1950s, Action-Adventure, Western

High Noon (1952)

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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Jungle Cruise (2021)

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

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…you’ll thank me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

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Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Waterloo (1970)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vittorio Bonicelli, H.A.L. Craig

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

Shrugged off by critics and moviegoers when it was released in 1970, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo is nonetheless one of those white elephants of cinema history that today demands a certain awe. A movie where the making of it was damn near as epic an event as the history it depicts, it’s also one of those rare instances where a mega-budget production and genuine directorial vision coincide. Waterloo began life with the ever-ambitious Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis wanting to make a film about the legendary clash that drew a curtain on Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career and an age of European history, originally hiring John Huston to direct it. But De Laurentiis had difficulty raising the necessary budget for such a monumental undertaking, even at a time when large-scale international co-productions were becoming fairly common. When he did eventually find production partners it came from an unusual direction. The Soviet Union’s state film production company Mosfilm agreed to join forces with De Laurentiis, helping stage the battle scenes in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, and supplying the largest number of extras ever assembled for a film. 17,000 Red Army soldiers played the clashing forces, whilst army engineers laboured to alter a stretch of Ukrainian farmland into a better approximation of the Belgian farmland that served as the battlefield. The film finished up rivalling in costs what was then the most expensive film ever made, 1963’s Cleopatra.

Waterloo’s eventual director Bondarchuk was a Ukrainian actor who had been a popular and lauded leading man in Soviet cinema from the 1940s, and established himself as a talented filmmaker with his feature directing debut, Fate of a Man (1959). Bondarchuk was and remains best known outside Russia for both directing and starring in a colossal seven-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, released in instalments through 1965-7. That work was realised through vast amounts of money and resources poured into it by the Soviet government in its determination to outdo the 1956 King Vidor version and make waves on the international cinema scene. The immense vision of that film saw Bondarchuk prove himself a master of handling colossal surveys of manpower and infrastructure, as well sufficiently intelligent and fine in touch to put across the human drama as well, although given the running time Tolstoy’s drama was surprisingly often muted in favour of sheer spectacle. Waterloo allowed Bondarchuk to at least provide a kind of historical sequel. Waterloo’s script was chiefly credited to the Irish former journalist and critic H.A.L. Craig, who had worked for De Laurentiis before including for the odd, interesting war film Anzio (1968), although others including Bondarchuk made contributions at different points in development.

Making a film about one of the most legendary and pivotal moments in history and two of its most powerful personalities in Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, is one of those challenges cinema’s maximalist creative talents can hardly resist but rarely get to tackle. Indeed, at the time of its release Stanley Kubrick was deeply involved in developing his own film about Napoleon, only for Waterloo’s box office failure to help foil it. To play the leads De Laurentiis hired two actors it’s hard to imagine being more different in performing style and screen presence whilst still being major stars and regarded talents. The Method-trained Rod Steiger, just passing the zenith of his movie career after winning an Oscar for In The Heat of The Night (1967) and gravitating increasingly to appearing in European films, was hired to play Napoleon, and the Shakespearean-schooled Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Steiger’s Napoleon dominates the film initially, offered as a tragic antihero pushed again and again to try and recapture lost glory. The opening scene finds Napoleon’s Marshals, including Ney (Dan O’Herlihy), Soult (Ivo Garrani), and Grouchy (Charles Millot), stalking their way purposefully through the corridors of a palace where Napoleon is trying to conduct his final, desperate resistance against the invading allied armies, their boots rapping on the tiles like a drumbeat of portent.

Bondarchuk’s genuine creative touch as a director is plain from this moment, deftly diagramming the game of tense confrontation that unfolds between the Emperor and his Marshals, matched to Steiger’s performance with its fast alternations of affect. Napoleon moves with speed through brief flare-ups of his old fighting pith, world-weary exasperation, tight-wound contempt, and eruptions of violent declamation. “You know what the throne is, Ney?” he laughingly asks the Marshal when the cavalry leader tells him he has to give it up, “The throne is an over-decorated piece of furniture. It’s what’s behind the throne that counts.” Claiming it’s his genius and will that has put them all where they are, he starts mocking the Marshals: “You all stand before me waving a piece of paper, crying ‘abdicate, abdicate’,” before bellowing with window-rattling vehemence, “I will not!” over and over, exposing all at once his genuine, force-of-nature strength of will and streak of childish tantrum-throwing. As he settles in a chair by a fireplace an officer enters and whispers to him, and Bondarchuk moves in for an intimate, shadowy close-up of Napoleon’s eyes as his voice questions in a whisper, “All his men?” Clearly he’s just been delivered awful news that finally deflates the will he so loudly espouses, and he silently stands, signs his abdication and walks out. The officer explains that another Marshal has just surrendered with the last of his armies, “his last hope.” The Marshals all suddenly turn as if stung and see Napoleon looking back through the doors at them with glowering resentment mixed with bone-deep pain and defeat.

Napoleon heads out into the courtyard where the members of his old Imperial Guard are at attention, and he gives a final, grand bit of theatre to them as he calls them “My children…my sons!” and wipes away his tears on the regimental flag. Finally he climbs into his carriage and rolls away to exile on Elba, seen as a hazy blotch of land in the distance under the opening credits. Soon titles inform us Napoleon escapes the island and lands on the mainland with a thousand men. The restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, played in a brief but effective cameo by Orson Welles, is presented as a languid, balloon-bodied humpty-dumpty in fancy clothes, barely stirred by the news his arch-enemy has escaped. After Ney, who like most of the other Marshals has kept his rank in the restoration, promises to bring his former master back “in an iron cage,” Louis mutters in quiet disdain: “How they exaggerate, all these – these soldiers…Nobody asked for that.” Ney sets out with an army division to intercept Napoleon but when the two forces square off, Napoleon, with a calculated but also genuine show of bravery, waves down his own men and marches up to Ney and his, offering himself as target. After a silent, jittery stand-off, one soldier feints, breaking the spell, and Napoleon is joyously swept up by his former soldiers. Ney throws down his sword to Napoleon, who gives it back to him and, after a few needling comments, accepts him again as his penitent disciple.

Soon enough Napoleon, vowing to displace “that fat King,” is swept into the Tuileries Palace after Louis flees it by a mob of Parisians, and he sets to work with what seems to be all his old energy and brilliance. And yet the Napoleon Steiger provides is not the romantic young culture hero of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings, if he ever existed, or even Abel Gance’s, but a middle-aged, portly, sickening man whose one great weapon is his multivalent brain, which might not be coupled to true instincts anymore. Bondarchuk includes a lengthy scene of Napoleon dictating several letters at once to various secretaries, segueing from subject to subject with breakneck speed but with a certain commonality of argument accruing, as he angrily ripostes to one letter from a prince accusing him of usurping the crown that he found it in a gutter and the people put it on his head, whilst also consoling the mother of a soldier accidentally killed and his begging his wife, now returned to her native Austria, to return his young son to him.

Napoleon’s last spur to regaining his former grandeur and fighting battles, the film suggests as it unfolds, it his desire to leave something more to his son than simply an onerous last name. As he asks one of his men late in the film what they’ll say about him in the future, the officer replies, “They will say you extended the limits of glory.” “Is that what I’m going to leave my son?” Napoleon queries, “The limits of glory?” This quest keeps driving him on even as he perceives, “My body is dying…but my brain is still good.” Soon Napoleon learns that the heads of his allied enemies have declared personal war on him despite his overtures for peace. He knows by this point who his first two adversaries are likely to be: Wellington, the English general whose name has a totemic import for his Marshals because he steadily skinned them in Spain and Portugal, a measure of inspired dread Napoleon registers but dismisses, and the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher (Sergo Zakariadze), whose armies are poised in Belgium. Receiving news that the two armies have separated whilst in the bath, Napoleon moves swiftly to take advantage.

Plummer’s Wellington is finally, first glimpsed entering the famous ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond (Virginia McKenna) in Brussels that finished up becoming the scene for the General and his senior officers learning of Napoleon’s hard and fast drive in their direction. Contrasting the fleshy, brilliant, but going-to-seed Napoleon, Wellington seems a man exactly in his prime, every inch the aristocratic warrior and an accomplished social animal, charming the Duchess and amusing her daughter Sarah (Susan Wood) with the most hyperbolic stories of Bony as a monster who drinks blood. He soon however revels one trait in common with Napoleon in possessing a pithy, unsentimental wit in regards to the business of being powerful. He describes to the Duchess his men as “Scum. Nothing but beggars and scoundrels, all of them. Gin is the spirit of their patriotism,” and only murmuring “Umm-hmm,” when the Duchess asks whether he still expects them to die for him. Wellington’s crew of stalwart warriors, most of them veterans of his long Peninsula War campaigns, are present, including the Duchess’s uncle the Duke of Gordon (Rupert Davies), commander of the famous Highland regiment, Wellington’s second-in-command the Earl of Uxbridge (Terence Alexander), quartermaster Colonel De Lancey (Ian Ogilvy), archetypal young cavalier Lord Hay (Peter Davies), and Sir William Ponsonby (Michael Wilding), commander of the Scots Greys cavalry division.

And there’s the eccentric, hard-bitten infantry commander Thomas Picton (Jack Hawkins), who presents a figure well out of place amongst all the dashing young officers and their ladies. Picton gruffly schools Lord Hay, who tries to impress Sarah by promising to bring her back a cuirassier’s breastplate, with the promise he’ll learn how to fight from the French, only to earn some sharp teasing right back from Sarah. Her mother confesses to being “a little bit of a Bonapartist” in her admiration for Napoleon’s vigour. Meanwhile, in a clever bit of directing, Bondarchuk depicts Wellington’s thoughts turning out into the stormy night beyond the gilt-framed windows in his attempts to mentally anticipate Napoleon’s moves, only for images of Napoleon’s army on the movie to resolve out of the murk. Bondarchuk turns the ball sequence into a dreamy moment of high romanticism, as Hay and Susan and De Lancey and his wife Magdalene (Veronica De Laurentiis) make splendid couples amidst the many on the dance floor. The ballroom is a space of appropriate splendour with its manifold candles, chandeliers, and mirrored walls, rather more baroquely beautiful than the actual scene of the ball, but underscoring Bondarchuk’s offering of this as a pure moment of period idealisation, the cavalier dream enjoying a brief flower before hell opens up again, grazing a Jane Austen world of glittering young things honouring Eros before the inevitable orgy of Thanatos.

Bondarchuk offers a slow-motion image of Hay and Susan with expressions of stricken intensity, candle flames in the foreground reaching into the frame encapsulating the brief burning spell of life in the moment even as fate has literally come calling, in the form of Müffling (John Savident), Blücher’s envoy. The dirty, harried Müffling, who the Duchess spots and comments, “That man will spoil the dancing,” arrives to tell Wellington that Napoleon is on the move and has already seized a strategic advantage. The dance goes on whilst Wellington and his generals retire to another room to quickly forge a strategy, Wellington quickly deducing the basic shape of what must now happen. Napoleon hits and drives back Blücher’s force from the crossroads of Quatre Bras, but Blücher expertly manages to keep his army together and says he can come when Wellington begs for the Prussians to rendezvous with him outside the town of Waterloo, as he means to stand and fight with his army, a blend of British, Dutch, and German soldiers.

