2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1910s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Drama, Epic, Experimental, Historical, Thriller

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

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Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenwriters: Hettie Gray Baker, Tod Browning, D. W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods

By Roderick Heath

David Wark Griffith should have been on top of the world. He had just scored what is perhaps in sheer audience numbers still the biggest hit in cinema history, with The Birth of a Nation (1915). He was being hailed all around the world as the greatest innovator and aesthetic force the young art form had yet seen. And yet Griffith was stung and chastened by the levels of anger and accusations of culpability hurled his way in the face of his great success in propagandising on the behalf of the Ku Klux Klan and enshrining of racist pseudo-history in narrative form, an impact that had sparked riots and demonstrations. His emotional response to such a conflicted situation meshed with an artistic sensibility that now had the money and clout to realise itself on any project and scale he wished. His theme was to be prejudice as a human phenomenon, not so much as a mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation as a reaction to a reaction, with a narrative that takes more than a few pot shots at the destructive impact of the self-righteous. Faced with new expectations and intoxicated with the epic style of cinema he had discovered, Griffith decided to expand upon the scenario he was planning to film next, called The Mother and the Law. Inspired by the historical imagery of Cabiria (1914) and encouraged to push his experimentations in cross-cutting to a new level, Griffith decided to tell several different stories tethered together by unity of theme as well as cinematic technique.
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The Birth of a Nation’s controversial aspect only seems to intensify over time, whilst broadening awareness of other early creative voices has robbed it of some stature as a work of innovation. With its virtually antipathetic outlook and far more deliberated artistic expression, Intolerance has nonetheless still often struggled to shrug off its long-held reputation as an awesome folly that ruined its director-impresario. The colossally expensive and logistically demanding production became a singular moment in the early history of Hollywood, one that even inspired a whole movie, the Taviani brothers’ Good Morning Babylon (1987). The shoot pooled together many future Hollywood talents and mainstays as members of the cast and crew, and came to encapsulate the enormous ambition and reckless immodesty of the rising industry. Intolerance represented a grand experiment in what a movie narrative could look like and what ideas it could contain, and how far a mass audience was willing to go. Some still call it the greatest movie ever made. Certainly it’s one of the most influential. Even if Intolerance examined possibilities for commercial filmmaking that Hollywood as a whole would largely reject for decades, filmmakers far and wide took its cinematic lessons to heart. The montage ideas Griffith wielded became vital inspirations for Soviet film theory. Something of its influence echoes through to the conversing time frames of Citizen Kane (1941) and on to The Godfather Part II’s (1974) contrapuntal structure and the splintered evocations of The Tree of Life (2011).
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If The Birth of a Nation shocked many, including its director, by outpacing all concept of how cinema could hold and manipulate an audience, Intolerance mapped regions of artistry and technique not everyone found they wanted to annex – the New York Times review labelled it incoherent and even intertitle writer Anita Loos, who had worked with Griffith before, admitted she struggled to grasp Griffith’s technique. One critic of the day, Louis Delluc, commented that the audience was confused by the time jumps, as “Catherine de Medici visited the poor of New York just as Jesus was baptizing the courtesans of Balthazar and Darius’ armies were beginning to assault the Chicago elevated.” With most movies, leaning on title cards was a relative luxury at a time when a decent percentage of the prospective audience would have had literacy troubles from either curtailed education or coming to English as a second language. The nature of silent cinema made it a perfect unifier for such an audience. But following Intolerance demanded paying attention to the written intertitles. The film’s relative financial disappointment seems generally however to have been due more to its splashy roadshow presentation, and Griffith’s growing certainty that the approach to making and releasing films that had worked with The Birth of a Nation would, despite running contrary to the swiftly settling realities of Hollywood business, would consistently deliver success, including spurning star performers.
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Intolerance tells four interwoven stories. One is set in the present day of 1916. When the Jenkins family, a clan of rich mill-owners, crack down on their striking workers, the entire community is displaced and forced to survive as most finish up in a big city slum. Amongst their number are a girl, “The Dear One” (Mae Marsh), and “The Boy” (Robert Harron). After they eventually marry The Boy quits working for a gangster, the “Musketeer of the Slums” (Walter Long), but the Musketeer has him framed and imprisoned, whilst Dear One’s infant daughter is stripped from her by a band of social welfare crusaders. The Boy is later accused of killing The Musketeer, who was actually shot by his mistress, “The Friendless One” (Miriam Cooper). A second story unfolds in ancient Babylon, as “The Mountain Girl” (Constance Talmadge), after avoiding being married off at the behest of her brother (Frank Brownlee), falls in love with King Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) from a distance, and eagerly joins the warrior forces fighting off the besieging armies of Cyrus the Great (George Siegmann). The High Priest of Bel-Marduk (Tully Marshall), infuriated by his cult being displaced by that of Ishtar, decides to betray the city to Cyrus. The third story recounts the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell) manipulates her son Charles IX (Frank Bennett) into ordering a slaughter of the Protestants in Paris, an order that sweeps up young gallant Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette) and his fiancé, “Brown Eyes” (Margery Wilson). The fourth tale recounts incidents in the tale of Jesus, “The Nazarene” (Howard Gaye), including his generous miracle as the Wedding in Cana and his crucifixion.
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In truth, only the first two of these stories really add up to much. The Massacre story amounts to a few brief scenes, and the Nazarene account is closer to a recurring motif, like the famous symbolic refrain of a young mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a baby in a cradle. This vision constantly punctuates the drama and often marks shifts between the narrative strands, emphasising Griffith’s concept of the world’s evil so often gathering to crush ordinary people. It feels at times like Griffith decided to get some use out of some unproduced three-reeler scripts he had lying around, which is basically true. The present-day tale and Babylonian legend tell counterpointing tales of communal dispossession and desperation, romantic frustration, and battle. Griffith’s overarching theme evokes human society as something being perpetually born, evoked in recurring cradle motif. That refrain contrasts the imagery of maternal care and vulnerable youth with the three fates sitting balefully hunched over in the corner, who are in turn echoed in the present-day narrative by the three prison guards ready to cut the strings that will hang The Boy. The Nazarene’s fair and compassionate preaching is contrasted with the various forms of bigotry and hypocrisy glimpsed throughout the film, and his eventual execution taken as a fitting extreme for this tendency of societies to consume their innocents.
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Despite Griffith’s disavowals, the difference in focus between The Birth of a Nation’s sectarianism and Intolerance’s anti-bigotry creed certainly suggests the result of a creative mind set at war with itself and emerging with a more universal message, and mediates the previous film’s bitter portrayal of racial conflict with the poetic invocation of interracial romance in Broken Blossoms (1919). Other variances between Griffith’s most famous films are consequential and go well beyond their divergent messages. Where The Birth of a Nation was intellectually under the sway of Thomas Dixon, Intolerance feels invested with Griffith’s more personal touch in conception, with stories, despite their scale and disparate time frames, unfolding in a manner and revolving around the sorts of characters clearly more in his wheelhouse. Particularly with the focus on female protagonists, the winsome naïfs and plucky tomboys, and varying figures of desperate, conflicted emotion. The Birth of a Nation loses its initial narrative and creative momentum the more Dixon’s plot and pseudo-history dominate it and the film as a whole, and despite its relative sophistication still depicts narrative cinema as a work in progress. By contrast, Intolerance is astonishingly complete and sophisticated, building in invention and dramatic intensity with symphonic zeal to its astounding last few reels. Both films are of course works of breathless melodrama that depend upon indicted avatars of social ills and images of urgent endangerment.
