that could be used better detailing some of the characters it wants us to accept as new and additional heroes. These include Niobe, Lock, Morpheus’ new computer wiz Link (Harold Perrineau), Link’s wife Zee (Nona Gaye), and Kid (Clayton Watson), a young lad Neo brought out of the Matrix who wants to help in the city defence. None of these characters registers as much more than a faint echo, despite the fact that the third part leans on all of them to sustain its drama. But what Reloaded does right is worth cataloguing. In addition to giving the template new dimensions, it offers the series’ most visually ingenious and sustained action scenes. An early fight between Neo and the multiplying Smiths stretched the digital effects to the limit in playing like a cyberpunk kung fu take on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from Fantasia (1940). A battle between Neo and the Merovingian’s goons in a mansion expands on the original’s zero-gravity tussles with better effects and a more fluent sense of staging and motion.
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The highpoint of the movie, and the trilogy in fact, is a chase scene on a city freeway as Trinity and Morpheus steal the Keymaker away from the Merovingian, trying to outfight and outrun his dreadlock-haired, white-skinned twin henchmen (Neil and Adrian Rayment) and an Agent whilst careening down the busy roadway. Here the Wachowskis finally give Fishburne some properly badass stuff to do, from slashing a car to pieces with a samurai sword to kickboxing an agent on the roof of a semitrailer. Cunningly, the Wachowskis keep Neo out of this until he manages to swoop in and save Morpheus and the Keymaker from the midst of a slow-motion crash. Whilst this sequence serves no real narrative function, it’s as intricately orchestrated and cleverly visualised as special effects action scenes get, and moreover represents the best example of the series’ driving idea: the apparently stable and familiar universe suddenly and casually perverted. Finally Neo saves Trinity rather than choose work with the Architect, and proves his powers as the One include the capacity to pluck a digital bullet from her gut and restore her to life. Once returned to the real world and forced to flee Sentinel robots consuming their ship, Neo discovers his power over the machines has crossed over, and he destroys several Sentinels with pure willpower, at the cost of almost killing himself.
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The second film leaves the story on a cliffhanger as Neo lies in a coma next to the Smith-possessed body of Bane. The Matrix Revolutions sees Morpheus talking Hamann into letting him take a ship to rescue Neo from the digital netherworld he’s stuck in, over the objections of Lock, who marshals Zion’s scant military strength to hold off the Sentinel horde. After Morpheus, Trinity, and the Oracle’s bodyguard Seraph (Collin Chou) manage to force the Merovingian to release Neo, Neo meets with the Oracle, who assures him she represents the part of the Matrix that wants to find a new solution to the schism of human and machine. Neo senses where his path now leads: to find a way to oblige the Source into calling a truce. As Zion’s warriors, including Zee and Kid, fight off the attack, Morpheus and Niobe dash to bring the last remaining EMP bomb on their ship, and manage to knock out the first wave of robots, at the price of leaving the city barely defensible against the rest. Meanwhile Neo and Trinity continue alone to the heart of the robot city. Neo is blinded when the revived Bane-Smith makes his play to kill him, but Neo discovers he has a psychic link to the Source which means he can see electrical patterns, and he defeats the possessed man. Trinity is killed when their ship crashes into the city, leaving Neo to confront the Source alone. Neo strikes a bargain to save the Source from being completely subsumed by the infection that is Smith if the Source will call off the onslaught on Zion and accept coexistence.
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Revolutions tries damn hard to give the trilogy an epic-sized ending, as the battle that began in the Matrix’s simulacrum finds its climax in mighty clashes of grimy, clanging hardware, and human blood, sweat, and tears. But the most interesting flourish in this instalment comes early as Neo hovers in a vision of limbo that looks like a subway station, a visually effective use of the banal to signify the metaphysical. The mission his friends launch to get him out of there sees the directors ply yet another gravity-defying shoot-out and a hyperbolic display of Tarantino-esque gun-pointing to get the Merovingian to ensure his release. This all makes painfully clear how quickly the Wachowskis were running out of ideas. The conclusion is hurt beyond redemption by the Wachowskis’ incapacity to orchestrate human drama with the same dexterity they bring to the visual and the conceptual. Rather than portray Zion’s fight as an adjunct to the adventures of our familiar heroes, the Wachowskis instead fill the bulk of the episode with the efforts of a bunch of barely introduced and entirely uninteresting characters as they wage war at deafening volume. As FX spectacle it’s well-done, but it’s thumpingly witless and uninventive in execution. The Wachowskis extend their penchant for Japanese sci-fi concepts as the defenders mount mecha war machines, but their defences seem excruciatingly poorly-planned and ineffectual given the nature of an entirely predictable attack. Neo and Trinity are sidelined for great tracts of running time, and Morpheus is literally reduced to a passenger, watching Niobe as she steers with great intensity. Pinkett’s embodiment of tight-jawed determination is impressive, but she’s barely characterised or given a line of dialogue beyond the odd random platitude.
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The Wachowskis were still taking some chances, however. In sending Neo and Trinity out to try and pull off a coup outside of the Matrix where they’re so accomplished and powerful, the filmmakers avoid leaning on their established dynamic, particularly as Neo tries to end the war by making peace and finding common ground rather than simply destroying his foe. But it also becomes clear the Wachowskis were retreating from trying to come up with a truly clever way of resolving their drama. The climax sees Neo and Smith fighting yet again, this time watched by an army of Smith’s doppelgangers and seeing the pair punch it out in the rainy sky. The visuals are spectacular but the sequence represents a total dissolution into empty-headed bombast, which, on top of the already overlong and empty Zion battle, mostly has the effect of boring the hell out of me. Even the aspect of tragedy aimed for here as Trinity and Neo die for their cause doesn’t register with any punch because, despite Reeves and Moss trying their hardest to invest their characters with a certain tremulous, stoic intensity, they’re barely more substantial than they were six hours of cinema earlier. We’re told they love each-other, and that’s about it. And therein lies the ultimate irony of The Matrix films. For all their attempts to grapple with what makes us human, they too often make it feel like the machines won long ago.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, Japanese cinema, Religious

The Birth of Japan (1959)

Nippon Tanjō ; aka The Three Treasures
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Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenwriters: Ryuzo Kikushima, Toshio Yasumi

By Roderick Heath

There’s no shortage of movies that borrow from and remix mythology. That sort of thing has been the backbone of film industries, from westerns to Italian peplum or sword-and-sandal films and Chinese wu xia action flicks, through to fare like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and superhero blockbusters, all of which depend to some extend on appropriating and recontextualising themes, images, and ideas harvested from the most ancient storytelling forms. And yet, serious, faithful, accomplished screen versions of authentic mythology aren’t that common. The best-known examples include the Greek mythology vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), takes on Arthurian legend like Excalibur (1981), Biblical tales like Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Fritz Lang’s monumental version of Die Nibelungen (1924). After watching Die Nibelungen a few years ago I became interested in finding other ambitious, scrupulous takes on such stories, particularly from beyond Hollywood and Western European cinema. Making these kinds of movie usually demands money and resources beyond most filmmakers. The Soviet Union produced a handful of authentic takes on national folklore, like Ilya Muromets (1956). The Indian and Chinese film industries have produced their own derivations of works like the Ramayana and Journey to the West. But most of these remain fairly obscure outside their homelands.