Many great military conflicts of history can be awkward affairs to coherently and cohesively capture on film, but Waterloo quite literally had everything required for great storytelling. The inherent drama of Müffling’s arrival during the ball, shattering the frivolity with news of something imminent and awesome. The two polar-opposite yet gravity-locked military heroes squaring off. The race against time that helps decide the battle. Component skirmishes filled with enough drama to serve as films in themselves, like the defence of the farmhouse Hougoumont, the grand but doomed cavalry charges by both sides, and the collapse of the French Imperial Guard. Moreover, Waterloo became hopelessly wound in with nationalistic legend and culture in Britain, France, and beyond. One of the more niggling aspects of Waterloo as a film is a common one amongst the international co-productions from the era: for an event so strongly rooted in such culturally specific legend, the smaller roles are discomfortingly crammed with Italian and Russian actors who needed to be awkwardly dubbed, sapping it, at least for an Anglophonic audience, of the kind of emblematic chauvinistic power that, say, Zulu (1964) achieved. But that said, it’s keen to the cultural apparatus and memory in play throughout.

Casting Steiger and Welles, and O’Herlihy who does a kind of clipped American accent, is a gesture that almost gives a certain clever cohesion to the French side of things, trying to suggest the brash energy of the revolutionary French by equating it with the American version. But the supporting players filling out his Marshals and officers have a hodgepodge of accents. On the British side, Hawkins had been severely limited through an operation for throat cancer that left his once-mellifluous voice a hoarse croak, and was usually dubbed by other actors in his later roles: here the post-synched voice often barely matches his lips. A small price to pay, perhaps, for a film that also displays many of the best qualities of the filmmaking in its era, with the fearsome attention to detail and mise-en-scene that distinguished both the Italian and Russian film industries on display. Everything has a uniquely palpable immediacy, a grittiness, even before we get to the monumental battle scenes. Even the posh revelry of the ball has an earthy lustre.

The scale of the recreation of the battle is an awe-inspiring apex of pre-CGI staging in cinema, and moreover Bondarchuk wields it with an actual sense of artistic purpose, unlike some lesser battle movies, like the endless B-roll footage of historical recreationists tramping around farmland filling out the back half of Gettysburg (1991). As the two armies square off Bondarchuk films Wellington’s forces from Napoleon’s point of view in a breathtaking survey. The staging of scenes like Napoleon’s riotous return to the halls of power in Paris, borne aloft by a joyous crowd, aim to capture the overflowing liveliness of historical genre painting, and indeed Bondarchuk recreates many such paintings throughout. Bondarchuk’s melancholy romanticism in the ball room is later mirrored in the most astoundingly epic fashion as he shoots the famous charge of the Scots Greys cavalry, recreating the painting Scotland Forever! and adopting a languorous, dreamlike slow-motion as the great steeds pound across muddy ground, Nino Rota’s score offering a sonorous pastiche of the ballroom music, turning the thunderous charge into another wistful waltz for what is both the climax of and the doom of a warrior creed and way.

Before the battle begins, however, Wellington and Napoleon spend a long, dark, rainy night pensively failing to rest as they reside in farmhouses on opposite sides of the prospective battlefield, Napoleon trying urgently to understand why Wellington has taken up position in a place that looks poor to his eye, whilst Wellington has already explained to his people why the position is actually ideal, having seen it a year earlier and kept it in mind. Bonaparte suffers a bout of illness that causes concern in his Marshals, whilst Wellington is driven to distraction by the question of whether Blücher can give aid to his outnumbered force, with Blücher himself being chased by a detached portion of the French army under Grouchy. Certainly because it helps amplify the drama, the film rolls with disputed reports from some witnesses that Napoleon was debilitated at points throughout the campaign and at crucial points of the battle by attacks of severe pain – he almost certainly was already ill with the stomach cancer that would kill him six years later – as well as constantly suggested foreboding that wars with his most customary habits of decisive energy and resolve, his confident belief that he has no equal and so can only be undone by his own weaknesses.

Steiger hardly seems at first glance like obvious casting as a stocky American playing the eternally energetic Corsican-born Emperor. And yet he gives one of his best screen performances, revelling in playing a character that perfectly suits his galvanic, sometimes borderline hambone acting style, moving with musical skill between the poles of Napoleon overboiling character. Plummer, on the other hand, seems very obviously cast, and also gives one of his best performances, expertly flicking off Wellington’s turns of wit and finding the vulnerable streak and the ticking intelligence under the Iron Duke’s veneer of haughty confidence. Compared to Napoleon’s mercurial talents Wellington is taciturn in command and circumspect about revealing any limitations, commenting, “If I thought my hair knew what my brain was thinking, I’d shave it off and wear a wig.” Notably, where the film grants access to Napoleon’s thinking through a voiceover that explicates his thought processes, Wellington remains sealed off until the very end, although he’s obviously rattled as he keeps losing friends during the fight. When Gordon offers him some of the beans he’s munching on for energy with the assurance they’re good, Wellington responds with peerless honesty in being confounded, “If there is one thing about which I know positively nothing, it is agriculture,” a line that always cracks me up specifically because of Plummer’s delivery. Or when he barks at a buglist to stop uselessly blowing his horn in an attempt to call back the Scots Greys, only to then console him, “You’ll strain yourself.”

The two generals are offered as avatars of radically different societies, the once-revolutionary Napoleon who now reclines amidst the captured grandeur of a deposed nobility speaking sniffily of “this English aristocrat” whist the once-penurious Wellington, reborn a crisply tasteful man of import, comments of his foe, “On a field of battle his hat is worth fifty thousand men, but he’s not a gentleman.” He disdains the sight of Napoleon riding by on his famous white horse, noting sceptically, “I don’t need a white horse to puff me up, by god.” When one of his men asks permission to try taking him out with a cannon shot, an appalled Wellington responds, “Certainly not!…Commanders of armies have better things to do than to fire at each-other.” As an Irishman Craig’s script naturally focuses on a selection of the rankers of the Enniskillen regiment as representative shitkickers amidst the great horde under Wellington, as the also-Irish-born Duke notes “I hang and flog more of them than the rest of the army put together.” When he encounters one of the Irish privates, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly), having just stolen a piglet from a farmhouse for food, Wellington eventually laughs at O’Connor’s desperate attempts at explaining himself, claiming to me merely seeking the unfortunate piglet’s home.

Rather than punishing O’Connor, Wellington has him promoted to Corporal because he knows “how to defend a hopeless position,” an amusing vignette if one somewhat contrary to Wellington’s famously stern approach to preventing pillaging. O’Connor adapts to rank uneasily as he sneaks a look into an officer’s shaving mirror to make sure his new stripes are sewn correctly, much to the officer’s annoyance. Bondarchuk also reserves an amused eye for the rituals of the two squared-off armies as the English soldiers begin singing a mocking song about how “Bony fought the Roo-shee-ans!” whilst Wellington and his officers drink a toast to “Today’s fox” in reading for a hunt. The British soldiers, like Picton who insists on dressing like a well-dressed man-about-town rather than a soldier, have a quality of individualism that is an odd strength and proves fateful compared to the way Napoleon’s people hero-worship their singular leader. Wellington is inclined to indulge everything that “wastes time” to give Blücher a chance to reach them, whilst Napoleon and his Marshals realise the ground, left muddy from the previous night’s downpour, has to dry before they can move their cannons and manoeuvre effectively.

Both the strength of Waterloo as a film and some of its frustrating aspects are connected. The film was reportedly heavily edited before release, excising a great amount of material. But concentrating on Napoleon and Wellington and perceiving the sturm-und-drang of the battle as a manifestation of their warring personalities was a good idea, contrasting the usual sprawl of historical epics with their mix of fiction and fact, helping it to play out as tightly focused and realistic, almost to the point of sometimes resembling a docudrama, less like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Doctor Zhivago (1960) and more like a far more expensive and expansive version of what directors like Peter Watkins and Gillo Pontecorvo were making around the same time. Apart from the sidelong glances at the Enniskillen and vignettes during the ball, there’s no distraction by subplots and romances. It takes the idea of portraying inherently dramatic history as for the most part sufficient in itself. Craig’s script draws a lot of dialogue directly from the real people if from the expanse of their careers rather than the specific moment, like Napoleon commenting, “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” whilst watching Wellington’s army form. Apart from a few dashes of historical licence – Hay, portrayed in the film as the essence of doomed youth, was killed two days before the battle, and the version of Gordon in the film is a composite of several members of the family – it’s also closely attuned to historical fact for the most part.

This however does to a certain extent limit the film’s capacity to dramatise some of the battle’s vignettes, like the struggle over Hougoumont, which is seen as a selection of random shots of attack and defence. The film does make space for Ponsonby sharing snuff with Uxbridge and reminiscing about the sorry circumstances of his father’s death at the hands of French Lancers, before suffering exactly the same fate himself when the charge of the Scots Greys becomes a route and Ponsonby is caught in the mud. Ponsonby manages to hand on his watch to one of his men with the order to take it to his son, only for the other horseman to also be caught and killed. Bondarchuk zeroes in on the watch with its painted case still in the dead man’s grasp in a muddy pool, a potent little image of delicate civilisation amidst the filth and carnage of war, a lost token of a genteel world about to be swept away. Ponsonby’s story about his father is fictional, but it helps create an odd sense of time stuck in a loop in the foreshadowng, an evocation of war as unending, claiming generation upon generation. This touch works better than a more emphatic sop to the antiwar feelings of a 1970 youth audience later in the film, as a flaxen-haired young soldier, Tomlinson (Oleg Vidov), who O’Connor’s taken under his wing, suddenly freaks out during the attack on the Allied army by Ney’s cavalry and wanders out amidst the galloping horses and gunfire screaming, “We’ve never seen each-other – how can we kill each-other?”

Whilst this touch is a bit much, Bondarchuk still makes it work for him when he films Ney’s charge, which the volatile cavalry leader unleashes whilst Napoleon is having a bout of pain and Ney assumes Wellington is retreating when he’s just trying to shelter his men from artillery. The Allied soldiers form into defensive squares, leaving the cavalry reeling about them, a stand-off that quickly degenerates into a madcap bloodbath. This sequence is filmed in astounding aerial shots, picking out the ragged geometry of the defences and the squiggles of the charging horsemen as seen from a godlike perspective, contrasted with the hellish furore on ground level, in a sequence of truly gobsmacking effect. Tomlinson’s protesting cries echo on the soundtrack as the camera speeds over the battle, Rota’s sadly elegant violin theme on sound underscoring the constant refrain of Bondarchuk’s vision of the battle as a dance of death. There’s virtually nothing like this sequence anywhere else in cinema, and the film’s acknowledged impact on the way Peter Jackson shot the battle sequences in his Tolkien adaptations is plain. Bondarchuk weaves in moments of effective battlefield horror, like Picton getting struck by a shard of shrapnel through his signature top hat and slowly falling dead from his horse, and Wellington watching helplessly as De Lancey is also struck by shrapnel, his back grotesquely torn, and collapses whilst the wind and smoke drives down upon him and his fellows. Hay is cut down crying to the soldiers he stands with to “Think of England, men!”, perhaps the closest the film comes to nudging the more overtly cynical attitude of something like Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

There’s also a nice bit of humour as Gordon’s Highlanders are sent into battle, bagpipes blasting and kilts flicking about their knees, provoking Napoleon, watching them through a telescope, to query, “Has Wellington nothing to offer me but these Amazons?” The later scenes of the battle gain an increasingly apocalyptic edge as Bondarchuk has a strong wind arise and the scene become a stygian place of whipping smoke and dust, like some distant spiritual anticipation of the atomic bomb is being unleashed. Napoleon bellows frantic commands to his men through the din, whilst the Prussian columns appear on the horizon, forcing Napoleon to try and win the battle as quickly as possible, and for a moment seems to have the battle in his grasp as he captures one of the farmhouses anchoring Wellington’s position. Perhaps understandably for a Soviet artist who had lived through World War II, Bondarchuk offers the not-so-faint suggestion throughout the film that with both Napoleon and Wellington granted their measure of sympathy, the real villains as the Prussians, who of course represent the rising power of the Germanic states. Whenever Blücher and his army are seen Rota menacingly plays “Deutschland Über Alles” anachronistically on the soundtrack, and when he finally gets his force close enough to strike, Blücher bellows: “No pity! I’ll shoot any man who has pity in him!” “I made one mistake in my life,” Napoleon comments, “I should’ve burnt Berlin.”