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But Intolerance’s psychology is cannier and its social panoramas less maudlin and more boldly critical. In this regard Intolerance is still surprising, and to a certain extent turning from The Birth of a Nation’s sensibility to Intolerance feels like moving from a 19th century view of the world to one infinitely more modern. The downfall of Babylon, brought about by the Bel-Marduk priests, the fate imposed upon Dear One and the Boy after their community is decimated by the decisions of Arthur Jenkins (Sam De Grasse), the Nazarene’s crucifixion, and the massacre of the Huguenots, are all tales where innocents fall victim to calamities brought on by members of society determined to defend their privilege and power. Griffith’s unvarnished portrayal of violent strike-breaking, with the Jenkins’ goons shooting at demonstrators, and the indictment of do-gooder organisations as one wing of a system of oppression that takes from the lower classes on both ends, have a boldness that still feel radical especially considering they were offered at a time when such labour violence was commonplace. If Griffith had made it a few years later he would’ve risked being labelled a Communist agitator. A further layer of irony is added as the strike is caused by a cut to the workers’ wages made by Arthur to help his spinster sister Mary (Vera Lewis) fund her interest in charitable organisations. She creates the Mary T. Jenkins Foundation, the same organisation that eventually takes away Dear One’s baby. Loos’ biting intertitles describe the crusaders as having turned to agitation after losing their looks, but the film offers Mary a measure of empathy early on as she realises the younger people in her social circle no longer consider her a peer, leaving her with an empty life she tries to fill through good works.
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It’s tempting to write off Griffith as an anti-intellectual, holdover Victorian artist who gave himself up to the emotional logic of any scenario he turned loose on. But the conjoining aspect of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance on the level of social enquiry is the search for a way of conceiving society as a whole, a hunt for metaphors and concepts that can explain why the world is perpetually balanced between cruelty and amity. Intolerance has been described as a screed against government and authority, although that’s only partly true. Griffith’s ambivalence about authority figures, from parents to political leaders, is certainly another note carried over from earlier films, expressed in his previous works like The Avenging Conscience’s (1914) portrayal of an adoptive patriarch who is both tyrannical and pathetic, as well as The Birth of a Nation’s portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and Austin Stoneman as people who, with varying purposes and ideals, manipulate others to perform acts of violence. The French royals in the Massacre strand are portrayed as either weaklings or truly malicious, but the Jenkins are allowed some ambiguity through their detachment from the consequences of their actions and Mary’s wish to have a positive impact on the world. Belshazzar in Intolerance has impressive lustre as the cheiftain and embodiment of a state, one who mesmerises the otherwise wild and wilful Mountain Girl and leads his armies to a victory. But even he is ultimately distracted by the hedonistic pleasures available to a man in his position, blinding him to betrayal.
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The labelling of many characters by titles rather than names evokes sentimental types but also has a proto-modernist aspect, acknowledging their functions and their blank, universalised identities. The recurring rhythms of social life the film identifies also sees people obeying those rhythms, and so subject to forces beyond their control. This is balanced by Griffith’s tendency towards homey moralism, as the present day narrative celebrates Dear One’s ability to maintain her virtue until marriage in contrast to the Friendless One’s decline into being a gangster’s moll, whilst the indulged sensuality of Babylon can be seen as an aspect of its decadent vulnerability. But Griffith keeps in mind the processes that mould people. The Friendless One, as her title indicates, is an outsider whose eventual recourses and crimes are rooted in experience and ambiguous social ostracism: she shoots the Musketeer in part to protect The Boy, who was kind to her, as well as jealous anger for the Musketeer’s lust for Dear One. Dear One’s childlike innocence is the product of a doting father, but as circumstances change she’s tempted to mimic the provocative walk and dress of her flashier rivals for male attention around the slum. This enrages her father, and he tries to sock The Boy when he catches him romancing Dear One. Her father dies soon after, unable to endure his collapse in fortunes, leaving Dear One to navigate her own path. The sequences where Dear One resists both The Boy’s sexual overtures in an attempt to penetrate her room, result in some deeply corny stuff – “Help me to be a strong-jawed Jane!” Dear One pleads heavenwards.
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The Nazarene portion of the film gives Griffith, despite its brevity, the chance for direct and specific comments on moral disparity, Jesus’s generosity at the wedding and intervention on the behalf of the fallen woman offered in stark opposition to the self-appointed economic and moral dictatorship of the Jenkins and the De Medicis, and his crucifixion also helps imbue the other stories with an aspect of symbolic force. The Boy and Dear One’s steady lurch towards matrimony is contrasted with the Wedding at Cana as an evocation of the pleasures of a custom well-obeyed, whilst Griffith cuts from the Foundation women’s planning aggressive interventions with Jesus intervening to save the adultress from her persecutors. The crusaders, labelled “The vestal virgins of Uplift,” even launch a crackdown on dancing, turning a bustling and lively dance hall into a deathly dull restaurant. The portrayal of the Foundation crusaders is a touch ungracious as it basically accuses them of being ageing pests, big, burly matrons and nasty cows, introduced with the same touch of a slow dissolve from an empty institution to one at full flight of business Griffith used with the black-dominated state congress in The Birth of a Nation. The context of Intolerance’s making, as women’s suffrage was making headway and the push for Prohibition was gaining speed, lends it both an aspect of reaction – damn these bossy mannish women trying to run us! – and also justified caution at attempts to use state-sanctioned force to make people behave themselves.
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The anger Griffith evinces at certain forms of sanctioned bullying and coercion to achieve supposedly beneficial results is plain and livid, and the crucial scene of Dear One’s child being essentially kidnapped is both straightforward melodrama and punchy social protest. Charlie Chaplin, one of Griffith’s admirers, would channel this sequence for his own take on slum life and parental care, The Kid (1922). Both Griffith and Chaplin understood clearly the intimate terror for people living in poverty of having their children taken away as an immediate underpinning for drama. Coercive power is wielded equally by the Musketeer, who frames The Boy when he cuts him loose, and by the gang of stern crusaders who bail up Dear One in her rooms, using details like the fact she’s been drinking nips of whisky to deal with a cold against her. “Of course, hired mothers are never negligent,” an intertitle notes acerbically when Dear One is reduced to trying to catch a glimpse of her baby through the barred windows of the Foundation orphanage. Griffith’s use of the close-up, swiftly becoming identified with his specific cinematic touch, provides his great weapon in evoking the emotional straits of his characters, moving in for visions of Marsh’s gleaming, teary eyes and Cooper’s brittle visage betraying a fracturing soul. Intolerance sees Griffith perfecting the language of cinema as we know it as a dialogue of distance that alternates description and experience, humans as beings in a setting and as personas in isolation.
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As if taking up the challenge of Giovanni Pastrone’s moving camera on Cabiria, Griffith and his stalwart cinematographer Wilhelm ‘Billy’ Bitzer went one further when time came to unveil one of the grand set-pieces of set design and crowd manipulation, by hoisting their camera on a crane and staging an advancing, descending dolly shot, a common filmmaking touch today but one that must have hit the audience of the day with vertiginous force. Griffith plainly liked this moment so much he repeats it a few times. The cross-threaded narrative that so challenged the audience of the day is to contemporary eyes entirely coherent thanks to an intervening century of being schooled and stretched with film language, but it’s still relatively rare in its method, cutting between each story, noting rhymes and deviations of fate and meaning. Inevitably for a film that takes on such a theme as Intolerance and with such evangelical fervour and disgust for inequity, the stories all have a rather dark cast, with three of the four tales concluding with their protagonists dead and their causes defeated, and the fourth, the modern story, putting its heroes through utter hell. In the Massacre story, Brown Eyes becomes the exemplary victim of Intolerance as her family is slaughtered around her. Prosper’s desperate dash through the streets to try and reach her is stalled so often she’s raped and slain with sadistic relish by a mercenary soldier who’s been awaiting his chance. Prosper, clutching her body, strides out into the street and bellows abuse at the soldiers, who respond by gunning him down.