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The Birth of Japan is an intriguing, hugely enjoyable example of such mythological filmmaking produced with heft and class, recounting some fundamental tales of Shinto creation myths and local cultural traditions, given a makeover in keeping with the epic movie styles of the 1950s and the social upheavals that had been gripping Japan since the end of World War II. Purportedly made as a home-grown answer to The Ten CommandmentsThe Birth of Japan was a major production for Toho Studios, which hired the proven hit-making team of director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki came from a stage background and had been a child actor, before starting his film career at Nikkatsu Studio in the 1920s and debuting as a director at the age of 22. By the 1950s he had become one of the country’s most prolific and admired commercial filmmakers, alternating big-budget historical dramas with smaller films depicting working-class characters and children. The first of the two versions he made of Life of Matsu the Untamed, also called The Rickshaw Man, released in 1943, has been voted one of the ten best Japanese films of all time, whilst his second, released in 1958, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Inagaki captured an Oscar in 1955 for the first instalment of his highly successful trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, also starring Mifune, and the two men were just coming off another notable collaboration, Samurai Saga (1958), a cross-cultural adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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Inagaki’s career faltered eventually, for similar reasons to those Akira Kurosawa confronted in the 1970s, as his brand of filmmaking was held to be dated and too expensive, and unlike Kurosawa his story didn’t have a happy ending, as he became embittered and drank heavily up until his death at 74 in 1980. Inagaki became an increasingly stylised filmmaker in his later career, his theatrical roots flaunted as he incorporated sequences of song and dance with a quality akin to pan-cultural curation, and happily used the lush colour of the period to realise an affectedly illustrative style in strong contrast to the crisp, subtly stylised naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi’s late work and Kurosawa’s cool, stark expanses. The Birth of Japan gave free rein to such an approach, as the film unfolds through counterpointing Shinto creation myths with the more worldly narrative of Prince Yamato Takeru, tracing the legendary divine origins of the Japanese Imperial family and some of the iconography attendant to the royal throne. The three treasures mentioned in one of the film’s alternate titles and featured in the several vignettes are still part of the closely-guarded coronation regalia of the Emperors, only ever glimpsed by the Emperor and a select number of Shinto priests: the sword Kusanagi or “Grasscutter,” the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
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The film opens with the creation of the world and humanity as recounted into Shinto belief. One intriguing aspect of The Birth of Japan from a western perspective is how familiar some aspects of the legends found within are, from its Adam and Eve-like first lovers to the martial drama of national unification revolving around singular magical swords. The opening depicts the formation of heaven in the midst of a chaotic universe, and the advent of the pantheon on Shinto gods and goddesses. Two of them, the male and female gods Izanagi and Izanami (Shizuko Muramatsu), are assigned to try and make the drowned world below heaven into something solid and inhabitable. Astride a rainbow that bridges the two realms, Izanagi stirs forms of boiling mass to emerge from the waters by waving a spear. The gods visit the resulting land form, called Onokoro. Finding themselves defined in mortal form as they descend to Earth, they perform the first ever marriage rite by circling the island. Eons later, this tale is recounted by an old woman storyteller (Haruko Sugimura) to the citizens of Yamato, a kingdom on Honshu named after the clan of the area’s rulers, who would later become the imperial dynasty of the whole of Japan. The storyteller’s recitations of the creation tales contrast and punctuate the central drama, which involves the Prince of Yamato, Ōsu (Mifune), son of the elderly Emperor Keikō (Ganjirô Nakamura).
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Returning from a successful hunt, Prince Ōsu is told his older brother (Hajime Izu) is cavorting with one of his father’s serving girls in a gross breach of family honour. Finding them together in a hut, the Prince brutalises his brother and drives him into exile. The Emperor is coming increasingly under the control of his second wife’s clan, led by the devious patriarch Ootomo (Eijirô Tôno), and when the Prince’s brother tries to return, Ootomo kills him, and lets the Emperor think Ōsu did the deed, so the Emperor keeps sending his son off on risky military ventures, hoping he’ll be killed or at least kept away for a long time. Meanwhile, as the Ootomos gain greater control, a law banning marriages between people of different local clans and states results in many being executed or exiled. The Prince’s first assignment is to take on some a fearsome pair of brother robber barons, the Kumasos (Takashi Shimura and Kôji Tsuruta), and bring their territory under Yamato control. When he does manage to bring the Kumasos down, the younger brother, a more reasonable and philosophical man, suggests to the Prince with his dying words that he be known from now on as Yamato Takeru, variably translated as the Strongest or the Bravest in the Land, and begs him to bring peace to the warring nation by unifying it under a strong hand.