Only here does Bondarchuk really lose grip on the illustrative sense of the battle’s ebb and flow in his desire to portray the French collapse as a chaotic rush, and loses the potential impact of the battle’s famous climactic moment, the breaking of the Imperial Guard, which had never before run from the field, in an ambush by the British Foot Guards. Still, Bondarchuk notably continues his theme of modern warfare nesting inside the seemingly more heroically idealised historical brand as he dubs in the sound of machine gun fire when the Guards fire on their French enemies, ripping them to pieces, who, with enemies front and behind, finally crack and flee. The anecdote of Uxbridge getting his leg blown off, a vignette that became part of the odd folklore attached to the battle, allows another great moment for Plummer as the Duke registers his friend’s injury with both a note of shock and distress whilst also maintaining a veneer of the kind of English understatement and stoicism that became mythical. As the French collapse with two armies suddenly closing a vice on them, one of Wellignton’s aides comments, “We’re doing murder, your grace.” The battle ends with the nobly pathetic sight of the last French survivors, cornered and bedraggled, refusing to surrender – “Merde!” an officer shouts in response to the English entreaty to lay down arms – and so are blown to smithereens by cannons.

Bondarchuk offers a coda that suggests the influence of the post-battle scenes of Alexander Nevsky (1938) as, far from offering a sense of triumph, he has Wellington ride across the battlefield surveying the entirely inglorious results. Thousands of bodies, including Tomlinson, lie sprawled on the ground, picked over by thieves in the dying murk of the day, the limits of glory well and truly defined. Wellington’s later comment that the saddest thing other than a battle lost is a battle won is heard in voiceover, before the Duke rides off towards his future, one which will bring him to no more battlefields. Meanwhile the bloodied, mad-looking Ney watches as a gutted and dazed Napoleon flails in the rain, allowing the Marshal a flourish of poetic force as his thoughts are heard, making reckoning of his commander’s fate: “They’ll chain you, like Prometheus, to a rock, where the memory of your own greatness will gnaw you.” Napoleon climbs into his carriage and rides off into the gathering murk and rain, a final note surprisingly anticipatory of the very end of Apocalypse Now (1979), a film which can be seen as the end-of-the-1970s-zeitgeist bookend to Waterloo’s vision of warfare and titanic ego devolving into the mud. Waterloo is an imperfect film certainly, but it has flashes of real greatness, and demands more regard.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Fantasy, Historical

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.

Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.

When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.

This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”

The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.

This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.

Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.

Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.

Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.

Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.

Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.

Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.

Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.

The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.

If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.

The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.

Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.

The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.

The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.

Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.

Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.

From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.

One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.

Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.

As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.

Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.

As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.

Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.

Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.

Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, War

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.

The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.

Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.

One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.

Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.

These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.

The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.

Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.

Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.

A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.

Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.

Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.

Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.

Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”

Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.

Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.

The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.

When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.

Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in recent blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.

The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.

For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.

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

Dirty Harry (1971)

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Director: Don Siegel
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Terrence Malick (uncredited), John Milius (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Fifty years since the film’s release, the opening moments of Dirty Harry still pack a wallop, a potent aesthetic unit promising cruel and jagged thrills. Director Don Siegel surveys the names of policemen killed in the line of duty carved on a memorial are scanned as church bells chime on the soundtrack with an insistently ethereal overtone, before fading to a shot of a rifle in a man’s grasp, barrel and silencer looming huge and deadly, death from above rendered intimate and literal. A lovely young woman (Diana Davidson) is glimpsed diving into a swimming pool on the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper to swim a few laps. The man with the gun is watching the girl, his telescopic sight zeroing in whilst the camera shot zooms back to confirm the woman’s oblivious link to the man’s bleak intent, space, distance, and height gripped and distorted by the camera lens and the homicidal purpose of the assassin. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s music, an unsettling blend of skittish, pulsing drum riffs, spacy drones and creepy female vocalisations, weave a paranoid and threatening mood.

The pull towards godlike judgement is irresistible, predestined: the killer pulls the trigger in obedience, his existence only gaining meaning through the erasure of what he’s looking at, the despoiling of what seems to live in the world’s heart. The vantage suddenly becomes more dreadfully intimate, bullet hole exploding in the girl’s back, her hollow, water-sucking breaths heard as she sinks into the brine and black blood spasms in blue water. The thrill of power worked at deistic remove crashes headlong into the immediacy of hideous brutality worked upon a hapless body, death rendered a palpable and awful thing to a degree even Siegel’s former protégé Sam Peckinpah had not yet quite countenanced in his spectacles of bloodshed.

The anointed agent of retribution is swift to appear: Siegel cuts immediately to the entrance of his hero, such as he is, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), called onto the rooftops to survey the carnage of this new foe. Clad in grey suit and sunglasses that look like they might deflect such high-velocity bullets, Harry has the quality of a specially bred tracking animal released from his cage the moment his particular talents are required. Schifrin’s jazz-funk theme tags Harry with a jittery but propulsive metre as he ascends into the neighbouring building and collects his foe’s spoor-like leavings: a discarded shell, a pinned note, items left behind specifically by the killer to announce his coming to the powers that be and tease his inevitable pursuer. Siegel’s long-evinced obsession with landscapes of soaring heights and sprawling flats and their connection to the straits of his characters is immediately in play here. The great sprawl of San Francisco is laid out below as the stadium for the oncoming corrida between cop and killer, the gaze of the camera conjoined with the will to countenance such extremes of moral drama.

The killer calls himself Scorpio, and his letter draws a single, totemic groan of “Jesus” as he reads it pinned to an aerial and comprehends that he’s not dealing with just any old nut. Cut to the city mayor (John Vernon) reading out the letter in his office, unable to read out the racial slur Scorpio uses in the letter as he declares “my next pleasure will be to kill a Catholic Priest or a nigger” if he’s not paid a $100,000 ransom. Scorpio’s declared motive is money but he is also, in modern parlance, a troll, one who delights in assaulting social norms and provoking consensus with acts of calculated despoiling, an iconoclast who seems to care less about being caught than about getting to play his game out to the end. Harry, called into a meeting with the Mayor, the Chief of Police (John Larch), and his superintendent Al Bressler (Harry Guardino), senses such motives instinctively and declares a conviction that playing along with Scorpio is asking for trouble. But the Mayor wants him mollified long enough to set up a surveillance net over the city and get the operation to catch him up and running. Harry’s suggestion, that he find a way to meet him, is dismissed out of hand, and his listless attempts to explain basic police work are cut off by Bressler, more experienced in this sort of thing in offering quick, clipped, impressive-sounding measures to mollify the sternly questioning Mayor.

On his way out the door, the Mayor tells Harry that he doesn’t want any more bad headline-making actions “like we had last year in the Fillmore district”, leading to Harry’s serious if wryly pitched retort that “when a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” A promissory note for Harry’s way of dealing with clear and present danger. And yet in the next scene, when Harry sits down for a lunchtime hotdog at a downtown diner even as he’s noticed the distinct probability a bank robbery is being committed across the street, his first response is to get the cook to call in other cops and “wait for the cavalry to arrive.” But the peal of alarms tells him he has to go to work. He strides out into the street and barks at one of the emerging robbers to halt through a mouth full of chewed hotdog. Rather than desist of course the robber fires at Harry, who brings his signature weapon, a massive Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, to bear and takes out the thieves with a precision that isn’t quite surgical, given their getaway car crashes into fire hydrant and topples a florist stand. Only after the battle is over does Harry glance down and notice the shotgun pellet wounds riddling his leg. Seeing one robber (Albert Popwell) is only wounded and seems to be contemplating grabbing his gun, Harry advances on him and gives a well-polished speech of challenge just about every movie lover know by rote.

Harry Callahan is immediately inscribed as a near-mythical figure, armoured knight or western gunslinger transposed into the contemporary scene, his Magnum his Excalibur capable of extraordinary feats. Or is it less Excalibur and more Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, the cursed sword of the equally antiheroic Elric, feeding on souls and entrapping its wielder ever more deeply the more he uses it for however righteous ends? What’s particularly interesting about this scene, aside from how it gives the audience true introduction to Harry’s prowess under fire and his ritualistic dominance of his felled opponents, is the way he’s also characterised as a working stiff, trying to avoid being pulled into a gunfight during his lunch, lacking any gung-ho drive to put himself in harm’s way but committing fully once obliged. Treated by a police surgeon Steve (Marc Hertsens) who sets about plucking the shot from his leg, Harry insists on removing his pricey trousers rather than let the doctor cut them off: “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This touch serves a nimble game in the way Harry is characterised, allowing him to be a reasonably well-dressed hero but also one for whom it comes with a hole in his bank balance. There’s also the first hint dropped regarding Harry’s loss of his wife, as Steve unthinkingly tells Harry to get his wife to check his wounds, before remembering and apologising.

Whilst taking over a mythic role in his social function and a movie part designed to transpose the cinematic persona he was carrying over from his roles for Sergio Leone, Eastwood-as-Harry himself stands at a remove from the stony titans of the wastes he played in those films, forced to operate in the real world. Harry soon finds himself presented with an encumbrance to his usual preferred way of working, when he’s assigned a Latino partner newly promoted, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). Dirty Harry has long been a loaded film to contemplate despite being a popular classic and a foundational work of modern Hollywood film style. The film didn’t invent the figure of the cop driven by his own peculiar motives to play a rough game by his own rules, which had precursors in movies like Beast of the City (1932) and The Big Heat (1953), and some of Siegel’s own earlier works, whilst of course also anatomising a couple of millennia’s worth of duellist dramas going back The Iliad. But Dirty Harry certainly drew up a fresh blueprint for use in infinite variations over the next few decades in movies and TV shows.

Siegel’s film can count movies as disparate as Death Wish (1974), Assault on Precinct 13, Taxi Driver (both 1976), Lethal Weapon, Robocop (both 1987), Die Hard (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Se7en (1996) amongst its errant and quarrelsome children. Michael Mann’s films owe a vast amount to Siegel’s imprint. Even the concept of Batman and The Joker offered in Batman (1989) and doubled-down on in The Dark Knight (2008) as glowering vigilante versus mocking anarchist owe everything to Harry and Scorpio: Andy Robinson’s clownish leer and crazed laugh already trend very Joker-like. Siegel expected a lashing from liberal critics and viewers and got it at a moment in a time when, amidst the wane of the Counterculture moment which he and Eastwood had parodied on their earlier collaboration Coogan’s Bluff (1968), a reactionary spasm was manifesting. Concerns over street crime and social breakdown and the possible necessity, even desirability of vigilante action were on the boil and questions about police ethics and limitations were being vigorously debated from all corners just as they are today. Dirty Harry is still often caricatured as a fascist-vigilante mission statement. Still, moviegoers embraced the film to such a degree Eastwood was finally, firmly established as a major Hollywood star, and he returned to the title role four times.