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The Babylonian portion of Intolerance has always been its most famous, the source of its most anthologised and emblematic images and its repute as a great moment in moviemaking hype. To see the enormous recreations of Babylon’s walls and temples is indeed to feel like you’ve seen the apex of a way of doing things, the climactic ceremonies of invocation for the city’s propagation doubling as an act of pure cinematic worship executed at a time when labourers and extras were cheap as chips. Less than a quarter-century after cinema’s birth it was reaching its zenith in production ambition, and since them its horizons have only shrunk in such terms, preferring today to execute such visions through computer pixels. The lavishness isn’t just in terms of set construction, but extends to Griffith’s portrayal of the Babylonian court, where Belshazzar’s “Princess Beloved” (Seena Owen), who has encouraged the worship of Ishtar over Bel-Marduk, is the king’s living idol and mate. The pageantry and minutely detailed décor and dress overwhelm the eye, replete with marvellous shots like one of Belshazzar petting a pet leopard clutching a stem of white roses in its jaws.
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The intensifying editing rhythm of Intolerance’s later reels in moving between the stories is given extra propulsion by utilising the dancing of the Babylonians to give physical, human counterpoint to the rush of cuts and evoke a gathering, hedonistic frenzy, movements and gestures propelling the cinematic edifice itself. The city’s “Temple of Love” contains a coterie of heavy-breathing Sapphic priestess-concubines, proving sex stuff wasn’t beyond the prim Southern Baptist Griffith and anticipating his rival-follower Cecil B. DeMille’s similar excursions, although Griffith’s images are arguably racier than anything DeMille ever dared. Griffith doesn’t labour to be condemnatory either, but generally considers this mostly fictional concept of a bygone society on its own terms. He even expresses a certain outrage that Babylon is destroyed through betrayal and rapacious imperialism, and considers Belshazzar and his court as representing one apex of civilisation in beauty and good living. The story revolves however around the feral outsider The Mountain Girl, whose pluck, daring, and idolisation of Belshazzar stand in fascinating contrast to Brown Eyes’ incarnation of a standard damsel in distress and Dear One’s wan and victimised incarnation of a more passive and Victorian-era feminine ideal.
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Griffith’s receptivity to the energies of his female cast members and interest in woman-driven stories seems to have been one secret to his success, and his best-received subsequent works, Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), revolved around young women trying to survive a mean and battering world. Talmadge’s startling energy and expressivity comes damn close to stealing the whole film despite the structure’s resistance to such things. Talmadge pulls off a comedic coup in the scene where she casually makes a mockery of her brother’s attempts to have her sold off in marriage, when The Mountain Girl first sees Belshazzar and spins off into rhapsodies of romantic expression, and later anchoring the high tragedy of the story. And yet The Mountain Girl and Dear One are ultimately linked by their determination to fight for the man they love and their attempts to penetrate a mystery. Just as Dear One talks a friendly beat policeman (Tom Wilson) into helping her find who really shot the Musketeer, so The Mountain Girl uncovers the Bel-Marduk High Priest’s treachery by tracking his chariots out to Cyrus’ camp, and tries to warn Belshazzar. Caught in the middle is The Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton), a proselytiser for Bel-Marduk who falls for The Mountain Girl despite her disdain for him: “Put away thy perfumes, they garments of Assinnu, the female man. I shall love none but a soldier!”
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Intolerance presents The Mountain Girl as perhaps a creature that could only exist in the distant past, although she also seems designed to speak to all the eager young proto-flappers of the day. As Cyrus brings his armies to the gate, The Mountain Girl’s skill as an archer proves valuable in helping with the defence: Griffith cuts from The Mountain Girl hurling stones at the attackers to the more decorous if no less partisan Princess Beloved in a frenzy of inspiring fervour. Later The Rhapsode, drunk and thrilled by being chosen as one of the circle in on the High Priest’s plans, boasts to The Mountain Girl about the plot. The echoes of the ancient tale in the present-day one see aspects of Belshazzar, Princess Beloved, and The Mountain Girl in The Musketeer, The Friendless One, and Dear One, if greatly reconfigured, and the drab squalor of the slums sharply contrasts the splendour of the ancient world, if not the poshness of the Jenkins’ mansion. Belshazzar’s harem is sarcastically equated with The Musketeer’s pornographic décor and solitary concubine. Broken Blossoms would both narrow the focus of Intolerance’s preoccupations but also intensify them on a key frequency, reducing the matter to the outcast man, delicate woman, and brutal authority figure. The result was perhaps the purest statement of Griffith’s poetic streak, as intimate as Intolerance is grand.
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But aside from passages of the Babylon siege, which becomes interludes of pure spectacle, Intolerance retains its focus on the human level remarkably well; truly, Griffith’s feel for cinematic art seemed to intensify all the more precisely the more he was chasing a direct, near-physical relationship with his audience. The siege scenes are nonetheless still amazing, coming on with such ferocity in staging and cutting and shooting it’s hard to believe at points they were staged: where Pastrone’s siege sequences, whilst obviously the model, were nonetheless rather static and clunky, Griffith unleashes pure cinema, with shots of warriors plunging off the walls and siege towers blazing in the night. He even weaves touches of comedy, like two defenders getting knocked out by catapulted stones and falling into each-other’s arms like sleeping babes. The siege, dominating the middle half of the film, contrasts not great climaxes in the other stories but rather passages of imminent crisis, in The Boy’s return home from jail and conflict with The Musketeer, and Catherine swaying her son to order the massacre.
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The Boy’s trial and imprisonment awaiting hanging sees Griffith kicking up the rhythm another notch, as Dear One and the cop look desperately for a way to save him, and The Friendless One clearly eddies in guilt and confusion. After following Dear One and the cop to the governor’s house, The Friendless One confesses to them and joins their efforts to chase down the train the governor is on. Griffith unleashes his most frenetic and dazzling editing as he switches between this pursuit, Prosper’s dash to save Brown Eyes, and The Mountain Girl trying to outpace Cyrus’s chariot horde to warn Belshazzar. Griffith’s epiphany here, semi-accidental perhaps, involves modernity’s possibilities for altering ancient realities: where The Mountain Girl can’t save the day, arriving too late to rouse the Babylonians to a proper defence, the present-day dashes succeed by gaining the aid of a race car driver who outpaces the train. The Mountain Girl dies valiantly but forlornly in defending the palace, riddled with arrows whilst Belshazzar and the Princess kill themselves, and Cyrus howls in glee as he announces himself master of the city.
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The climactic image of the Babylonian story is possibly Griffith’s greatest, of the dead Mountain Girl, a look of sublime bewilderment on her face, resting amidst the carnage in Belshazzar’s palace, a pair of yoked-together doves from Belshazzar’s pet menagerie nestled by her body, oblivious animals detached from the human drama whilst also emblemising all its romantic tragedy. Griffith, to try and generate some more revenue out of his huge folly, would later release the Babylon section as a standalone feature called The Fall of Babylon, this time with The Mountain Girl surviving and escaping; he also released the modern story separately and toned down the anti-business and strikebreaking scenes. Only the present day story ends happily out of the narrative sprawl in Intolerance, albeit still with a bloodcurdling aspect. The Boy is saved just before being hung, and he and Dear one are reunited in the prison yard, her wild pleasure as she embraces him contrasted by his dead-eyed shock. The prison scenes see Griffith using blocking and framing to create semi-abstract effects – bustling bodies of convicts in striped uniforms enclosed by stark brick walls, faces appearing through barred portals – that carry on some of Griffith’s experiments on The Avenging Conscience in not just using editing and decor to construct his storytelling but also manipulations of what he puts before his camera to evoke shifting psychological landscapes.
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Carl Dreyer, another filmmaker profoundly influenced by Griffith, might have remembered these in the stark images of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), as well as the transfiguring close-ups, and they also anticipate Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock’s explorations of dehumanisation through similarly skewed visual language. The film concludes with a coda diverging into outright allegory and summative preaching, echoing the similar note at the end of The Birth of a Nation but greatly expanding it for a dreamlike vision of warfare and bloodshed, complete with shells shattering urban buildings in fascinating special effects shots. Griffith here is reflecting on the omnipresent reality of the war consuming Europe at the time, and even sensing America would soon be drawn into it, with the resulting fear of the same destruction being wrought about its cities. But, again echoing the end of Cabiria if with a more dynamic use of the motif, an angelic host appears above a battlefield, arresting soldiers in the middle of mutual murder. The host initiates an age of loving peace, where prisons crumble to green fields and people celebrate by dropping flowers from ghostly zeppelins. A bizarre, silly, joyous end to a film that feels like cinema’s ever-flowing wellspring.