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Like much mythology from around the world, the legends portrayed here have political and religious motives. Much of this lore was synthesised to provide divine origins and stature for the Japanese Imperial family, as well as offering conduits connecting human order to the celestial, wrapping certain ritual dictums in a tangled knot with historical facts. In the original tales Yamato Takeru stands as a culture hero with many ready analogues in western traditions, including Hercules, with whom he shared a ferocious temper and great strength, Arthur, as a unifying warrior-poet associated with a divinely invested sword, and several protagonists of the Trojan tales, immortalised by great feats and powers but brought low by his failure to properly heed the Gods. In legends codified in the Kojiki or Book of Ancient Things, Yamato Takeru really did kill his brother, ripping off his arms no less, and eventually died when he unwittingly picked a fight with a local god who struck him down with disease. Other histories neglected such piquant details, and The Birth of Japan exploits this wriggle room to revise legend with contemporary resonances and personal meaning for Inagaki, toning Takeru down and making the wayward Prince more a misunderstood hero, rueing his reputation for headstrong ferocity whilst evolving into a statesman who finally pronounces his faith that more can be achieved by talking than with force of arms.
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One immediate subtext inferred by the title and borne out by the approach to its hero is the film is also about the rebirth of Japan as post-war state, striving to leave behind a reputation for bellicosity, trying to better understand itself and achieve a new blend of ancient and modern precepts. Inagaki emphasises construction, glimpsing the Yamato citizens building new and increasingly ambitious structures as their city-state grows, nodding to the postwar reconstruction process. Inagaki tries to intuitively depict ancient Japan, a time before much of the familiar cultural paraphernalia of the country evolved – Kusunagi, for instance, is no katana blade, but a more primitive type of sword. The narrative, suggesting the government is being twisted out of shape by a malign and prejudice-mongering set of usurpers, has its own suggestive aspect. Inagaki’s fondness for conflicted, down-to-earth protagonists manifests as he  remakes the aristocratic titan as a figure striving to find self-control, a man who loves the company of his fellow soldiers, and struggles against creeping forces of prejudice and xenophobia he sees starting to infect Yamato under the repudiates the intermarriage ban. The ban sees his loyal lieutenant Yakumo (Kô Mishima) and his lover Azami (Kumi Mizuno), who has been mobbed and exiled by her people, forced to romance in secret until the Prince takes them under his wing.
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The Birth of Japan bears a notable relationship with Toho’s Godzilla (1954) and other kaiju eiga films, with two of that film’s most vital collaborators contributing to Inagaki’s film: the special effects provided by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube. The fascinating imagery of the opening depiction of the Heaven and Earth being created wield a majestic flavour although they maintain Inagaki’s stylised approach by retaining a look reminiscent of paintings and theatrical backdrops, swirling mists in the void giving way to boiling waters and thrusting rock piles, out of which are born cosmic entities. Tsuburaya’s effects work had a strong effect on fantastical styles in Japanese film and television. The beloved ‘70s Japanese TV take on Journey to the West, Monkey, which in dubbed versions would become the first exposure to Asian mythology and culture for a generation of young westerners, bore the influence strongly in its craggy, misty fantastical landscapes and ingenious effects. As he had touched on in his Musashi trilogy, Inagaki here becomes bolder in utilising anti-realistic set design and special effects to suggest the presence of the ethereal and a protoplasmic sense of reality becoming real. He rhymes the barren, protean landscape Izanami and Izanagi first tread upon and the volcanic pool where Takeru meets his end, blasted cradles of birth where new dimensions open up after deeds of creation and extermination.
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Takeru’s film journey includes the most famous episodes from his folklore, most particularly one in which he dresses as a serving girl to defeat his foes, an image beloved of classic ukiyo-e artists, an adventure in cross-dressing that fascinatingly serves the purpose of giving the hero a feminine side, a purposeful humiliation that liberates him from the dark and marauding side of his masculine character. The Prince is driven to such lengths after a successful sneak attack by the Kumasos’ warriors with flaming arrows kills many of his men, and gets his chance to strike back when the Kumasos and their people throw an orgiastic celebration in victory. Clad in a woman’s clothes, the Prince infiltrates the Kumasos’ fortress and gets close enough to stab the older brother to death. Inagaki extends the gender-bending joke when the Kumasos find the veild Takeru more attractive than one of the other maids. After slaying the older brother, Takeru and the young duel in a ferocious sword-fight, and after he wins the younger Kumaso bestows upon the Prince his new name and destiny. Takeru’s ploy here allows an otherwise bloodless conquest of the Kumaso territory, and he’s able to return home to his father. But he soon finds himself ordered on another perilous mission, and begins to despair of his father’s love and of ever gaining a safe footing in the world. Visiting his aunt, Princess Yamato-hime (Kinuyo Tanaka), who serves as High Priestess in a temple of the sun goddess Amaterasu, placates him by giving him Kusanagi, which she tells him his father sent to him to protect him. Takeru is cheered by this, although one of the Priestess’s shrine maidens, Princess Otohachibana (Yôko Tsukasa), realises she’s lying. Otohichibana and Takeru fall hopelessly in love with each-other, but cannot be married because of her religious vows.
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Whilst Takeru’s story unfolds, Inagaki returns at times to depictions of the gods and the ongoing making of the world, particularly the stately Amaterasu herself (Setsuko Hara) and her wild brother, god of sea and storms, Susanoo (Mifune again). Both gods are counted as ancestors of the first Emperor Jimmu and so of Takeru himself. Susanoo’s penchant for mean pranks culminates when he tosses a dead horse in the midst of Amaterasu’s circle of maidens who sew lengths of shimmering material that resemble the sun’s rays, accidentally killing one of the maidens. Offended and infuriated, Amaterasy retreats into a cave, taking the sun’s light and power with her and leaving everything in darkness, the Earth overrun by evil forces and the gods in heaven bored and fatigued. Trying to think of a way to lure Amaterasu out again, the gods eventually decide to throw a wild party, so the sun goddess will emerge to see what she’s missing. To stir laughter and high spirits, they get the goddess Uzume (Nobuko Otowa) to perform a saucy dance, whilst other gods make the mirror and jewel that will become two parts of the Imperial regalia to reflect Amaterasu’s reflection back at her when she looks out, to make her think another goddess is taking her place and make her jealous. The ruse works and the sun returns to the world. Susanoo, banished for making trouble, sucks all the water out of the world in his incessant bratty crying, but eventually gains control and begins wandering the Earth.