Whilst both films owed much to the success of Bullitt (1968), a movie that did for the modern detective what James Bond did for spies in crystallising the idea of a cool cop, Dirty Harry and its slightly more reputable and thus Oscar-garlanded companion The French Connection gave the cop drama a hard, grim, violent gloss and reinstalled it as a vehicle of gritty entertainment in pop culture. The film had immediate real-life roots in the mythos of the conspicuously uncaught Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror over San Francisco in the late 1960s (and like Bullitt drew on real-life detective Dave Toschi as a model), although analogue Scorpio has a rather different modus operandi, and a few other murder cases were drawn on too. The film’s complex development saw the script, initially penned by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Harold and Rita Fink and then given rewrites by a credited Dean Riesner, a very experienced writer for TV westerns (and former child actor), and uncredited young talents Terrence Malick and John Milius. Milius, as well as introducing the totemic sense of gun lore, took Akira Kurosawa’s crime movies like Stray Dog (1949) as a model in defining Harry as an isolated man and doppelganger to the killer he’s chasing, whilst Malick’s take was used as the basis for the first sequel, Magnum Force (1973). A battery of major stars turned down the role, and in the end it was Eastwood who took on the project with his own fledgling production company Malpaso.

Eastwood had since The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966) been looking for the right vehicle to cement the stardom he gained in Spaghetti Westerns as legitimate in the Hollywood sense, and after a couple of straight Westerns including Siegel’s turn to the Italianate with Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) and the ill-advised turn to musical comedy in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Dirty Harry finally presented him the ideal chance to graft his squinty, taciturn gunslinger act onto a contemporary scene, and the much-mimicked familiarity of the character’s various catchphrases – “You’ve got to ask yourself one question – ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?”, later giving way to the pithier “Go ahead, make my day,” from Sudden Impact (1983) – depend on the near-symbiotic perception of Eastwood’s presence in the role and the role itself. And yet there’s an offbeat quality to Eastwood performance despite its seeming familiarity. Eastwood never plays Harry as particularly physically dominant or cocksure, often seeming a beat or two out of alignment with the world around him, as if tired and wired all at once. His clenched, oddly undulating drawl conveys hints of ennui and contempt as well as the struggle he has day in and day out keeping his behaviour and reactions on an even keel.

More crucially, Siegel, who began his career as a studio artisan prized for his montage work and had to fight to be given a shot at directing, Siegel, whose feature directing career had nearly ground to a halt in the mid-1960s like many other Old Hollywood talents, confirmed his comeback after auteurist-minded critics had kept candles burning for him with a movie that looked and sounding almost super-modern. Siegel had been wrestling with his ambivalent feelings about justice and policing since his debut feature The Verdict (1946). That film set in play many ideas and images repeated in Dirty Harry, from the opening bell chimes to the soaring vantages and the central figure of a policeman who commits to his own ideal of justice. Siegel returned to the theme later of a cop battling political pressure as well as some of the same imagery in Edge of Eternity (1959). Siegel’s temperamental drift towards film noir and thrillers saw him often offering criminals and ne’er-do-wells as protagonists as often as cops and traditional hero figures.

Siegel’s natural sympathy for outsiders fighting for their lives and identities could be applied to victimised innocents like the luckless humans of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the Native American foundling-turned-avenger of Flaming Star (1960), and the doomed proto-beatnik soldier of Hell Is For Heroes (1962), through to brutal and destructive and but existentially beleaguered criminals as in films like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Lineup (1958), and The Killers (1964). Siegel’s immediate acolytes included Eastwood, Peckinpah, and Ida Lupino who co-wrote and starred in Private Hell 36, and just about everyone to take on a modern cop and urban action movie lies under his influence. Dirty Harry allowed Siegel to set up these two essential types of character in direct warfare and played at extremes, Scorpio’s truly anarchic spirit and Harry’s increasingly maniacal response operating as schismatic halves of the same personality, Siegel’s own. Siegel had displayed with Two Mules For Sister Sara readiness to draw on the Italian Western template, and Dirty Harry, like the same year’s Klute, suggests the influence of Italian giallo film also creeping into Hollywood, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in particular, what with Siegel’s emphasis on voyeurisitic points of view matched to Schifrin’s score which betrays evident similarities to Ennio Morricone’s for Argento with the eerie female vocals and outbreaks of dissonant jazz.

At the same time, Siegel’s own stylistics were cutting-edge for the time, working with his great cinematographer Bruce Surtees in utilising inventive and sweeping use of wide-angle lenses to distort space and invert relationships, particularly evident in the opening shots of Scorpio and his vantage, the use of much handheld camerawork, and allowing the usually hard-edged texture of Hollywood cinematography to dissolve into semi-abstraction in the use of ambient light and long zoom and telephoto lens shots. As he had already done in The Lineup, Siegel uses the very geography of San Francisco and its spaghetti sprawl of new highway passes and ramps to present the idea of landscape as a trap as well as a mimeograph for the psychic and moral exigencies of the battle. This is particularly crucial in the climax, where Harry exploits certain knowledge about how to ambush Scorpio, but also propels much of the narrative, including the long central sequence where Scorpio forces Harry to run all over town in his attempt to pay the ransom, in order to make sure he’s not being followed – not counting on Harry and Chico being cleverer in arranging for a radio link – and informs the more sociological dimension of the story. Harry and Chico’s nocturnal excursions become epic journeys through the intestines of a modern American city, encountering lovers, hookers, muggers, gays, and would-be suicides, small fry at swim amidst neon blooming like ocean coral all looking for their own personal oblivion, behaving in ways that would have been kept hidden away just a decade before. Only cops like Harry and Chico have to engage with such a world in a spirit of obligation.

The Mayor’s hope of buying “breathing space” by answering his demand for money with a personal column missive pleading “be patient” proves exactly the wrong move as the smirking Scorpio is seen properly for the first time, tearing up the newspaper page and unpacking his rifle for another killing, this time taking aim at a gay couple having a date in a park. Luckily one of the patrolling helicopters spots him before he can shoot, forcing him to flee. Harry and Chico, patrolling in their car, cruise the district as the sun goes down and Chico spots a man carrying a suitcase the same colour as what Scorpio was carrying: investigating Harry finds it’s not their man and gets beaten up by some neighbourhood brawlers who take him for a peeping tom: Chico intervenes but Harry insists on letting them go, taking it as an occupational hazard. Called in to intervene as a man (Bill Couch) threatens to leap from his death from a rooftop, Harry lifted on a fire hoist and instead of playing placatory with the man provoking him into lashing out so Harry can knock him and bring him back to the ground.

These vignettes flesh out both Harry’s approach to policing and the society around him, trying to portray policing as an unceasing stream of crises unnoticed when they’re resolved but all too loudly wailed about when they don’t, in a world filled with people caught in their own little algorithms of perverse behaviour. Harry’s bemused response to them. “These loonies, they oughta throw a net over the whole bunch of ‘em,” he quips to Chico. But he knows he’s just another one: being attacked as a peeping tom prefigures the later stakeout scene, where Harry finds himself fascinated by the human scenes, Rear Window-like (1954), he spies through windows. Scenes glimpsed include a wife chewing out her husband and a hooker stripping down to her birthday suit and meeting a swinger couple, obliging Harry to comment, “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry.” Harry’s isolation, signalled early on in his conversation with Steve, stems from the death of his wife in an accident caused by a drunk driver, a tragic turn Harry later explains with a note of intense world-weariness to Chico’s wife Norma (Lynn Edgington). Earlier in the film, Harry and his long-time colleague and pal Frank De Georgio (John Mitchum), as De Georgio responds to Chico’s question on why they call him ‘Dirty’ Harry by noting that Harry “hates everybody”, listing ethnic epithets for everyone, with Harry rounding out the rollcall with “especially spicks.”

Eastwood might well have been remembering this scene for his own Gran Torino (2008) decades later, with its meditations on how working class culture revolves around the giving and taking of insults as a sort of totem of authenticity and ironic fellowship. In context it serves more as a sort of sarcastic piece of trolling in its own right, mocking expectations of Harry’s (and by implications cops in general) as racist and reactionary assholes, whilst also sketching Harry’s outsider quality: his misanthropy is shtick but his real attitude to society is nebulous even to himself. The guy who “hates everybody” is also the guy who defends everybody on the social ramparts, and the mediating figure who ushers people representing outsider groups – Chico in this film, a female partner in The Enforcer (1976) – into his zone and ethos, and the ultimate fates of such figures underline Harry’s sense of his fate to remain alone. Harry’s relations with the Chief and Brenner, played by the marvellously hangdog Guardino, have their own conversant climate, neither man forced to play the hard-ass boss cliché with him, but rather portrayed as men who have experienced the same moral and psychic exhaustion as Harry but retained something he doesn’t have, for better and worse. “It’s disgusting that a police officer should know how yo use a weapon like that,” Brenner notes queasily as he watches Harry scotch tape a switchblade knife to his leg in case of a close encounter, but it’s a disgusting world.

In the morning after their night-time patrol Harry and Chico are called to the sight of what quickly proves to be another successful Scorpio killing, leaving a black teenager gruesomely killed. On the theory that Scorpio will return to the same building he was spotted on earlier, Harry and Chico set up an armed stakeout to ambush him, resulting in a shootout: Scorpio again manages to flee and kills a cop dashing to intervene. Siegel’s carbolic sense of humour manifests as the two men set up their station under a huge rotating sign spelling out “Jesus Saves” in big neon letters, whilst Scorpio himself is offered a juicy target in the form of a Catholic priest who, as Harry tells Chico, volunteered to be bait. The eruption of violence here, as Scorpio proves armed not with his precise and artful rifle but a machine gun, turns the gunfight into an episode of urban warfare. Scorpio’s next ploy is to kidnap a teenage girl, Ann Mary Deacon, and double his ransom demand for her life, claiming to have buried her alive with a depleting oxygen supply. He rings Harry from public payphones and forces him to crisscross the city becomes an agonising comedy of encounters that underline his journey through the city as an exploration of the night.

Harry is forced to fend off some muggers who attack him a dark tunnel by brandishing his ferocious firearm, is momentarily plunged into despair after some random old codger answers one of Scorpio’s calls before he can get to the phone and Scorpio hangs up, and contends with a young gay man (David Gilliam) he encounters in Mount Davidson Park who mistakenly thinks he’s cruising, a vignette that highlights Harry’s barbed sensibility as essentially acquiescent to such wings of human peculiarity (“If you’re Vice, I’ll kill myself.” “Well, do it at home.”). The park has a colossal, looming crucifix as a monument at its heart, where Harry is ordered to meet Scorpio at last: Scorpio has an appropriately vivid sense of moral irony in forcing Harry to seek out such a symbol as the moral crux of the world only to turn it into an arena of cruelty as Scorpio makes Harry toss aside his gun (“My,” Scorpio drawls, instantly making Freudian links, “That’s a big one.”) before beating him to a pulp whilst announcing he’s going to let the kidnapped girl die, and is only kept from executing Harry by Chico’s timely arrival. Chico is shot in the ensuing battle but Harry manages to stab Scorpio with the secreted switchblade, sending the killer scurrying off with a severe injury and without his ransom money.

The ferocity of this movement strays close to the surreal, with Siegel building to matching low and high angles, from high above on the cross as Scorpio closes in on Harry from behind, and a point-of-view shot from Harry himself looking up the cross’s height; all lit with an edge of garish brightness that transforms a public monument into a manifestation of mockingly unattainable divine grace. The steady whisper-scream build of tension reaching its peak as Siegel briefly cuts away to the near-forgotten Chico dashing to the rescue and the jagged, pain-inducing cut from Harry plunging the knife into Scorpio to the killer’s shrieking mouth yawing in the circle of his balaclava’s mouth hole. Despite the seemingly vast disparity in setting and story, there’s certainly anticipation in all this of Siegel’s deeper drop into the dreamlike and the fetidly neurotic in his previous film and perverse companion piece, The Beguiled. The visual intensity and edge of the surreal returns when Harry, now working with De Georgio, tracks Scorpio to Kezar Stadium because a clinic doctor who stitched up his leg recognised him: as Harry chases the assassin De Georgio turns on the lights that arrest Scorpio midfield, brilliant lights freezing the fugitive mid-field and reversing his and Harry’s role as Harry guns him down and starts jamming his shoe into his wound to extract the location of the kidnapped girl.