Standard
1950s, Drama, Historical, War

Alexander The Great (1956)

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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or download the podcast

Robert Rossen is remembered today chiefly for two films. His political tale All The King’s Men (1949) captured the Best Picture Oscar. The Hustler (1961) gave Paul Newman his most iconic role and helped define a new school of urban realism matched to sifting psychology in American moviemaking that arguably helped create a template for the independent film movement. Rossen, born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1906 to Russian Jewish parents, made his name as a screenwriter specialising in social issue dramas and crime epics like They Won’t Forget (1937) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He debuted as a director with Johnny O’Clock (1947) thanks to the support of star Dick Powell, and his second film, Body and Soul (1948), put him on the map with the story of a boxer who eventually defies corruption and bullying cabals to determine his own fate, with his famous line in fending off rapacious gangsters, “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies.” Body and Soul established Rossen’s interest in tough, trenchant, streetwise tales about individuals at war both with the world and their own private natures.
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All The King’s Men, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, mostly divested the book’s meditations on power and the place of the intellectual in modern America to offer instead a pseudo-Shakespearean study of its antihero, Willie Stark, inspired by the populist Louisiana governor Huey Long, who sets out to battle entrenched powers for the sake of the common man but eventually is rotted out by the same forces. The Hustler took on Walter Tevis’ novel to offer Rossen’s most refined character study, the drama of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, whose superlative gifts as a pool player are foiled by his lack of authentic character, and whose eventual gaining of wisdom and self-control comes at a heavy price. Rossen surely empathised. His directorial career and ultimately his life were badly stunted by his bruising encounter with the HUAC investigations of the early 1950s, when he was targeted for his leftist affiliations. After first trying to work around blacklisting by making Mambo (1953) in Italy, he eventually caved and became a friendly witness like Elia Kazan, although where Kazan’s career seem comparatively unharmed, Rossen had difficulty regaining his momentum and was dogged by the consequences of his decision to an early grave. By the time of his last film, Lilith (1964), his characteristic hard and worldly tone had caved in, to study the dreamy mental landscape of a troubled young woman.
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What connects most of Rossen’s films regardless is the theme of individuals who find themselves overwhelmed in pursuing the goals society thrusts upon them of success in wealth and power, and who eventually have to negotiate their own reckoning. For his first film after escaping the blacklist, Rossen tackled the largest possible canvas to pursue that theme, in the tale of Alexander II, King of Macedon, remembered to history as Alexander the Great. In its efforts to outpace television’s encroachment, Hollywood began making big-budget historical dramas filmed in blazing colour, a style kicked off by Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and extended by the likes of Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953). These big, diverting, parochial tales invoking religious myth-history would reach a height with the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), before the epic fashion evolved into something more complex in the 1960s. As a mode these kinds of blockbusters seemed the polar opposite of what a director like Rossen usually aimed for, but he engaged it on his own terms. Rossen was ahead of the curve as he tried to forge a new idea of the historical epic, one that feels a lot more familiar today than it would have in 1956, in his attempts to knit together serious historiography and a highly psychologised portrait of one of the most famous yet maddeningly enigmatic people who ever lived.
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Rossen’s film never gained much appreciation, and the film had been virtually forgotten by the time Oliver Stone got around to making his own big-budget, economically disastrous and aesthetically fractured take on the king, with 2004’s Alexander. The two films tend to mirror each-others’ faults. Rossen’s cool, restrained visual style, constantly and carefully mindful of the position of his actors in relationship to the landscape, is the opposite of Stone’s baroquely stylised spectacle and madcap energy. Despite the much greater resources available to Stone and the lack of fetters of censorship and theme, his work still managed to be less intelligible than Rossen’s, but Rossen’s strains against limitations of production and editing room tampering. The story of Alexander and the forces he unleashed in world history might well be too large, too fractious and complex, to be encompassed by the niceties of commercial cinema. Both Rossen and Stone responded to the problem by recreating Alexander in their own image. For Rossen, that meant seeing Alexander as a figure similar to his best-known protagonists, blessed with unique talents and determined to exercise them, but also riven with covert neuroses as individual identity fractures under the pressure of insanely divergent prisms of conceiving the world, temptations towards godlike power and base human frailty trying to coexist in a single frame.
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Rossen’s Alexander squirms under the twin identities imbued by his parents, King Philip (Fredric March) and his mother Olympia (Danielle Darrieux), an uneasy union between a bullish warrior-king and an icy priestess-queen. Philip dashes home to his capital Pella from the battlefront when he hears he’s become a father, only to find that Olympia is convinced through the advice of her Egyptian soothsayer (Helmut Dantine) that Alexander is the son of Zeus, rather than her all-too-human husband. Philip has infinitude of lovers and is obsessed with elevating his formerly backward and peripheral nation to an exalted status amongst the states of Greece. Philip entrusts Alexander’s education to Aristotle (Barry Jones), who admires his young pupil but also warns Philip of his splintered nature and the potential danger in ignoring it. Alexander himself, growing into the form of Richard Burton, chafes at being kept away from his father’s side and the chance for glory, as Macedonia’s brilliant army slowly overcomes the other Greek states.
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Rossen conceives of ancient statecraft as an extension of royal personality, which runs hot and cold, defined by the essential Oedipal conflict between Philip and Alexander, a conflict then transposed onto a geopolitical stage. Alexander longs to join his father’s army and gain a share of his glory in preparation for his own, eventual ascension. But Philip is justifiably scared of plots and manipulations, as well as also cagily protecting his own prerogatives to make and break his heir. Alexander constantly finds himself a pawn in the power battle between his father and mother, who remain married but intensely alienated, and Philip seems to always be considering remarriage to produce a new heir. Philip is usually glimpsed in the company of his generals and courtiers, a man of a dense, jostling, very human society, whilst Olympia maintains a vigil from the portico of the royal palace, gazing out into distant fields of fate, stark in Olympian remove. When Alexander is finally called to service, it’s to keep order in Macedonia whilst his father fights the other Greek states, so he quickly proves his mettle by putting down rebellious hill tribes and making them rebuild a city called Alexandropolis. Philip rebukes Alexander for his actions, but also appoints him commander of one wing in the fateful battle of Chaeronea, where the Macdeonians take on finally subjugate a Greek coalition headed by Athens: Alexander saves his father’s life during the battle, intervening to fight off warriors who have him cornered.