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Inagaki has Takeru’s aunt make the connection between Susanoo’s bratty lack of emotional control and Takeru’s tendency to feel sorry for himself, turning the film, after a fashion, into a tract on what we might now fashionably call toxic masculinity; the act of maturation is the process of gaining self-control and stoic virtues. As well as genealogy the divine vignettes are also a form of psychologising, contextualising Takeru as a man lost in the most complex and cruel world of humans by comparison to the outlandish passions and gifts of the gods, and also are explicitly presented as structures though which people communicate values and ideas as a common inheritance of parable. In the last vignette, Susanoo comes to a village where the inhabitants live in cringing fear of a monstrous, eight-headed dragon. The village chieftain Anazuchi (Akira Sera) and his wife explain that the monster has already eaten seven of their daughters, and only have left, Kushinada (Misa Uehara). Susanoo vows to protect her and transforms her into a comb, lodging her in his hair whilst he ventures out to do battle with the monster, which he baits into getting drunk with vats of sake. Attacking the woozy beast, Susanoo manages to pierce its stout tail repeatedly, bleeding it to death. As he hacks open the dragon, he finds the sword Kusanagi lodged in its flesh. Susanoo presented it as a present in apology to Amaterasu and married Kushinada.
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Susanoo’s duel with the dragon is the most colourfully visualised and familiarly fantastical sequence in the film, anticipating some of Harryhausen’s sequences like the battle with the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, although Tsuburaya’s puppetry effects for realising the dragon aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The dragon does bear a strong resemblance of Tsubraya’s work animating the monstrous Gidorah in later Godzilla entries. The faintly comic-erotic touch of Susanoo transforming Kushinada and wearing her strikes a droll note before Ifukube’s music turns dark and momentous and Tsuburaya announces the monster’s arrival with a waterspout and rainstorm. The grotesquely wriggling beasts cleaves a path through the sea and arrives to sup greedily upon the vats of sake. Here Susanoo transforms himself, from lawless and chaotic figure to saviour and defender, whilst confronting the dragon, distinguishing divine order from the primal terrors unleashed by Amaterasu’s retreat and giving new moral form to the world. Takeru mimics his evolution as he tries to forge new alliances and modes of diplomacy, but he finds his reputation hard to shake. When he’s visited by an envoy of the Owari, Princess Miyazu (Kyôko Kagawa), she, fearful for her aged and crippled father and their kingdom, tries to poison Takeru with poisoned sake – a subtle rhyme with the use of drink to disarm the dragon. Miyazu warns him off drinking it as she realises in listening to him that he’s a sane and decent man. Frustrate by Otohachibana’s hysterical repudiation of him, Takeru begins romancing Miyazu, but Otohachibana seeks him out on hearing of their impending nuptials, and this time succumb to profane passion.
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Ootomo’s sons and pretenders meanwhile visit a local warlord, Kurohiko (Jun Tazaki), and talk him into killing Takeru for them. Kurohiko’s fiefdom lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which Takeru has never seen before – Tsuburaya’s model version of the mountain depicts it before it blew its top off, smoking and smouldering with baleful rumblings. Kurohiko tries to kill Takeru when on a boar hunt in the grassy plains under the great mountain. Otohachibana pursues him to warn him, and they become trapped as Kurohiko’s men set fire to the grass, threatening to engulf the lovers. Takeru coins the magic sword’s name as he uses it to hack away the grass in a space surrounding them, to try and rob the fire of fuel. Takeru finds quickly the sword has the power to summon wind and turns the flames back on his enemies, allowing him to rejoin his warriors and slay Kurohiko, who vengefully tells Takeru that his father ordered his assassination. Fate claims is price as Takeru, his bride, and his army sail on their way to another mission only for a terrible storm to strike the fleet and threaten all aboard with destruction: Otohichibana realises that it’s punishment for her breaking her vows, and she throws herself into the ocean. Her sacrifices works, pacifying the storm, and Takeru stares into the water where she sank, which glows an eerie green. Heartbroken and wearied, he decides to take his men back to Yamato to let them see their loved ones and to beg for an end to his wandering, warlike exile.
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The most awkward aspect of The Birth of Japan is also its most interesting: the structure is made diffuse by the alternation of the main story of Yamato Takeru and the more archaic, symbolic myths, and try as they might, Inagaki and the screenwriters don’t always counterpoint them effectively. Aspects of the central story, whilst potentially as complex as Inagaki managed in the Musashi movies, don’t really go anywhere, like Takeru’s foiled relationship with Miyazu, who becomes the keeper of Kusunagi after the Prince gives it to her to protect. Mifune’s presence in the dual roles of Susanoo and Takeru does a lot to yoke the hemisphere together, however; although much less famed than Mifune’s collaborations with Kurosawa, his work with Inagaki is the definition of a great director-star collaboration, and The Birth of Japan depends greatly on the actor’s charisma and physical prowess as well as his ability to project emotional complexity in a role that might easily have been reduced to a heroic blank. Surrounding him is a startling survey of well-known actors, some, like Mifune’s costars from Kurosawa films like Shimura and Uehara, only appearing briefly if in totemic parts. Casting Hara, so often the lovelorn lovely at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, as the proud sun goddess has a faint quality of in-joke, whilst Tono, so often a great villain, makes you hate his conniving Ootomo with great efficiency. Inagaki’s scenes of battle and spectacle are superb, like the fight between Takeru and the younger Kumaso.
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And yet some of the film’s best moments are meditative, as when the Yamato warriors listen to one of the men playing a wistful flute under the shadow of the simmering Fuji, whilst Takeru and Otohichibana lounge in brief respite from their angst, a sequence in which Inagaki seems to be grasping directly at some kernel of folk-memory, his sense of a culture of musical performance as the truest connecting thread of his national sensibility. This is also the only time Inagaki makes a direct, present-tense correlation between the human and divine levels comes when he dissolves from Takeru and Otohichibana embracing in the night to the sight of Uzume dancing for the gods, signalling the accord of wistful, fleeting happiness and the role of the dancing goddess as the bringer of dawn, before the day brings its sad duties. The relative innocence and playfulness Inagaki emphasises in the anecdotes of the gods in their moments of vanity, savagery, silliness, and eventually heroism, moreover offsets the tendency of the human characters to take themselves too seriously. Even the sometimes awful Susanoo is an overgrown brat at first. Inagaki’s sense of the Shinto inheritance is essentially a joyous one, busy with characters who amass into an oddball community maintaining a pacific balance in the universe.