This scene is of course endlessly disturbing and frightening but also perhaps the height of Siegel’s career, the queasy close-ups of Harry’s obsessive fury and Scorpio’s pathetic attempts to ward him off, all the more enraging to the cop as the killer keeps on trying to maintain the game of obfuscation and deflection in demanding a lawyer and declaring his rights, giving way to an awesome aerial shot as Siegel’s camera, as if retreating in horror and also with a certain discretion, flies back and up into the night, leaving cop and killer stranded in hell on earth in a moment of gruelling squalor and pain whilst the arena of light about them dissolves into darkness. The raw sturm-und-drang of this vision gives way to its sorry immediate aftermath. Having extracted the girl’s location, Harry watches as her naked, bedraggled corpse is dragged out of a pit in a park overlooking Golden Gate Bridge, Harry silhouetted against the sickly dawn light and looking across the bridge in utter solitude, failed in his mission and debased as a man even if he still thinks he’s done the right thing. It’s one of the saddest and most poetic shots in cinema, with Schifrin’s eerie scoring fitting the imagery perfectly.

Harry’s mission to catch Scorpio is defined by the desperate attempt to define that sliver of difference between him and the killer: he might do terrible things but at least has a force majeure motive to claim. Harry works for a society and a motive he believes in but feels increasingly frustrated by its niceties; Scorpio wages war on the same society and uses those niceties against it with calculated will. The film’s sequels set out to shade and moderate some of Harry’s characteristics and build on his more positive and complex ones. Magnum Force set Harry in deadly conflict with a gang of genuine, organised vigilante cops. The Enforcer had him forging respect and amity with his new female partner and finding unusual common ground with a black revolutionary. Sudden Impact saw him romancing a woman engaged in a vendetta wiping out the men who raped her. The Dead Pool (1987), a goofy and very ‘80s retread, sported a vignette where he tried to find a non-violent and non-indulgent solution to a hooligan trying to play to television cameras. Such variations on a theme were worked whilst maintaining Harry’s badass quotient, and they helped make the Dirty Harry series oddly engaging on a human level although they never risked going as far as French Connection II (1974) in deconstructing their prickly cop lead, and the price paid for such shading was Harry changed from a proper antihero into something more safe and familiar. Unforgiven, the film often interpreted as Eastwood’s mea culpa for his violent movie past, really actually exists on a continuum of provocation and questioning in his career leading back to Dirty Harry.

Harry’s subsequent, bruising encounters with legal authority, represented by District Attorney Rothko (Josef Sommer), sees the detective gobsmacked by the DA’s harsh upbraiding and refusal to prosecute the case against Scorpio because Harry’s actions have tainted the evidence. This scene is the crux of the film in one regard as an angry portrait of legal bullshit getting in the road of putting away an obvious malefactor, and its most facetious, for a cop of Harry’s experience would certainly not be so surprised at Rothko’s points. That said, it’s not so bluntly one-eyed as it’s often painted, as both sides are at least allowed to sound with duelling notes of righteous anger: “What about Ann Mary Deacon, what about her?” Harry questions at maximum growl-slur, “Who speaks for her?” “The District Attorney’s office, if you’ll let us,” Rothko retorts. Of course, the film weights the apparent morality in its hero’s favour because the audience understands what a monster Scorpio is and is obliged to agree with Harry’s verdicts. But this identification is double-edged, as Harry does some despicable and dangerous things that go far beyond the pale but also implicate the viewer: if you were in the same situation and felt the same level of personal and professional responsibility, Siegel ultimately states, you’d act the same way.

Perhaps, for Siegel, it’s a quality lying at the innermost core of being human, the eternal tension between animalistic will and evolved conscience, and beneath the deep underlying root where the two fuse into a base instinct for violence that can provoke and be provoked, a problem the very concept of justice attempts to reconcile. Scorpio uses crime to make himself godlike, and forces Harry in turn to embrace the brutish. Harry’s battles with authority are his inner battles with his own superego, the side of him that knows well what’s right and proper but can’t avoid playing the game by Scorpio’s rules, even as the gamester villain changes the rules when it suits him. Meanwhile Harry, happy to have Chico carry on as his partner once he recovers from his wounds, instead has to deal with Chico’s admission that he intends to leave the force, a decision Harry tells Norma is the right one for them as the two have a moment of quiet reflection on their mutual torments, Harry telling the story of his wife’s death and Norma meditating bitterly on the stream of abuse turned on her husband for being a cop, and asking Harry why he puts up with it, his only comment is “I don’t know. I really don’t.”

The portion of Dirty Harry after Scorpio’s release relieves much of the film’s fixated tension and narrative flow, with Harry reduced to following Scorpio around town, even as the tension resets on a slow burn and the air of malignancy gains new substance. Scorpio thinks up a ploy to fend him off, and plan he takes to the extreme of hiring a Black tough guy (Raymond Johnson) to beat him to a bloody pulp so he can then claim Harry did it and make appeal to the protest crowd. Scorpio provokes the heavy with a racial insult to ensure the beating is particularly convincing, and gets more than he asked for, in a scene laced with grotesque undercurrents, including what seems Scorpio’s perverse delight in in ugly provocations and suffering. Scorpio is a peculiar villain in his lack of any specific identity, presented as a Charles Manson-esque figure in seeming like a renegade from the eternal underclass of human flotsam who has evolved his own crazed philosophy that seems to fit the cynical times. Like Manson, despite his hippie-ish affectations, he’s actually a virulent reactionary, racist, homophobic, and greedy, trying constantly to convert his willingness to give and receive violence into multiple forms of profit, with humiliating policemen like Harry (“Don’t you pass out of me yet, you rotten oinker!”) just as much money in the bank as any ransom cash.

The beating at least gets the result he was hoping for: after telling journalists Harry assaulted him, the cop is forcibly ordered by the Chief to stay well away from Scorpio although there isn’t enough evidence to discipline him, which Harry warns him is exactly what Scorpio wants. Harry is of course right, as Scorpio cleverly attains a gun by assaulting a liquor store owner known for defending his store with his pistol, and uses this to hijack a school bus full of kids on their way home along with their terrified driver (Ruth Kobart), and renews his ransom demand. The film’s maniacal edge resurges as Scorpio forces the trapped children to sing schoolyard songs with increasingly crazed and abusive fervour. Meanwhile Harry finally refuses to be involved in yet another attempt to buy the killer off when the Mayor offers him the task. This time instead, knowing Scorpio is heading for the airport, Harry waits on a railway bridge over the road and leaps upon the roof of the bus as it passes underneath.

Siegel builds to Scorpio’s first glimpse of Harry on the bridge, coming right after Scorpio has freaked out all the kids as the embodiment of a childhood nightmare, as an iconic moment of imminent comeuppance to be delivered by a resurgent and purposeful hero, echoing back to the first sighting of John Wayne in Stagecoach: however tarnished, Harry is finally restored as the heir to the gunslinger tradition, and a few shots later Siegel has Harry walk out of a cloud of swirling dust in reference this time to Eastwood’s famous appearance at the final duel in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Siegel is giving a miniature genre film lesson here as well drawing parallels. The subsequent battle is very restrained by modern action movie standards, as Harry tries to keep his purchase despite speed and Scorpio’s bullets, before he is hurled from the bus roof as the vehicle swerves and crashes to a halt before a rock quarry. Scorpio and Harry have a running gunfight around the quarry, a setting that again underlines the neo-Western feel whilst also encompassing Siegel’s penchant for industrial settings a la Edge of Eternity, before Scorpio snatches up a young boy fishing to use as a human shield.

This time, of course, Harry isn’t to be turned, knowing his foe’s tricks too well, seeming to drop his weapon only to lift it again and knock Scorpio on his ass with a well-aimed shot to the shoulder. That still isn’t the end, as Harry delivers the same challenge to test luck to Scorpio – “Did he fire six shots or only five?” – and Scorpio, being who he is, takes his chance. Which proves his last mistake. Harry’s concluding act of throwing away his Inspector’s star badge is still an ambiguous gesture, one probably inspired by Gary Cooper’s Will Kane doing the same at the end of High Noon (1952). Eastwood was afraid doing it here meant the audience would think Harry was quitting the police force, whilst Siegel argued it was simply a gesture meaning he was throwing away bureaucratic limitations, and Pauline Kael took that further to mean he was becoming a vigilante. Personally, I’ve always found it rhymes with the gesture in High Noon, where Kane, whilst still a dedicated believer in justice, signalled nonetheless in the brusquest manner possible he would no longer be the patsy of a community that did not support him. Harry’s gesture similarly signals the same meaning, only aimed at his superiors.

What is certain about this last shot, zooming out to an on-high remove again as the paltry plop of the star hitting the water is heard and Harry turns and heads back towards the bus with a stiff, grave march, with Schifrin’s gently mournful music on sound, is that the victory brings no particularly great satisfaction because many have died, even if the necessary act of shooting the mad dog is done. The great and perpetual problem is that however much we fantasise at being the upright avenger, the hero on the range, the duellist in the dust, such a solution only ever comes too late, after the crime. And Dirty Harry, whilst delivering on that primal and eternal duel, is ultimately most memorable because it keeps that sorry truth in mind.

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2000s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Koepp

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles never completed the film adaptation of Don Quixote he embarked upon in the late 1950s, but he long harboured the perfect ending for it. Confronting Cervantes’ trio of eternal symbolic heroes with the terrors of the modern world, he intended to show them walking out of an atomic bomb blast unharmed. Faced with the prospect of updating their beloved adventurer Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr into the 1950s and ushering him through the same gate of apocalyptic potential, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had to face down the same looming threat of impersonal and indiscriminate power utterly alien to the essence of their mock-cavalier hero, even with his greater proximity to the nightmares of the mid-twentieth century, and came up with the same solution. Nineteen years after their third Indiana Jones film, Spielberg and Lucas brought their beloved hero back to movie screens for another dance around the world.

The new film came about after a lengthy, torturous development including multiple scripts by the likes of Jeb Stuart, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson, sported a leading man in his sixties with the former wunderkind filmmakers not far behind. Lucas, coming off his hugely successful but divisive Star Wars prequel trilogy, already knew the dangers in revisiting such totemic works, whilst Spielberg had largely resisted the temptation to rake over old ground. Hollywood had changed greatly in the intervening years. The rollercoaster-paced, vividly entertaining ideal for a certain kind of immensely popular genre cinema, a style Spielberg and Lucas essentially invented, had since colonised the Dream Factory and taken it over. Stakes had been raised, popular mythologies had supposedly evolved, and the kind of old-fashioned, epic-scaled, physically arduous production style Spielberg and Lucas had once been so adept at had given way to an era of CGI shortcuts and plasticised action enforced by more punitive censorship regimes. Where Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had brazenly summarised several decades of pulp cinema and serial shenanigans, for many young viewers it was itself the archetype of that style. The new film was a big hit, but again received by many as a failure, even a disgrace, despite Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s emulation of a familiar approach as opposed to the attempt to create a more rarefied style for the Star Wars prequels.