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Rossen spares a surprising amount of time dealing with the intellectual and civic background of the age, commencing the film with one of the famous oratorical battles between Demosthenes (Michael Hordern) and Aeschines (William Squire) as they behold the rise of Philip and the birth of his heir. Later Rossen spares time to depict Alexander’s interactions with Aristotle, absorbing his wisdom and cultural propaganda, deployed in a fashion that reveals Rossen’s underlying political parable regarding McCarthyism, the Cold War, and American imperialism in the post-war period. “The Persian way of life has the seed of death and fear in it,” Aristotle intones, mimicking Cold War rhetoric about communists, before more loudly announcing, over a montage of his pupils schooling themselves for war, “We Greeks are the chosen, the elect – our culture is the best, our civilisation the best, our men the best. All others are barbarians, and it is our moral duty to conquer them, enslave them, and if necessary destroy them.” And making fun of foreign gods: “The gods of the Greeks are made in the image of Man – not men with birds’ heads, and bulls with lions’ heads, but men who can be understood and felt.” Alexander’s life course reveals both the potential grandeur and danger in allowing the merely human to annex such an exalted sphere as divine status, as he imbues his military mission with a quality of something larger, a great act of cultural and philosophical adventure, something that must assimilate the world.
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Rossen digs into the question of political messaging in a way that’s authentic for the period but also made coherent for any time, as Alexander surveys various forms of propaganda presented in the form of culture, in the idealised statuary of Athenian pretence and the awesome scale of Persian infrastructure, whilst Demosthenes makes quips about good comment being bought with Macedonian gold, and finishes up withering in depression whilst his rival announces to the crowd that Alexander must be worshipped as a god, the last, hardest, most awesome stage in achieving hegemony. Rossen cuts between the different invocations of the Greek and Persian leaders before battle, laying bare the distinction of their cultural outlooks and ways of conceiving the universe, and of course noting how every side thinks god is in their corner. The frontiers of cultures and nations are nothing however compared to basic spurs of familial identity, sexuality, and generational tension, all of which define Alexander’s upbringing, his own steely, mercurial persona contrasting his father’s swaggering, earthy machismo. Rossen devotes himself to exploring Alexander’s psychological formation, becoming a being Aristotle describes to Philip: “He is logic and he is dreams. He’s warrior and he’s poet. He’s man and he’s spirit. He’s your son but he’s also hers.”
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Philip meanwhile chafes at being labelled a barbarian by the Greek elites and quietly fumes over Alexander’s supposed divine status, a discomforting prospect for a man who wants to order the world according to his own whim, as it suggests some other force at work – more likely his wife’s ambition rather than the will of Zeus. After gaining his greatest victory, Philip gets drunk and dances upon the bluffs overlooking the corpse-strewn field of Chaeronea, chanting “Philip the barbarian!” in his exultation, yet revealing himself as still dogged by a potent inferiority complex. He’s fetched down by his son and Athenian general Memnon (Peter Cushing). Philip relents towards other Greeks when he sobers up and sends Alexander in his stead to negotiate a peace treaty. It’s Death of a Salesman in sandals. Alexander encounters Demosthenes and Memnon’s wife Barsine (Claire Bloom), who attracts his eye and mind. He gets in a wry dig at Athenian self-aggrandizing, as he scans rows of statues of idealised male physiques and questions where all these incredible specimens were at Chaeronea. But Alexander lets his own grandiosity slip as he describes the potential in unity and purpose for Greece in invading Persia: “And this is what I have brought you!”
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Alexander soon finds his position precarious, however, as Philip celebrates the birth of another son by his new wife Eurydice (Marisa de Leza), daughter of his loyal general Attalus (Stanley Baker), precipitating a vicious exchange between Alexander and his new father-in-law, and driving him and his mother into exile. They’re allowed to return when Eurydice gives birth to a son, but Alexander is forbidden the company of some of his hero-worshipping school friends. Attalus humiliates one of them, Pausanias (Peter Wyngarde), before the court by questioning what he’ll do without his god Alexander around, to Philip’s great amusement. Pausanias gets drunk with Olympia, who steers him towards avenging himself. The next day Pausanias stabs Philip dead as he and Alexander are entering the palace. Alexander promptly dispenses justice by slaying Pausanias, and vows over his dead father that he didn’t arrange the deed. Eurydice kills herself and her son in fear Alexander might torment them, and Attalus tries to assassinate him, earning his own death. Alexander survives nonetheless to be hailed by the army as the new king, and he sets about leading a Greek coalition to war in Asia Minor against the mighty Persian Empire, ruled by Darius II (Harry Andrews), with a cohort of trusted helpmates, including his friends Cleitus (Gustavo Rojo), Ptolemy (Virgilio Teixeira), and Philotas (Rubén Rojo), and the latter’s father, Parmenion (Niall MacGinnis).
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Rossen might well have helped prepare ground for the oncoming boom in Italian peplum cinema (Baker and Andrews had both featured in another proto-peplum, Robert Wise’s film Helen of Troy, a year earlier). Rossen’s visual approach here rejects the plush decorative effects inspired by Renaissance and Victorian Academic art most concurrent Hollywood historical epics offered, in exchange for a spare, stripped-down look that often feels more like a rough draft for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s blend of the raw and the abstract in his historical films. The cinematographer was Robert Krasker, who had won an Oscar for his work on his famously skewed images on The Third Man (1949). His approach here couldn’t be more different, his location shooting portraying an ancient society that’s stout and aspiring in its important structures but abutting cities of shacks, and ruins shattered by warfare, as if we’ve stumbled into a neorealist work. Rossen’s classical Greece and Persia are harsh, sunstruck places. Armour, costumes, landscape are all intensely tactile. Battle scenes chaotic and dusty rather than spectacular and slickly choreographed. He shoots as much of the film outdoors as possible. Interior scenes are gently stylised with use of the widescreen frames and bright, unrealistic lighting to accentuate a fresco-like quality to his mise-en-scene, actors swathed in colourful costumes striking postures and angles against pale walls. On a dramatic level, Alexander The Great feels close to the stark, intimate quality a lot of straitened TV productions were wielding at the time. Cushing as Memnon strengthens the connection with that kind of TV drama, as Cushing had found fame in TV (bizarrely, his long-time Hammer Horror co-star Christopher Lee’s voice can be heard very distinctly dubbed over Dantine’s).