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Only the film’s very end suggests a truly solemn sense of spiritual awe, and that comes, perhaps meaningfully, when the offence to human and divine order finally stirs cosmic wrath. Upon returning to Yamato, Takeru and his men decide to leave again and continue with their peace-making quest rather than stir up trouble at home. But the Ootomos lead out an army to meet them, pretending to be a friendly welcoming committee, before attacking in treacherous fashion, sparking a bloody battle on the hills of Yamato that rages until only Takeru and Yakumo are left. The final eruption of violent chaos makes a mockery of Takeru’s peacemaking plans but also provides his warrior crew with their moment of sacrificial grandeur, as his men link arms and form a human chain to protect their leader from arrows that skewer them instead. Takeru meanwhile fights to save Yakumo so he can get home to Azami, ripping paths through the Ootomo warriors. Yakumo manages to escape after slaying a few pursuers, whilst Takeru crawls on his hands and knees to a pool on a mountain peak to drink, only for lurking archers to riddle him from afar with shafts. The slaying of Takeru’s mortal form sees his soul emerge as a white bird that flies high above Yamato and unleashing a deus-ex-machina spectacle.
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A volcanic eruption spews rivers of lava and cracks the ground, swallowing up the Ootomo forces, and the survivors who make it down to the shoreline are washed away by tsunamis crashing upon the land. It’s a tremendous finale, courtesy of Tsuburaya’s technical ebullience as he plainly tries to match the parting of the Red Sea scene in The Ten Commandments, delivering the villains their comeuppance on a grand scale. But it’s also a purposeful invention by the filmmakers appended to Takeru’s legend, turning him from victim of hubris into the spirit of justice, with a reverent attitude to the instability of the Japanese landscape itself, trapped between peaks that unleash hellfire and oceans that swell and crash, not seen as mere natural chaos but as a different kind of order, evoking the state of existence for the humans who dwell between the consuming extremes of their own natures. Takeru is reborn as exemplar for the citizens of Yamato. Ifukube’s career-best work might be found here, too, as he avoids the usual clichés of epic scoring, instead filling the soundtrack with a soaring chorus both eerie and majestic at once, signifying the spiritual power behind the surface chaos, before the white bird wings its way to heaven, glimpsed amidst sun-stroked clouds.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, War

Zulu (1964)

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Director: Cy Endfield
Screenwriters: Cy Endfield, John Prebble

By Roderick Heath

The Anglo-Zulu War was, for the most part, an inglorious episode amidst the colonial enterprise carving up Africa in the 1800s, but it included two closely linked incidents that gained the lustre of legend. Britain had been accruing control over what is now South Africa since the early 1800s, in competition with enclaves of Dutch-descended Boer settlers, and native peoples. Assigned as High Commissioner to knit the patchwork quilt of small states and regions into a federation, Henry Bartle-Frere worked by hook and by crook to that end, but faced two strong and fractious opponents, the Boers’ South African Republic and the Zulu Kingdom of Cetshwayo. Bartle-Frere tried to bully Cetshwayo into surrendering his kingdom’s sovereignty, on pain of war justified by scattered violent incidents and disputed borders. Cetshwayo chose to fight. Early in 1879 a large military expedition under the command of Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. One of Chelmsford’s columns, numbering about 1,800 soldiers plus civilian followers, camped under the mountain of Isandhlwana. A huge Zulu force assaulted the camp on January 22, slaying the bulk of the column in one of the most startling upsets in military history and temporarily foiling the invasion. The Zulu reserve forces decided to venture on and wipe out the small contingent of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, a mission outpost by a river ford about six miles away.
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By the late 1950s, around the time the last veteran of the battle died, the events of Rorke’s Drift might well have seemed a colourful anecdote of a lost age, the kind Angry Young Men liked to mock, and which would eventually gain an emblem in the character of the dotty old Pvt Jones in the TV series Dad’s Army, eternally recounting his colonial ventures. Cy Endfield read an article written by historical writer John Prebble about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and became so excited he shared it with his actor pal Stanley Baker, who was equally enthused, partly because it roused patriotic feeling for his native Wales, where many of the soldiers in the battle came from; this aspect also attracted the input of Richard Burton. Endfield worked on a script with Prebble and Baker used it to attract the interest of producer Joseph Levine. The film was shot in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime for a budget that belied the film’s epic look and feel, about a hundred kilometres from the real battle site. Baker took the role of Lt. John Chard, the military engineer who found himself ranking officer during the defence. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a descendent of Cetshwayo and soon to be one of the leading figures of agitation against apartheid, played his ancestor. A 31-year-old Cockney Korean War veteran turned actor who had taken the stage name of Michael Caine, and who had been playing small movie roles since 1956’s A Hill in Korea, was initially tested for the role of private soldier Henry Hook, a role that went to James Booth instead. Caine instead landed the second lead, as the company’s upper-crust commander Lt Gonville Bromhead, in part, Endfield told him later, because they didn’t have time to cast anyone else.
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Zulu today stands as a perennial, if not an entirely uncontroversial one. It’s in no way to be taken as a documentary, and despite the title it neglects the actual Zulu perspective on events. From a contemporary standpoint it’s easy to look askance at a movie where the African warriors are largely presented as a great, undifferentiated mass whose only aims are to exterminate heroic white men. The film avoids the political backdrop noted above, except in fleeting references. Endfield would write a prequel about the events leading to Isandhlwana, Zulu Dawn (1979), balancing out the story in that regard, unsparingly depicting the mixture of arrogance and cynicism that led to such a disaster for the British and the simple defensive will of the Zulus. But Zulu is also much more complex than the above description allows. Endfield was a creative figure who in addition to being a writer and director also had a reputation as a magician and inventor: his magic skills made him friends with Orson Welles, who gave him a job at the Mercury Theatre. Endfield began making short films that quickly earned him a reputation both as a talent and as a troublesome figure politically. His educational short film Inflation was rejected for government use for being too sharply critical of capitalist institutions. After arriving as a feature filmmaker with an impressive early run of noir films like The Underworld Story (1950) and The Sound of Fury (1950), Endfield found himself on the wrong side of the blacklist and decamped to Britain, making films under a pseudonym at first before forging a good working partnership with Baker on punchy working-man melodramas like Hell Drivers (1957) and Sea Fury (1958). Endfield concluded his resurgence helming the Ray Harryhausen special effects vehicle Mysterious Island (1961), before embarking on Zulu.