The failure of the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films to gain much favour with so many aficionados who had grown up with the sturdy early models perhaps pointed to the problems of trying to recapture the spark of youth. This is, ironically, a major theme of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a rare entry in the action-adventure genre, in that it contemplates the notion of the adventurer getting older, and finding himself an almost accidental paterfamilias where once he was the devil-may-care buck, in one of the most keenly personal and resonant variations on that common theme of Spielberg’s. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I liked it whilst finding it awkward in certain aspects. The unwieldy title signals something of the long development and a piling up of ideas and elements reflected in the storyline left over from all those drafts. The movie also seemed to struggle with the strong temptation to revisit the material in a manner akin to a greatest hits collection in regards to the previous entries’ established formula, a temptation which, love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels had for the most part avoided.

Since that first viewing however I’ve kept returning to and thinking about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now it looks increasingly like not just the key film of Spielberg’s late oeuvre, but close to profound as a work of popular, blockbuster filmmaking. Fittingly, the first act of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is something of an act of archaeology in itself, both for its hero and the filmmakers. The eventual script was written by David Koepp, who had written Jurassic Park (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005) for Spielberg. The opening sequences immediately propose how personal the film will be as it presents the heady confluence of the original film’s pulp forebears with the youth culture burgeoning when Spielberg and Lucas were themselves children. Where Indy and the Boy Scout troop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) slowly traversed the Fordian American landscape on horseback, the fastest thing around was the train. Next, a horse. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s opening moments offer a ’50s hotrod ripping across the dusty west at high speed, scored to Elvis Presley blaring ‘Hound Dog.’ Post-war youth culture has arrived, speed with it, things moving faster than sense.

The opening credit gag-fade that turned the Paramount logo into a real mountain in Raiders of the Lost Ark here is recapitulated as self-satire as the mountain this time becomes a gopher mound, small cute critters who respond to speeding vehicles much as the humans respond to atomic bombs and alien spaceships. Signs that the nuclear age has arrived already haunt the landscape: a rusting neon sign reading Atomic Café, a nod to the title for an Oscar-winning, disturbing retrospective of the era in 1982, stands a blackly humorous shibboleth overlooking the desert. A Russian soldier pretending to be an American soldier driving the lead car of the convoy gives in gleefully to the temptation of racing the teenaged hotrodders, signalling the eventual anticlimactic breakdown of this geopolitical schism already even as it’s reconstructed. The undercover Soviets soon reach a remote air force base, revealed to be the ever-mythologised Area 51, where they kill the guards. Spielberg has the Russians best their Yankee imperialist running dog foes through a framing joke, gun-wielding Commies lined up behind their commandant Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) and stepping out into view to shoot, like a cold mockery of the lined-up dancers at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

The Russians break open a colossal hanger that anyone who’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately recognises as the same abode of redacted secrets the Ark of the Covenant was hidden away in at the end of that film. The lore of the Indiana Jones series is invoked but also teased in a manner that confirms a shift in focus: when the Ark is glimpsed peeking out of its broken box it’s left behind as just another relic, as the dramatic horizon has moved on from the awesomely atavistic to the awesomely futuristic. The wrath of Jehovah unleashed in Raiders of the Lost Ark now finds its human-hand analogue in the boiling fire of atomic bomb. One of Indy’s first lines of dialogue, in contemplating how he’s going to escape from a seemingly impossible jam, points up the crucial disparity immediately: when his friend and fellow former wartime spy George ‘Mac’ Michale (Ray Winstone), taken captive along with him whilst digging for relics in Mexico, notes in surveying the Russian soldiers bearing machine guns all around him that an escape won’t be easy, Indy admits, “Not as easy as it used to be.”

Of course, such an admission is immediately dispelled by a display of prowess from this most accomplished of survivors. Captured at the behest of psychic researcher and the late Josef Stalin’s “fair-haired girl” Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to locate nothing so arcane as the Ark but a casket containing the sealed remains of what seems to be an alien. Indy is one of the few people who knows anything substantial about the contents of the casket because he was one of the experts called upon to inspect it after the Roswell crash in 1947. Indy, with characteristic smarts and sly method, at once seems to serve his captors in tracking down the highly magnetic casket whilst also literally disarming them by convincing them to use their gunpowder to seek it out, plucking out just enough of their teeth to give him a fighting chance to escape. Indy is shocked when Mac proves to be in league with the Soviets and foils his gambit, protesting that “I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” Indy manages to flee anyway, making for what appears to be a nearby town, but instead proves to be a fake suburb built for an atomic bomb test about to go off.

The first half of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is deliberate in ticking off reference points rooted in the era of pop culture it engages as well as its own series lore. The series always subtextually linked its own surveys of and steals from a panoply of old movies and novels with Indy’s search for buried treasure, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had spun its alloy out of commenting on the young Movie Brats’ quests in tricking money out of monolithic and decaying old studios, outsiders becoming adept at playing insider games. Over the years however Indy slowly grew from a cheeky fantasy projection of masculine self-confidence and independence from some rather less than rugged young nerds to a character who has become Spielberg’s essential autobiographical figure, contending in his four adventures with the difficulties of being a son and a father, gaining a social conscience, battling fascism, and celebrating cultural inheritance. Each entry in the series gave something new to Indy: an adopted son in Temple of Doom, an estranged father in The Last Crusade, and finally in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a wife and a son of his loins. Initially in this film Indy is presented as a bit of a relic who’s recently lost his father and his former boss and best friend Marcus Brody in the last two years, and faces the betrayal of his other loyal pal Mac, whose actions not only sour the memories of his wartime heroism but put his patriotism under question as he’s grilled by a pair of obnoxious FBI agents (Joel Stoffer and Neil Flynn).

Indy’s battle to escape the Soviets sees him and Dovchenko fight in the first of repeat clashes throughout the film, only to both find themselves launched out into the desert night aboard a sled propelled by an experimental jet engine. The nuclear test village takes the film’s conflation of cliffhanger thrills and ironic self-assessment to a logical and almost cruelly sardonic extreme. Indy stumbles into a simulacrum of the suburban world Spielberg, Lucas, and much of the rest of their generation grew up in, and to which they pitched their movies, without ever quite fitting in. Indy finds himself in an illusory netherworld of friendly postmen and beaming housewives and Howdy Doody on the TV, confronted by the ideal nuclear family on a couch before the TV only to realise they’re mannequins, a Potemkin Village of post-war prosperity built to be incinerated. The homey perfection is plastic and insubstantial, erected in the desert, Spielberg’s ironically personalised and genre-revised take on the same joke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the American Dream realised just in time to be mightily wiped clean by the wrath of the god plutonium. It’s also a bogus version of a world that mocks Indy, an outsider in this settled, forcibly becalmed, conformist zone, a survivor from ye olde swashbuckling days, Greatest Generation hero forced to confront a world he’s missed sliding into, for better and for worse, even as the bite of some of his life choices is starting to sting. The bomb blows it all to smithereens, Indy saved only by packing himself into a refrigerator in another sly gag nodding to common urban scaremongering about lead-lined fridges and children getting themselves locked in them: death-trap hiding in plain sight becomes vessel of survival. The fridge is hurled clear across the desert even as the hellfire swallows up some of the Soviets who fled leaving him behind.

This sequence proved a focal point for fan complaint afterwards, accusing it of betraying the series’ relatively believable mould. Whilst indeed the series had offered glimpses of supernatural power and might burning through the substance of coarse reality, these displays were portrayed as something distinct from what the mere humans do, in a series that resisted the colossal spectacle of Lucas’ Star Wars films and instead wrung its thrills out of stuntmen hanging off vintage trucks. On the other hand, the series had also exhibited a rather post-modern edge to its understanding of the interaction between audience and disbelief, most famously the witty elision of the question as to just how Indy manages to hitch a ride on the U-Boat in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the deep influence of silent movie stars who mixed slapstick with action like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Indy’s hilarious survival is offered as an episode of high slapstick comedy with an underside of absurdist meaning, more reminiscent in method of Richard Lester or Jerry Lewis. No, Indy should not survive an atomic blast, especially not in a fridge. Nevertheless. Spielberg acknowledges at once Indy’s smallness in the atomic age but also his persistence even in the face of such awful power: the world-spirit he represents and incarnates still lurches forth. Indy crawls out of the fridge relatively intact only to be confronted with the mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky, the power of suns now wielded by politicians, bureaucrats, and military men. This image finds its echo at the climax of the film in an example of Lucas’ “rhyming” ideal for mythic storytelling, as the image of technology as death gives way to the image of renewed awe, mystery, and hope.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demanded Spielberg return to the kind of the filmmaker he had been in the ‘80s, not that anyone doubted he had lost his knack for it. But Spielberg was just coming off the most generally dark and fretful run of his career: Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds, and Munich (2006) all wrestled with the angst of protecting and losing children in social contexts variably fascistic and anarchic, only partly relieved by the politically slanted screwball comedy of The Terminal (2003) and the superficially fun but actually deeply anxious Catch Me If You Can (2002). The latter allowed a sidelong self-portrait of Spielberg in its young, wandering genius-shyster hero, who finishes up gazing in on an excluding mockery of his own home-restoring ideals, much as Indy encounters something similar in the nuclear village, whilst Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) takes on the mantle of confused young man trying to forge himself an identity. Spielberg tellingly uses Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to telescope the concerns of those movies and set something of a seal on his long-running theme of a family either found on the run or reforged through adversity. Likewise the film signals Spielberg’s shift to studies in post-war history and contemplation of Cold War-age vicissitudes in Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017), as well as the more historically remote but just as inquisitive Lincoln (2012), with their contemplation of different kinds of civic duty and the problems of how to avoid in resisting monsters becoming them.

The version of Indy presented here is at once instantly recognisable, his signature hat appearing on screen before he does, but also quite different to the iteration first glimpsed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sly, readily violent young rogue who somehow inhabited both bespectacled teacher and rugged soldier-of-fortune without cognitive dissonance, a man called a mercenary and a grave robber, has been supplanted by a wiser elder affirmed in his patriotic credentials, an Ike-liking war hero who now seems much less strange amidst the climes of Ivy League academia, but whose killer and professorial instincts can kick in at odd and apposite moments. Time mellows us all, apparently, but this all also signals that Indy’s life has certainly added up, that he has become something at the expense of losing other things. Brody’s successor as Dean of Indy’s workplace Marshall College, Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), notes with gravity, whilst Indy glances at photos of Brody and his father, that they seem to have “reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Naturally, the rest of the film dedicates itself to disputing that proposal.

Most intriguingly, Indy’s maturation has made him more aware and open to transcendental experience than he ever was when young: where Indy did not dare to look at the open Ark and risk Jehovah’s judgement, he keeps his eyes and his mind wide open for the grand and transformative here. Acknowledgement of shifted geopolitics is casually tossed in, as now Indy considers going to teach in Leipzig after he’s fired for political reasons in the good old USA. Indy’s success in escaping his Commie captors to alert the government nonetheless sees him become the object of suspicion in a Reds-under-the-bed age, with even the intervention of General Scott (Alan Dale), a former commander, insufficient to ward off the spectre of blacklisting. Indy finds himself suspended from teaching and only retaining pay thanks to the valiant self-sacrifice of Stanforth, who admits to resigning to swing it. Before Indy can leave on a train, he’s chased down by Mutt, a greaser riding a motorcycle, introduced in a shot carefully patterned after Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). Another pop culture archetype in the mix, this one the devolved but still potent echo in the post-war rebel of the old frontier dream.