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Cushing is cunningly cast with his wiry, verbally dextrous intensity as Memon, who at first befriends Alexander but soon becomes a dogged enemy. Memnon makes hapless attempts at a principled form of dissent once he realises that Alexander wants not to be just a war chief but a grand autocratic power. Memon goes into exile rather than swear allegiance to him, but fighting as a mercenary for Darius, he finds himself abandoned and vastly outnumbered against Alexander’s invading horde at the Battle of the Granicus, the first big clash of the war. Rossen uses Memnon as a figure of commentary on the plight of anyone who, as Rossen did, tries to speak truth to power but finds power speaks its own truth right back. “You fight for pay,” Alexander tells him in contempt: “Earn it.” After having his attempts to plead quarter for his men denied by a contemptuous Alexander, he gets chopped down on the battlefield along with his fellow mercenaries. When Alexander encounters Barsine again, she’s captured human chattel, and Alexander forcibly beds her, only to seem ashamed of it afterwards. “You will be treated according to your rank,” he tells her, only for Barsine to point to another captive woman tossed into the street: “My rank is hers.”
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Barsine nonetheless becomes a convert to Alexander’s mission as well as his most loyal lover, suggesting Alexander isn’t the only person split by duality of nature. Indeed Rossen diagnoses it as a general state of being, the borders between binaries – male and female, body and spirit, east and west, between cultures and countries, and forms of political power – and colossal strength lies in the hands of anyone who offers people the unique shock of being led from one state of being to another. Soon after decrying Alexander from the shell-shocked ranks of the conquered, Barsine is leading a gang of camp followers with torches to help burn down captured Babylon as part of an exercise in world-renewing fervour. When Alexander haplessly protests such arson, Barsine accuses him of being seduced by Oriental opulence and abandoning his mission to remake the world in a Greek image, whilst his warriors become increasingly unhappy over a long exile and being asked to make concessions to the Persian lifestyle, with the courtly majus encouraging Alexander’s faith in himself as overlord and godhead. Finally Alexander’s world-conquering quest comes to a queasy halt in India when he quarrels with a drunken, resistant Cleitus, who berates Alexander for forgetting who he is and assuming god-king status: Alexander reactively slays Cleitus with a thrown spear, only to decide his friend was right as he mourns him, and direct the army back to Persia.
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Rossen incorporates some of the possibly apocryphal episodes from the various histories of Alexander, like the legendary scene of him cutting the Gordian knot, and the rhyming episodes of his saving his father’s life at Chaeronea and Cleitus saving Alexander in turn at Granicus, moments that ironically bind the players in roles of resentful gratitude. Rossen fully understands the ready-made symbolic potency of such tales, however. Rossen was obliged by 1950s censorship to avoid any overt mentions of Alexander’s supposed bisexuality. Rossen suggests it as artfully as he can however, in the faintly queeny fury of Pausanias when Philip humiliates him, suggesting the depth of his and Alexander’s connection, and in a framing when Alexander tries to hold his own conversation with Barsine with the rather prominent buttocks of a statue of a muscular male figure in the back of the frame, indicating his previous sexual experience. One of the bigger pieces of licence involves merging Alexander’s eventual wives, Roxana, a princess from Bactria near the Caspian Sea, and another, Stateira, a daughter of Darius.
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There’s much that’s fine to Alexander The Great, but much that’s awkward too, and it’s one of those films that feels all the more frustrating and interesting because of its evident failings. It’s a very different film to a later Burton-starring epic, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), but like that film it was released to audiences in a severely curtailed form, and was plainly a work directorial ambition trying to offer tart and meaningful political commentary under the cover of historical dreaming. Rossen decried the severely edited version of the film that was eventually released, a version he said cut out many of his carefully developed psychological details and parallels, and leaves the latter part of Alexander’s adventure reduced to a few, paltry montage images. These include his invasion of India and deadly march back through the Iranian deserts, as well as the increasingly mean-spirited turns of the later campaign including the paranoia-induced assassination of Parmenion and Philotas. Other scenes don’t seem to have been edited properly and feel patched together. When Alexander has his first bout of epilepsy a clumsy show reel of earlier scenes of import is projected over his face, the sort of bad movie trick satirists have been making a meal of for decades.
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Casting Burton probably seemed a very natural move at the time, being as he was a young, virile actor with Shakespearean training. A perfect blend to put across a character accomplished in both warrior grit and intellectual attainment. He already knew his way around this kind of period fare after starring in The Robe (1953). Burton grasps Rossen’s concept of Alexander as a schismatic creature, able to convey both the haughty aristocrat and the overboiling incarnation of will, his blue eyes flashing with fanatical self-belief, and gift for projecting violence verbally, anticipating his turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) when he mocks his father during one of their quarrels, “This is the man preparing to pass from Europe into Asia, but he cannot even pass from one couch to another.” But his performance is another of those weirdly uneven turns his film career proved busy with. At 29, he was the right age, but already seems far too mature, and his performance nudges the overripe as Alexander becomes more overtly neurotic. He also seems uncomfortable providing heroic beefcake reclining in a miniskirt. Marlon Brando was shoved into a few too many poorly-fitting movie roles around the same time in this, but he might well have made a better meal of this part with his more galvanic talent for physical expression. That said, March is characteristically terrific as Philip with his mix of hot-blooded intransigence and intelligence. Darrieux (billed as “the French Star”) is effective as the proud, scheming Olympia, and Andrews surprisingly moving as Darius, whose doom is the perpetual partner in fate with Alexander’s triumphs.
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The film’s dramatic highpoint tellingly belongs not to Alexander himself but to Darius as he’s driven into the wilderness and finally stabbed to death by some of his bodyguards who hope for Alexander’s favour: Darius is left riddled with gory wounds, perched upon his mobile throne, lording it over a frontier wasteland. Alexander finds his body and reads a letter he leaves for him, imploring him to marry Roxane and bring peace, a lesson he takes too long to take to heart. But when Alexander does at last return to Babylon after his exhausting Indian campaign, and sets about trying to unite the worlds he’s conquered, Rossen uses it as a cue for perhaps the most graceful moment of his directing career. His camera surveys the ranks of Greek warriors being married to Persian ladies at the same time Alexander marries Roxane, all bedecked in bright hues and flowers, as if it’s not simply a wedding rite but an invocation of spring and renewal. This moment of florid romanticism dispels the warlike and desolating tension of what’s gone before and gives brief but eloquent voice to the concept of fusion, realised on all levels, breaking down the many boundaries the narrative has charted, all realised in one gliding, unifying camera movement. But Alexander is soon delivered up to fate and cheated of the chance to see the seed he’s planted grow, as he’s stricken with illness and wastes away before his subjects, and Rossen’s more characteristic tone of noble fatalism coincides with Alexander’s recorded pith perfectly. He responds to the question of who his empire will pass on to with, “To…the strongest.” You can all but hear Willie Stark, Eddie Felson, and the rest of Rossen’s brilliant yet fatally flawed heroes laughing without sentiment, only sympathy.