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Endfield opens with Burton’s inimitable strains, reading the official dispatch reporting Isandhlwana. A shock cut to the midst of that battlefield, surveying blazing carts and sprawled, red-clad soldiers, through which the Zulus calmly march and take up the fallen rifles of the soldiers, one posing with a potent attitude of declarative revolt, the title Zulu sweeping out at the audience in flaming letters. The mood is utterly present-tense, attuned to the ructions going on in Africa in the early 1960s, one of post-colonial turmoil. Endfield shifts the scene to find the nominal master of Rorke’s Drift, the Swedish missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), visiting Cetshwayo at his kraal and watching a mass wedding rite between warriors and maidens, along with Witt’s daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Endfield offers the surreal oppositions apparent in this time and place, effete European piety and tribal earthiness each making a great play of honouring and respecting each-other, as the virginal, white-clad Margareta senses the metaphorical sexuality in the Zulu wedding rite, Endfield cutting between her eyes in colossal close-up and the stamping legs and phallic spears of the Zulu girls. News arrives of the victory at Isandhlwana, a moment of celebration for the Zulus but a moment of utter shock to Witt, who exclaims, “While I stood here talking peace a war has started.” Father and daughter flee.
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At Rorke’s Drift, Bromhead’s detachment of about a hundred and fifty men, mostly consisting of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, has been left defending the mission, whilst Chard has been assigned to build a bridge over the river. Chard’s repeated summation, “I came here to build a bridge,” has almost spiritual connotations as well as practical immediacy: although a soldier he sees himself more as a builder, a knitter-together of worlds, who soon finds himself obligated to wreak tremendous violence and destruction. Bromhead meanwhile is out hunting, gunning down antelope and failing to take out a dashing cheetah before mildly chastising Chard with facetious bonhomie for using his men without asking permission, before leaving him to it. The men of Bromhead’s command are bored, tense, and overheated, particularly the men in the mission hospital, including Hook, described by Bromhead as “a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer.” Hook’s bête noir is the feverish and very sick Sgt Maxfield (Paul Daneman), still determined to make a soldier out of Hook when he’s not raving out of his head. Also in the hospital are the Swiss-born Natal policeman Corporal Schiess (Dickie Owen), laid up with a bandaged foot and limping about on a crutch, and the sarcastic Welsh privates William Jones (Richard Davies) and Robert Jones (Denys Graham), who must explain to Schiess the general practice in the regiment of calling each-other by their service numbers rather than by the all-too-common Welsh surnames.
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Other figures of note around the camp are Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green), the epitome of the soldiering creed, and the equally competent Sgt Windridge (Joe Powell) and Corporal Allen (Glyn Edwards), who must guide unseasoned fighters like Pvts Cole (Gary Bond) and Hitch (David Kernan). Pvt Owen (Ivor Emmanuel), leader of the regimental choir, is anxious about one of his best singers, shanghaied for Chard’s service. Pvt Thomas (Neil McCarthy) is a gentle farmer whose instincts are stirred to worry about an ailing calf in the corral. Store keeper and camp cook Louis Byrne (Kerry Jordan) is upset when Chard orders him to pour out his soup on his fires to stop the Zulus getting it. Surgeon-Major Reynolds (Patrick Magee) lances a boil on Hook’s back with vengeful pleasure in whiling away a tedious detail. News of the calamity at Isandhlwana is brought by a survivor, the Boer Lt Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), alerting the stunned Chard and Bromhead and necessitating swift decisions. First of these is who should take command – Chard has seniority despite not being a combat soldier, to which Bromhead comments, “Oh well, I suppose there are such things as gifted amateurs.” Facing clear orders not to abandon the post, Chard decides to fortify it. When the Witts arrive, they appoint themselves saviours of the men in the hospital although Chard believes it far safer to keep everyone in one defensive position. The two missionaries soon infuriate him so much by openly criticising his decisions and inspiring desertions that both are locked up.
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Endfield emphasises isolation and tension throughout these scenes through a measured sense of space about his actors, almost entirely avoiding musical scoring except for very scattered chords from composer John Barry and the intense rhythms of the ritual songs in Cetshwayo’s kraal, sensitising the viewer to the immersion of the men in an environment that seems at once placid and alien. Thomas grasps a handful of parched soil and sadly notes there’s “nothing to hold a man in his grave.” All the soldiers are eddying in their fetid private spaces, mentally and physically, even as they’re supposed to be units of a coherent whole. Bromhead, the born-to-command scion, confesses to feelings of inadequacy before his noble heritage as the moment of truth comes and finds the weight of history and expectation almost unbearable compared to the less ethereal worries of his enlisted men. The enlisted men aren’t necessarily the salt of the earth however. The air seems glutinous with the promise of violence. Margareta’s venture into the hospital to tend to the casualties sees her hungrily appraised and molested by a delirious man. The sound of the advancing Zulus bashing their assegai spears on their shields makes for an eerie forewarning that sounds like a steam train chugging, echoing about the surrounding hills. Past and future do not exist; all is in a sunstruck eternal present, waiting for death to fall like a hammer. As the threat of action slowly comes closer, Endfield’s camera becomes more dramatically mobile, surveying the defenders and their environs in long, swaying camera dollies that gain in speed and intensity.