Mutt wants Indy to help him find his missing mother Mary and her friend Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), a former pal and colleague of Indy’s: Mary went missing seeking Ox, but managed to send Mutt a letter filled with incomprehensible scrawlings and quotations connected with Ox’s supposed discovery of a crystal skull resembling other Pre-Columbian artefacts. Soon enough Indy realises they’re being shadowed by KGB agents who chase them through the campus, but fail to stop them flying south and following Ox’s garbled instructions. These lead them to an ancient cemetery above the Nazca Desert where Indy unearths the crystal skull, buried with the remains of the fabled conquistador Francisco de Orellana, whose obsession with gold led him to search for a lost city called Akator: the skull seems to have been brought with de Oellano and his men from the city. But locating and retrieving the skull proves only to be what Spalko had hoped for, as Mac and Dovchenko take Indy and Mutt prisoner and spirit them to Spalko’s encampment in the Amazon jungle. There they find Ox captive in an apparently lunatic state, along with Mutt’s mother who, not too surprisingly, turns out to be Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s old flame.

The Indiana Jones series stands as both an exemplar of popular movie entertainment but also one that suffered to a degree in being scared of itself. Whilst Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more perfect movie, with its lean, mean, virtuosic sense of narrative motive joined to thrill-mongering, the series surely reached its height in the second half of Temple of Doom with its total, fervent, almost lunatic embrace of tapping childhood ideals and fears in relation to a parental image. Indy veers from subordinated villain to messianic hero, as his dark side is ritually cleansed in a manner that also resembles a child’s bewilderment when they perceive a parent’s dark side for the first time, before the action unleashed becomes a compulsive battle of good and evil. This was played out in an Arabian Nights fantasia built from an unstable blend of imperialist adventure tropes, Hammer horror imagery, and old Hollywood B-movie chic, all bashed into a coherent shape by Spielberg’s all-pervading sense of cinematic spectacle. There was also the first glimmerings of his interest in social conscience and subjugation-liberation themes, which would lead on to movies like Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), and Indy’s journey in the film also reflects the maturation from a seeker of “fortune and glory” to a man with a potent sense of righteous anger. Some complaints, that it revived racist clichés and offered too frightening a stew for a young audience, had a valid aspect, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in denying the film’s dangerous, antisocial edge Spielberg and Lucas were denying a vital streak in their creativity for the sake of remaining acceptable.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark plundered hoary old stories and movies the filmmakers felt confident their audience would take such backdated tropes as camp, but ironically such recognition grew less sure over time. The complaints unleashed obliged Spielberg and Lucas to file down the franchise’s teeth for The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the latter, the filmmakers readily admitted, patterns itself more after the The Last Crusade than the first two films. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally accrues a tone closer to a Jules Vernian adventure along the lines of Captain Grant’s Children than to the serial movie mould that initially defined the series as a tale of globetrotting and reunion, and film versions of Verne like Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which is directly quoted at the end. Douglas Slocombe, who had filmed the first three films for Spielberg with a signature look balancing almost expressionistic effects with shadow and light with rich colour palettes, had retired, so Spielberg’s favoured new cinematographic collaborator Janusz Kaminski, whose shooting style usually quelled and mediated colour effects, offered his own, lushly textured variation. The animated camerawork nonetheless also often keeps its distance from events and actors, with Spielberg working through a fascination for master shots containing multiple planes of arrangement for actors, carefully setting the scene for when action erupts along horizontal lines of pursuit.

Whilst it has problems in terms of pacing its plot, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is on a deeper level a master class in how to directorially pace more fundamental business, to pack a movie with curlicues of humour and context-enriching flourishes. The film is close to relaxed in places, suborning action-adventure thrills to letting its heroes and villains work through their various obsessions, and yet there’s scarcely a second wasted in making some sort of point about them as well as the genre and historical setting they inhabit. The scene of Mutt’s development of something like rapport with Indy plays out in a diner adjoining the college where young collegians and greasers, is abound with deft bits of business as Mutt’s forced shows of attitude and condescension as an avatar of a cocky new generation contends with Indy’s sanguine cool and sense of paternalistic propriety. Spielberg quotes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as Mutt tries to steal a beer surreptitiously from a waitress only for Indy to replace it, even as their conversation on other matters unfolds. Mutt keeps his obsessively maintained pompadour rigid by dipping his comb in some luckless student’s Coke.

The attempt by KGB agents to take them prisoner obliges some quick thinking, as Indy gets Mutt to thump a “Joe College” and spark a brawl between collegians and greasers to give them a chance at a getaway. The idea of staging an action sequence around the environs of Indy’s workplace is so great it’s a wonder the series never found a way of working one in before, with Indy and Mutt riding his motorcycle, battling and outrunning the pursuing goons and finishing up sliding across the floor of the college library to the consternation of students. This scene is again flecked with an astounding number of throwaway yet substantial touches. Mutt’s punch sparks a schism between the two camps of youth culture, squares and rebels, which allows another struggle, with all its geopolitical and culture war overtones, to unfold unhindered. The chasers careen through an anti-Communist demonstration, a last gasp of cultural centrism on campus before the oppositional tilt kicking in in the 1960s. One of the chasing KGB teams finishes up foiled by the decapitated head from a statue of Brody, and the sequence finishes in a comic-heroic diminuendo with Indy advising preferred historical models to one of his students before advising him to get out of the library even as he and Mutt ride the motorcycle out the door.

The journey to Chile in following Ox’s clues sees Indy and Mutt generating a tentative working partnership, Indy bewildered by Mutt’s worshipful treatment of his motorcycle, Mutt slowly working up a level of respect for the guy he first calls “old man” as Indy recounts adventures with Pancho Villa as a youth (allowing one priceless bit of character business as Indy remembers to spit on the ground after mentioning the name of Victoriano Huerta). Their arrival at the ancient cemetery sees them set upon by mask-wearing, martial arts-adept natives who try killing them with poisoned darts, leading Indy to surprise one by blowing the dart back up his pipe into the assassin’s mouth. Indy and Mutt’s penetration of the tomb sees Indy dealing expertly with problems familiar to him that still terrify Mutt. But Mutt displays his own edge of diligence as he successfully shames Indy for purloining a knife from one of the dead conquistadors in a manner quite reminiscent of old, cavalier approach to such things. When the duo finally do find de Orellana and his men, buried in preserving grave wrappings in a Mayan style, they also find the crystal skull Ox hid away, a confounding object impossible to manufacture and possessed of bewildering magnetic properties towards all metals. Indy deduces that Ox discovered the tomb and the skull, and returned the skull in a desperate attempt to mollify its powerful but inchoate, to him at least, psychic demands.

The elastic snap between frivolity and melodrama, character byplay and plot service throughout much of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might well represent that closest Spielberg has come since Jaws (1975) to truly honouring his cinema’s precursors in Ford and Howard Hawks, particularly those filmmakers’ loosely-structured, Shakespearean Pastoral-like late films like Hatari! (1962), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and El Dorado (1966). Indeed, whilst auteurist critics eventually rescued those films from the dustbin of regard and recognised their richness, they too were largely dismissed initially as shabby throwaways by titans slipping towards senescence. Such movies follow their characters in exploring a contest of personalities at once fractious but also fused together by bonds of camaraderie and codes of honour, driven out to contend in the wilderness but in search of a homecoming. El Dorado most crucially dealt similarly with aging heroes who find themselves commanding a ragged band of young surrogates and new partners. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and such models is that Spielberg tries to mate their ambling, barely narrative form with the rolling set-piece structure the Indiana Jones films took from classic serials, not the easiest styles to blend.

This might partly explain the relative awkwardness of the film’s middle act, which keeps seeming to build to new eruptions of action, as Indy and Mutt delve into de Orellana’s grave and attempt escape from the Soviet jungle camp, but both situations end with frustration, the latter devolving into farce as Indy and Marion stray into a quicksand pit and the deranged Ox, sent for help, fetches the Russians. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its forebear Raiders of the Lost Ark lies in precisely this disparity. Where once Spielberg and Lucas had their hero crawl under a truck specifically because it was a cool thing to do, and Indy was invented entirely to be a figure who did such things, the action scenes in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull instead serve largely the opposite purpose, deployed to draw out the characters, to dramatize and visualise their essence as people and links with each-other. The chase through Marshall and the later pursuit through the jungle are rolling acts of meeting and reconciliation, maturation and discovery. The quicksand scene becomes a moment of crucial revelation as Marion tells Indy Mutt is his son (“Why didn’t you make him stay in school?” Indy demands immediately, after telling Mutt dropping out was fine if it suited him), blended with less momentous but equally felicitous shading as Indy speaks like both a teacher and a man of experience as he contemplates the actual threat level of the sand, and is forced to temper his old phobia as Mutt tries to save his life by using a python as a rope.

The actual storyline is a giddy mishmash of ideas, particularly the ancient astronaut theory mooted by Erich von Daaniken in his 1969 book Chariots of the Gods?, a book that helped kick off a burgeoning fascination with new-age esoterica in subsequent decades. Such notions always had a troublingly racist scepticism over technological and architectural achievements by “primitive” civilisations, but also captured imaginations by suggesting deeper, more fantastical influences and forces at work in history. This is mixed with authentic pieces of modern folklore like Stalin’s interest in psychic research, and contentious artefacts like probably faked crystal skulls “discovered” by various archaeologists including Anna and F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. All this entails a shift away from the vital thread of the earlier films in the series, where religious and mythical truth subsisted like a secret river of wonder. That river flowed under the apparent solidity of Indy’s mythologised 1930s world, hovering as it did between the classical and the properly modern, where Judeo-Christian and Hindu mysticism were place on a level footing and genuine historical quests and enigmas were used as linchpins for the stories. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nonetheless still invokes the same pattern, taking on the myth-crusted history of de Orellana, who gave the Amazon its name, and his search for cities of gold, the search for raw satiation of greed and the hunt for transcendental wonder not easy to separate. The eventual revelation of an alien influence connects easily with Spielberg’s exploration of divine seeking through the prism of UFO mythology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spalko theorises that the smaller, less advanced aliens retrieved from the Roswell crash are relatives of the beings who built Akator, and the crystal skull itself contains some remnant of intelligence that retains incredible potency, reducing Ox to apparent lunacy and, when Spalko forcibly exposes Indy to its influence, commanding him to take it to Akator.

Marion’s reappearance in Indy’s life immediately stirs their oldest reflexes of attraction and aggression as their first encounter in decades before a crowd of onlooking Soviet soldiers becomes an instant verbal battle laced with screwball comedy postures, Marion’s fierce declarations that she’s had a “damn good, really good life” charged with protest-too-much electricity. A core pleasure in the film is seeing Allen’s undimmed smile as she feels the old Indy charm again. Substituting Indy’s familiar Nazi enemies for Soviets was a pretty obvious direction to go in, although they just don’t have the same crackle of instant enmity. It’s hinted that Spalko represents a kind of holdout faction of fanatical Stalinists, their commander representing intellectual avarice detached from any kind of social accountability even as she sees herself as a warrior for her political faith, whilst Dovchenko is a straightforward thug who gives Indy plenty of motivation to resist him by casually shooting American soldiers (“I’m sorry – drop dead, Comrade”). That Spielberg can’t quite take his Commies as seriously as villains is still plain as he offers the soldiers dancing the kazatchok around their jungle campfire, perhaps fitting in a movie that’s less about pure evil and more about clashing forces of imperial arrogance and cultural domain in an age defined by moral ambiguity.