Standard
1970s, 1990s, Crime/Detective, Drama, Thriller

The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather Part II (1974) / The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriters: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Robert Towne (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Mario Puzo was a journalist and sometime novelist who, frustrated by his lack of publishing success and tired of being in debt, set out with determination to write a bestseller. Puzo drew on his years of experience as a journalist working for pulpy magazines to present an anatomy of the most notorious branch of the American underworld which had been partly illuminated by investigations in the past two decades. This worthy ambition paid off in spades when his novel The Godfather, released in 1969, became a runaway hit and one of the most popular fiction works ever published. Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures even before the book was done, who made it the test case for a new way of making movies that has since become the essential lynchpin of the movie business: the tent-pole blockbuster, a big-budget movie based on a popular property released with saturation acts of promotion. The rest, as they say is history.

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Although the first The Godfather film is getting on for a half-century old, the series’ impact and influence has probably never been more pervasive in pop culture. It’s passing obvious to note that, with their savvy in blending plot with strong yet unobtrusive style, and obsession with antiheroic protagonists who simultaneously compel and repel, the Godfather films stand as an essential blueprint for ambitious contemporary television more than current Hollywood film, save for a few revivalist tyros. More immediately, Coppola’s films permanently changed the look and sound of the gangster movie to the point where talents as diverse and individualistic as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara all made their separate peace with its influence. Only Michael Mann successfully defined another path for the genre. From today’s perspective, it seems both inspiring and surprising just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, although the film’s production was contentious for just that reason.

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This was the Hollywood of the early 1970s, still desperately finding its feet after two decades of upheaval, trying to work out what a young audience in particular wanted and looking to young talents for the answer. One whizz-kid, studio boss Robert Evans, employed another as director in Francis Ford Coppola, because the Italian-American impresario in his early 30s could bring authenticity to the project and also would work for cheap. Coppola, scion of a cultured family as far from Puzo’s hoods as it seemed possible to get, initially balked at the proposition of making a film about the Mafia, but soon clicked with the material as a mode of exploring capitalism and the uneasy relationship of constituent populaces to power in the republic. Coppola in turn ruffled feathers by hiring the waning, industry-reviled star Marlon Brando and the barely-known stage actor Al Pacino for the two crucial roles. Evans also had the sense to assign the canny and disciplined producer Albert S. Ruddy to keep a tight leash on the production. All quite fitting for a film deeply concerned with the fraught dialogue between age’s hard-won wisdom and youthful prospect, and a study in square pegs cruelly shaved to fit in round holes.

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Puzo abandoned his more literary ambitions for his novel, offering a flatly recounting writing style that made for a quickly consumable pulp treat, but also offered up a substantial basis for dramatic enlargement, the arrival of the age where the successful pop novel was more than anything a long movie outline. Pauline Kael was rarely more accurate when she called what Puzo and Coppola accomplished with the film as alchemy. Puzo’s smarts as a constructor of grand narratives that could link the microcosmic with larger mythmaking, which would also later be exercised effectively in providing the story for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), connected with Coppola’s interest in characters struggling to be more than the world wants them to be. These concerns Coppola had struggled with in his mainstream film debut, Dementia 13 (1963), made for his industry mentor Roger Corman, and his attempts to break out in the electric late ‘60s movie scene with the hipster comedy You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) and the melancholy drama The Rain People (1969). His one big studio excursion prior to The Godfather had been the backdated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). His best claim to fame however was winning an Oscar for co-writing Patton (1970), where his imagistic notions included the iconic opening scene of the prickly protagonist standing before a colossal American flag.

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The opening moments of The Godfather have a similar aspect blending theatrical directness and an emblematic quality close to what business lingo calls branding. Nino Rota’s sad and elegant trumpet fanfare heard of a stark black-and-white title gives way to funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) speaking to the camera in accounting both his faith in America whilst also requesting punitive action in an old world fashion from his feudal overlord. This stark episode of fatherly anger and yearning sees Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the self-styled spiritual patriarch to a corner of New York’s Italian-American community and head of a crime family with fortune and influence far beyond that community’s borders, to punish the young American boys who viciously assaulted his daughter. Immediately the Godfather series’ essence is spelled out in the most concise verbal and visual terms. The dialogue evokes the faded theatrical tradition of the soliloquy: we’re in that exalted realm of drama detailing people who roam corridors of great power, sad stories of the deaths of kings and all that.