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The appeal of the Rorke’s Drift story is, despite its roots in unromantic history, essentially existential, a story where courage and discipline are answers to the terror of overwhelming odds and seemingly universal indifference. Endfield and Prebble’s script emphasises this aspect, particularly with the totemic exchange of Cole and Bourne: “Why us?” Cole asks, when confronted by the imminent prospect of being steamrollered in the sorry adjunct to a disastrous venture. The Sergeant replies, “Because we’re ‘ere lad – and nobody else.” It’s also a story that bespeaks the most cherished self-image of the British: brave, resolute, unflinchingly professional, unfazed by furore, eternally individualist but capable of extraordinary collective action. Small wonder Zulu is held in much fonder regard than Zulu Dawn, which deals quite a few of the worst national traits. The grinding gears of private concern, official requirement, and guiding paradigm shoot sparks everywhere, for no-one more terribly than Witt, who becomes increasingly desperate to make his voice and moral authority heard in a situation that has become subordinated to an entirely different philosophy with dizzying speed. After trying to reach some of the soldiers like Bourne, who he gets to dredge up some biblical phrases of relevance – “He breaketh the bow and snappeth the spear in sunder” – Witt takes refuge in a bottle of brandy and gets pie-eyed, spiralling into despair and bellowing out admonitions to the soldiers, begging them to abandon their posts. The most pathetic and exposed vignette comes when Chard has wagons Witt wants to use to ferry away the sick turned on their sides for barricades, and Witt tries to pull back over, begging for righteous strength that doesn’t come, a moment of great testing that leaves the great and the insignificant alike alone on a barren hill, baking in the sun.
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Endfield was unabashed in seeing the film as a transposed Western, and it has strong affinities in sensibility with the likes of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, particularly Fort Apache (1948), which in turn took inspiration from the Battle of Little Big Horn, a military debacle with many similarities to Isandhlwana. Endfield’s cool compunction and sense of intensifying rhythm were however radically different to Ford’s style, as well as his scepticism about the sorts of social projects Ford celebrated. Endfield’s portrayal of his soldiers, mostly plebeian and entirely uninterested in dying for ideals, is something very different. He sees them as spiritual kin of the variously exalted and exploited working men of his earlier melodramas, as he notes them in all their inglorious attitudes, some bordering on antisocial, stuck with the ultimate shit job this time around. Zulu however also represents an evolution of the theme, as Endfield struggled to encompass the ugly as well as noble side of the human character, always struggling for pre-eminence within all people. In this regard Endfield was a highly prognosticative filmmaker, as precisely this conflict would be taken up by many major filmmakers in the next decade or so, as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah. The driving irony of Zulu, crystallised at the very end, is that the two sides in the battle represent both facets at the same time, united in martial honour and in the happy dealing of death. His next film after Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari (1965), would repeat the same basic theme in an even more remote and existentially blighted situation, with various he-men battling the desert and apes, a woman caught between them over whom they try to establish rights to conquest.
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Characters like Witt and Hook are then presented not according to any historical record – the real Witt for instance was 30 and Margareta was a child, whilst Hook was regarded as a quality soldier – but as avatars for Endfield’s concerns, his favoured variations of troubled and exiled protagonists, defined by violent extremes of self-loathing and temptations to passion that cannot be contained by their apparent roles and stations. Endfield notes maternal qualities in some of the men, including Thomas and Bourne, in the way they foster and nurture in a situation otherwise without femininity. Such men, artists like Owen, and builders like Chard prove astoundingly accomplished as killers when push comes to shove. Endfield strays awfully close to anticlericism in considering the Witts, denying the relevance of a transcendental system in a situation where immediate reality has a powerful stink, and Chard dismisses the use of the word “miracle” to describe their survival with his own correction: “It’s a short-chamber boxer Henry point-four-five calibre miracle.” Witt collapses in upon himself as he faces the ruination of his self-image as well as the foiling of his credos, whilst others suddenly find themselves elevated to titan status by qualities that have hitherto rendered them black sheep. The stiff, pristine whiteness of Margareta’s jacket demands ripping, and her dark-eyed gaze as she listens to the bawdy remarks of the soldiers signals the struggle of official piety with boding sexuality within.
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Chard is celebrated at the ideal persona at the axis of such events, workmanlike in the best sense, his ideals and his pragmatism bound together in his mind’s approach to things, although there are spurts of class tension between him and Bromhead. Endfield avoids didacticism, however, as he gives Bromhead as much empathy as all the other characters: “I rather fancy he’s no-one’s son and heir now,” Bromhead snaps at Chard when he’s sarcastic about an order given by some probably slain high-ranker. The attack becomes the essential levelling event, ransacking each defender’s reflexes of character and muscle to determine who will live and who will die. With further ironic cunning, Endfield makes the tough and canny Adendorff, the only major Boer character in the film, not just a voice to make explicable the Zulu battle tactics and culture, but also the voice of awareness in both racial and political dimensions. “Just who do you think’s coming to wipe out your little command, the Grenadier Guards?” he asks when Bromhead makes a bitter comment about “cowardly blacks,” and notes that the price the British will demand for putting down “the enemy of my blood” (as he calls the Zulus) might be a steep one for his people too. Adendorff is a character completely without illusions about the nature of the larger struggle of the age but committed nonetheless to the fight at hand, where nearly everyone else is essentially an interloper (Van den Bergh would go on to appear as a wrath-stirring bigot in Cornel Wilde’s discomforting exploration of Darwinian race clashes out on the veldt, The Naked Prey, 1963). Another man defending home turf is Schiess, although he’s a Swiss émigré, who notably saves Chard after he’s knocked down by some foes and creaming the Zulus with his crutch.