Some don’t like her, but to me Spalko presents Indy with his fittest antagonist since Belloq, a strident blend of cerebral and physical honing, a haughty egotist (“Be careful, you might get exactly what you want.” “I usually do.”) supposedly representing egalitarianism whose first insult to Indy is casually kicking aside a handful of relics he and Mac dug up out in the desert: not even Belloq was that barbarian. Spalko seeks out atavistic knowledge purely in the interests of gaining control over the future, spelling out a delightful bullet point of potential uses for harnessing the apparent psychic force of the aliens to “place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders, make your teachers teach the true version of history,” loaning substance to decades of the most deeply paranoid fantasies about Communist infiltration. Spalko resembles Garbo’s Ninotchka reborn as a post-gender dominatrix who hands Mutt his ass on a plate but proves to have her own limits when even she is rendered queasy and terrified by a horde of erupting soldier ants. Blanchett’s elegant, witty performance expertly captures the cartoonish aspect of the character but also fully inhabits her too, equipped as she is with a Louise Brooks-as-Lulu hairdo and a sword on her hip that stands to attention like a mock erection when she gets too close to the alien remains she so eagerly seeks. The edge of vaguely sexual tension between her and Indy is also new, good touch, with Spalko’s sense of imperiousness extending into that realm too as she keeps trying to penetrate his mind with her psychic talents, only to keep meeting his mused disdain. “You’re a hard man to read, Doctor Jones,” she comments whilst giving his face a patronising pat, and later places her hands seductively on his thighs as she again tries to mind-rape him. This moment plays out as something of a sarcastic inversion of Marion’s scenes contending with Belloq’s overtures whilst his prisoner in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Broadbent, Winstone, and Hurt extend Spielberg’s penchant for great British character actors brought in to augment the team, although the actors’ roles don’t really require such talents. Regardless, Hurt is a delight as the crazed Ox, whose communing with the skull has left him a cosmic conduit with the switch stuck on, hands writing complex messages whilst his mouth pours forth babble. It’s fun seeing Winstone in a different kind of part compared to the bruisers he usually plays, as the inherently likeable yet deeply shifty Mac. The character does serve a solid purpose in representing the temptation to surrender to the inherent ambiguity of the age that Indy must resist. But the film trips repeatedly over the problem of what to do with him, his confession to being an undercover CIA agent infiltrating Spalko’s team later proving to be another fraud: “What are you, some kind of triple agent?” “Nah, I just lied about being a double.” Winstone at least plays him cleverly enough so that no matter how duplicitous he gets he still seems more a jovial rogue than a real villain, and when he finally gets his punishment, sucked into a vortex of interdimensional oblivion, there’s the feeling that his last, confident pronouncement that “I’m gonna be all right,” might still turn out true, somewhere, somewhen.

Mutt’s choice of nom-de-guerre is a clever touch in itself, suggesting both sarcastic pride in playing the outlaw bad boy even though he’s actually a private school reject, whilst also nodding to the way Indy preferred his family dog’s name to his own (and its real source in Lucas’ pet dog). Both father and son struggle through realising new dimensions to their identity. LaBeouf had earned a deal of general enmity for his overbearing performances as the whiny shit somehow anointed as galactic hero in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and it’s fair to say he never makes a convincing inheritor for Ford (who could be?). But LaBeouf is nonetheless actually very good as Mutt, leaving behind junior Woody Allen neuroticism for a deft portrayal of a wannabe rugged type who’s not quite there yet, humiliated occasionally in his efforts to seem up to the task but also making sterling shows of intelligence and gumption whilst also trying to hold character, as when he takes a moment, when Spalko threatens to torture him to make Indy give up information, to make sure his hair is perfect again before inviting her to do her worst. Mutt also has flashes of real concern and pity for Ox, who has served as something of a surrogate father figure for him, that reveal the deeper, maturing man within. Indy’s own, more fractious relationship with Ox is summarised as he tries to get through to him: “You were born in Leeds, England. You and I went to school together at the University of Chicago and you were never this interesting.”

As for Ford himself, his career and reputation had been waning although he was still a top leading man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, from frowning his way through too many lacklustre vehicles. Returning to playing Dr Jones, whilst not entirely free of moments where he strains to hit the same old cocky charm, nonetheless did much to revive him, and the quality of his performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) owe much to the way he connected his aging self to his younger here. The sight of a sixty-something rumbling has its silly side and yet fits the character to a certain extent. Indy was always defined by both his durability but also his undeniable physical realism, a man who most definitely felt the pains of his exertions afterwards, whilst here he seems more energised, more angrily potent, the more knocks he tales: grant me an old man’s frenzy indeed. The performance works ultimately because the film allows Indy’s funny side to come to the fore, as Ford is particularly good when Indy struggles through his new family troubles with an amusing blend of outrage and pathos. The worms finally turn as Indy, Mutt, and Marion ride in a Soviet truck as Spalko’s team follow the clues Indy deciphers from Ox’s ravings towards Akator, a road-clearing engine leading a convoy through the depths of the Amazon.

A family argument rages as the trio accost one-another for betrayals and absences, Mutt’s own discovery that Indy is his father comes with its own edge of shock, forced to reconfigure his view of himself as emulating the wild and doomed pattern of his stepfather, a fighter pilot who died during the war, rather than “some teacher.” When the annoyed Dovchenko moves to silence Marion, Indy and Mutt, squabbling tooth and nail a second before, work in perfect concert to knock Dovchenko out and free themselves from their bonds. Indy’s totemic confession to Marion about the other women in his life – “They all had the same problem, they weren’t you, honey” – proves the elusive key to both healing the rift and powering them all up for a battle with the Soviets, Indy blowing up the road engine with a rocket launcher and sparking a frenetic chase through the jungle and down the river to the fringes of Akator. This sequence is one of my favourite action interludes in any movie: god knows how many times I’ve thought of it whilst wading through others with their variably shapeless roundelays of punching and shooting and gibberish editing or lack of any invention in the way the action unfolds.

Whereas here, again, Spielberg offers a master class in how to do this sort of thing, with beautifully coherent lines of action matched to flowing, dashing camera work, the customary fisticuffs packed with humour and flashes of absurdism. Far too much, many carped, but there’s also a madcap ferocity apparent in touches like Spalko firing off a heavy machine she clings to in a desperately messy attempt to take out Marion behind the wheel as they careen through the bush. The two factions try desperately to capture the skull, Indy and Marion using speed and manoeuvring and the jungle cover to foil their enemies’ firepower. Mutt’s mooted talent for fencing is brought to bear as he and Spalko face off standing on the backs of speeding jeeps, turning the fight into a rite of passage for the next generation. Indy grins in fatherly approval; Marion instructs his fencing like a stage mom. Mutt does well but is teased by Spalko for fighting “like a young man – eager to begin, quick to finish,” and gets more literally blue-balled as he keeps getting whacked in the crotch by stems beneath, before Spalko wallops him properly with some expert judo.

Mutt gets his own back swinging through the trees Tarzan-style with a horde of mimicking monkeys, and manages to snatch away the skull, whilst Indy gets into a tooth-and-nail brawl with Dovchenko who finishes up being dragged into a nest of colossal ants after Indy finally knocks him on his ass amongst them. Marion gets her own crazy brainwave and drives the amphibious vehicle she’s commandeered with all her charges off a cliff into a huge tree’s bowers, letting it deliver them gently into the river, only to then plunge over a triple waterfall. Spielberg punctuates with dramatic dolly shots onto Spalko’s face as she realises a fired-up Jones is going to be one hell of a crimp in her plans, matched later as she draws her rapier to do battle with full, murderous commitment to the swashbuckling. John Williams’ scoring is particularly strong in capturing just the right tone in this scene, his familiar heroic strains momentarily interrupted by a lapse into Slavic reels as a nudge in the ribs alert to not just the not-so-secret edge of the pantomime to all this but also the dance-like orchestration of movement. Much complaint was also made about the amount of CGI used to augment aspects of this sequence, which has a valid edge again. But then, the series had never been shy of special effects, nor had its precursors and influences, and the visual texture resembles the matte paintings utilised in earlier films imbued with mobility.

The horde of monstrous ants that torment the heroes and villains alike suggests homage to Byron Haskin’s The Naked Jungle (1953). Whilst Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does play a pretty clean game in terms of gore, compared to the delightfully infamous excesses of the first two films, at least the image of Dovchenko being swallowed up by the critters, like the blowback dart earlier in the film and Spalko’s death by brain fry later in the film, offer a tasty reminder of the Indy’s, and his films’, willingness to play a bit dirty and flirt with horror visuals. The absurdism hits a new height as the heroic team plunge over the waterfalls in a Keatonesque sequence that concludes with the sight of Marion still clinging to the steering wheel of the amphibious vehicle after washing up ashore. After surviving the journey the adventurers enter the surrounds of Akator, where they have to brave the fearsome native trustees who guard it and penetrate its deepest vaults, entering the central pyramid via a gateway opened through releasing sand from underneath a monolith.

It’s only here that I find the film starts to develop a real problem, not because it slows down but rather because it perhaps ought to. Koepp’s script keeps letting his heroes use the skull to unlock barriers, including parting the guarding army of natives, rather than finding new and clever ways through each challenge. The final movement of The Last Crusade retains tremendous affection from its fans for the way it entwines clear and urgent character stakes whilst shifting from swashbuckling to something more subtle, as the quest engages Indy’s learning and mental prowess as well as physical bravery. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more straightforward, lacking surprise and cleverness, except for when Indy works out how to penetrate the pyramid in a touch that again tips its hat to a model, this time to Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Otherwise what we get on the approach to what Lucas’ inspiration Joseph Campbell called the innermost cave feels a little too much like one of the series’ video game imitators like Tomb Raider.

When the heroes and villains both penetrate the inner chamber where the collective of alien skeletons still reside and reform into a gestalt projection, Spalko and Mac meet their comeuppances, both foiled by their divergent brands of greed, and the aspect of the series influenced moralistic fairy tale returns. Spalko has her brain burned out by the relentless flow of knowledge the alien collective exudes, a fate wittily mediated by Spalko’s almost erotic revelry as streams of psychic energy pierce her being but eventually, literally blow her mind, her mantra “I want to know!” finally gaining orgasmic climax as flames sprout from her eyes. The parochial quality to the film’s ultimate moral – “Knowledge was their treasure,” Indy declares after realising the aliens were archaeologist like him in collecting artefacts – is at once corny but also fits its surrounds like a glove: the aliens ultimately vindicate Indy’s faith in his metier. And if the immediate scenes preceding lack the feeling of real novelty, Spielberg nonetheless makes up for it and then some, with his crescendo image of the alien craft buried under Akator rising out of the ground. The pyramid and city disintegrate as a churning whirlwind grows, a colossal, silver flying saucer rising amidst flying stony debris before vanishing. Debris falls back to earth when free of the gravity flux in a thunderous rain of stone and the Amazon River is unleashed in a deluge through punctured gaps in fringing hills, slamming down upon the ruins and drowning them.

This is certainly Spielberg’s most direct emulation of one his eternal filmic touchstones, the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). It’s also the counterpoint to the sight of the atomic bomb, with Indy again framed as dwarfed yet determinedly witnessing as the rules of reality are again rewritten, this time opening vast new horizons of experience rather than merely threatening doomsday: the eternal trade-off of modernity encapsulated in one great arc of vision. This shot also resolves the film’s visual language, the recourse to fluid master shots throughout finally gaining ultimate context as Spielberg presents this image of wonder in one, fixated, brilliantly executed shot that binds the cosmic and the human, locating the essence of cinematic spectacle in the direct gaze. The coda resorts to a wryly campy but also fulsome portrayal of homecoming and restoration. Indy is made Associate Dean and marries Marion before approving guests including Mutt, Ox, and Stanforth, Marion kissing her husband with merry lustfulness that startles the old roué. Mutt picks up Indy’s wind-toppled hat from the church floor only for Indy to pluck it from his grasp on his way out. Not quite yet, son. The deep-veined richness of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fact that it really only uses genre thrills to hang its delight with life’s wayward adventure upon, perhaps indicates why it aggravated people seeking more monotone pleasures, but also stands as reason why, like its hero, its best days still wait before it.

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