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Zulu plays out almost in real time for much of its length: the first hundred minutes are essentially one, long, concerted sequence. The first appearance of the Zulu impis on the hills above the mission, surveyed in one, long, seemingly endless camera pivot, is a high-point of the use of widescreen cinema in the use of presenting to the audience a vision of awe and fear. But Endfield immediately contrasts it with the claustrophobic hysteria of Witt, glaring out from his cage as he hisses desperate appeals to heed the word of the Lord: the twinning of opposites that drives his world view realised on the most immediate level. Stephen Dade’s great photography aids Endfield’s igneous sense of composition, constantly catching the actors against the arena-like mountains or the mission buildings in stark framings as if the humans are insects picking over the colossal bones of an enormous monster. Endfield drops in some expert touches of comic relief: Owen’s quip, “That’s very nice of him,” after Bromhead allows free fire, has a special zing as it captures the way the commencement of battle counts as something of a relief after the excruciating anticipation. Adendorff helps the commanders see the way the Zulus, far from randomly provoking them, are carefully probing their defences. The crashing tides of Zulu warriors test Chard’s quickly assembled but cunningly laid defences, spilling over at points and demanding the defenders battle hand-to-hand. Chard is lightly injured in the first battle, and others like Hitch and Allen are badly wounded but still keep trying to help out, crawling around with bullet wounds handing out ammunition. Reynolds works with sweating industry, pausing only to berate Chard as representative of the entire soldiering profession.
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Caine would remark years later that he felt he owed his casting here, and through it his career, to the fact Endfield as an American looked past his background, and Baker, just as working-class in roots as Caine, had similarly benefited from working with visiting Hollywood directors. Baker had been the ideal lead in Endfield’s melodramas as he wielded both quotidian grit and also the stature of a star. The two actors make a great contrast in looks and screen energies, Baker with his square jaw, strong build, and tight grin, suggesting both intensity of personality and width of vision, Caine gangly, blonde-thatched, sleepy-eyed, investing Bromhead, who seems initially to be a right arse, with qualities of both guts and sensitivity. They’re surrounded here by a grand company of actors, from the towering Greene, who cleverly conveys Bourne’s authority and prowess not by acting like the traditionally bellowing sergeant but through the impression of consciously restrained strength, to Booth, who never quite gained the level of attention his performance here might have warranted, playing Hitch as a man who covers up a war with the entire world with a glaze of smarmy humour and whatever the opposite of noblesse oblige is. Hook is finally obliged to work for a living as the Zulus target the hospital, as he predicted, as a blind spot, he and other men furiously battling the invading warriors in a dizzying scene of intimate combat. Spears and bayonets clash, the thatched roof catches fire and walls are dug through frantically, whilst Bromhead battles on the roof. Finally an unsecured gate latch unleashes a stampede of cattle that halts a Zulu charge and ends the great assault of the first day.
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Endfield plainly offers the British and Zulus as well-matched foes, both meeting with the sharp edge of their martial culture, as the soft edge of politesse and religion fall by the wayside early on. “I think they have more guts than we have, boyo,” Owen allows as they fend off yet another charge. Endfield signals cultural clash in the early scenes of the Witts confronted by a very different approach to life, but also the presence of affinities, the vitality of ritual and universality of certain gestures, giving shape and procedure to communal expressions. Violations of that order are the by-product of individual flaws that also testify to the reason behind such order: Endfield makes a point of having both a Zulu warrior and a British soldier rudely grab Margareta in plays of erotic possessiveness. The former is immediately punished by Cetshwayo who has another warrior execute him summarily; the latter transgression isn’t officially noticed. Language is an unsurmountable barrier but gestures so often speak for themselves, as Endfield parallels Chard and Bromhead trying to figure out their enemies to shots of the Zulu commanders doing the same thing. The attacking Zulus are always warlike and determined, but in Chard’s battle with some Endfield privileges him with seeing, in close proximity, fear and uncertainty in their faces, facing like him the same ultimate truth of life and death decided by reflexes of mind and muscle virtually beyond sense.
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Endfield’s emphasis on such oppositions and equivalencies reaches apogee in the film’s two most emotive moments before and after the climactic bout of bloodletting. In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, the British soldiers, facing a new charge by the Zulus at dawn of the second day of the siege, sing a version of the Welsh marching song “Men of Harlech” in riposte to the Zulus chanting one of their war songs. Endfield borrowed this flourish directly from the Val Lewton-produced, Hugo Fregonese-directed Apache Drums (1951), although he offers it with more canny showmanship and a greater suggestion of peculiar accord: Endfield turns the clash of the two songs into a bizarrely harmonic experience, the challenge of aggression and pride apparent in both camps mirrored and transformed into poetic exaltation. Endfield’s sharpest irony lies in his observation that given warfare is a most human phenomenon, even when bracketed under the heading of inhumanity, it is a form of communication, replete with agreed cues, signs, and converse values. When the time for singing ends, the Zulus charge, the British retreat to one of Chard’s prepared redoubts and wield the massed power of their rifles.
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When the guns fall silent, Endfield surveys a bloodcurdling mass of black bodies, spread across the ground right up to the defenders. Suddenly outmatched defence has become a scene of carnage declaring the birth of the modern world where mass destruction is a basic fact and raw courage a mere expeditious way of getting killed. No wonder Bromhead soon confesses, “I’m ashamed.” The second gesture of unexpected affinity comes as the Zulus suddenly reappear to regale the defenders, initially scaring the hell out of the remaining defenders before Adendorff realises they’re being saluted as “fellow braves.” Of course, reality was nowhere near so romantic or ethically stirring: after the departure of the besiegers and the arrival of Chelmsford’s relief, the soldiers brutally killed many of the wounded and captured Zulus in payback for the mutilations many of their own had received at Isandhlwana. This is instead Endfield’s attempt to knit the story into a contemporary context, forces at a standstill of mutual respect pointing the way forward to modernity. One reason the battle was remembered to posterity was the astounding tally of eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to the defenders, often seen as an official attempt to save face in the midst of the campaign’s general disaster. Endfield brings back Burton’s narration for a coda that succinctly unifies Endfield’s mission, message, and aesthetic, his camera moving in long, gliding reveries through the mission in the wake of the battle, noting the men who received the Victoria Cross in the midst of their comrades, caught in attitudes of boredom, pain, exhaustion, business, even indifference, still trying to work out if what just happened to them had meaning or was just a nightmare that left with the rising of the sun.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verhoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement this time proving leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Western

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the great western night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.
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The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
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But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
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De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.
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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).
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The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together great figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.
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Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.
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When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.
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Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.
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The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”
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Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.
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Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his great duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the great mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.
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“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two great death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.
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Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.
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The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)
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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s greatest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.
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Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against great evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”
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The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.
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The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as great gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo can be viewed here.

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