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The images, drenched in grainy shadows with warm fleshy tones, feel mindful of the bygone Expressionist style in cinema. But there’s also a purposeful echo back much further to old master painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, with a similar concept of the world is an inky zone of violence and pain where the human is both inescapably corporeal and spiritually intense, extremes of physical experience linked intimately with extremes of moral straits. There’s also the association with Renaissance Italy with all its surreal disparities of grim savagery in power and street life and beauty conjured for posterity. Coppola’s work with cinematographer Gordon Willis utilising underexposure created this look, and it became the defining expressive trait of the series. Amidst the darkness, warm hues, fleshy tones, bright and colourful electric lights, intimate places. The Godfather’s universe is a place of safe abodes from savagery, where the barbarians are ever at the gate.

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The trilogy charts the Corleone family’s travails from 1945 to 1979, with flashbacks to Vito’s childhood in Sicily and his fortunes in New York in the early century. Vito was chased out of Sicily by a vendetta, but rose by the end of World War II to a state of vast influence and authority. His eldest son Santino or ‘Sonny’ (James Caan) is the prospective inheritor, whilst the youngest, Michael (Pacino), is a college-educated and decorated former soldier Vito hopes will transcend the family trade. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally dismissed as untalented and dozy, whilst adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a former street kid Sonny brought into the fold, has become a shrew lawyer and gains the post of consigliere or counsellor. Vito’s refusal of a proposal by Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to bankroll him in drug trafficking, puts the Corleones on course for war with the other heads of New York’s crime syndicates, the so-called “Five Families,” because they want to annex the political and legal protection Vito has built up as they exploit this lucrative new trade. Solozzo, with the backing of rival Dons Barzini (Richard Conte) and Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), has Vito shot down in the street, obliging Sonny to command the family whilst Vito recovers in hospital. Michael steps up and kills Solozzo along with his pet police guardian Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael flees to Sicily to hide out and marries young local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), only for her to die in a car bombing, so when he returns to the US marries his college girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton).

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After Sonny’s brutal slaying and Vito’s death by natural causes, Michael arranges the assassination of all his foes, including his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who helped set up Sonny’s killing. Michael then moves the family to Nevada to profit from Las Vegas gambling. Part II, taking up the story few years later, sees Michael’s attempts to forge a partnership with aging rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in exploiting Cuba as a cash cow see Roth instead try to rub out Michael, manipulating Fredo’s feelings of resentment and implicating him in the plot. The Cuban Revolution foils all plans and Michael sees off an attempt by a Senate committee to brand him as a gangster using former family soldier Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) as a witness. Michael has Roth killed and Fredo executed soon after, whilst Kay permanently foils her marriage to Michael by confessing to an abortion and is cast out of the family, leaving Michael lonely and haunted. Part III, opening in 1979, sees Michael, immensely enriched by the casino business and now legitimate, aiming to become an international force by using his leverage over the head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), to gain a controlling share of a valuable corporation, Immobiliaire, off the church. Michael accepts his nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia), as his streetwise heir. Vincent has an affair with Michael’s cherished daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) whilst Michael tries to make peace with Kay. Soon all of them are caught up in the ensuing chaos as rivals try to shut down the sale, including Italian political heavyweight Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), a slyly smiling, bespectacled mandarin who lurks in the shadows, and aided by Michael’s wise elder and supposed friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach).

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The Godfather quickly earned many comparisons to Gone With The Wind (1939) as an epic film where the fortunes of a focal family are intimately tied to progressing national history, and as its inheritor in zeitgeist-defining success. There’s obvious accord between Michael Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara, as both are the second-generation representatives of families who have prospered in the New World through willingness to exploit others, and who become determined to restore familiar fortunes through means fair and foul, but eventually decimate their private happiness to accomplish their end. Even the basic structural motif of the three Godfather films of commencing with a long sequence depicting a celebration that brings together many different players in the unfolding drama feels patterned after the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence of Gone With The Wind. But the opening wedding scene of The Godfather is also a catalogue of Coppola’s new approach to the epic, as the scene shifts jarringly from Vito’s office to the Corleone estate outside where guests mill, musicians blare out traditional tunes, and the various players in family melodrama and subcultural conflict converge to be carefully mapped and categorised by Coppola’s camera.

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Take the way Barzini is introduced, calmly having a photographer who’s snapped his picture detained long enough to strip out the film from his camera, contrasted with the way hot-headed Sonny assaults another photographer, smashes his camera, and confronts and insults the FBI agents hovering outside the estate. The difference in temperament and method of the two men is described with perfect efficiency whilst also declaring a basic theme of the series: power and character are immediately established as unforgivingly intimate bedfellows. Other vignettes are less consequential although they speak much of the dynamics of this brood, like Sonny’s dash for a quick tryst with bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), whilst his wife (Julie Gregg) boasts about the size of her husband’s penis to her pals but notices her husband has left and why, and Tom gives an indulgent grin as he comes to fetch Sonny. Surrounding such episodes are general, raucous scenes of celebration that manage to seem like they’re happening entirely by accident, straying into the filmmakers’ shots, channelling documentary-like energy into a film that’s actually anything but haphazard. We see the Corleones as above all an Italian-American family, obeying mores and responding to cultural cues as natural as breathing but about to be tested. Only Michael, recently returned to the family orbit after a long excursion, seems truly uncomfortable, the product of two world-views and social definitions, harbouring his store of dark lore with guilty boding.

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Michael serves as tour guide for Kay and the audience, identifying people not just by name but by function in the family apparatus – Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is not just a heavy but a juicy anecdote. The desire to belong to the world of Corleones is provoked, and its deviant aspects have fiendish appeal – a friend like Vito at the fore, a pet dragon in the corner like Brasi, to make problems and enemies vanish with a few well-chosen words and a little firearm brandishing. Part of the original film’s success lay in its cunning at playing this two-faced game. At once the Corleones are offered as the archetype of Mafia life but also get us to root for them as the best of a bad lot, fighting to stay alive and maintain rules of engagement. Almost all of the characters killed by Corleones in the course of the first film are either foes or traitors who endanger the family’s lives: their only innocent victims seen on screen are the unfortunate Khartoum, and one woman in bed with one of Michael’s whacked enemies. Vito’s sense of morality forbids him from turning the family to the drug trade whereas he regards gambling, liquor, and prostitution as essentially honest vices. Vito has an aspect of the folk hero, an aspect even the sequel doesn’t despoil, as a man who operates in a manner not dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes was once characterised, as a last court of appeal operating above and beyond mere legal and government institutions. The legendary vignette that follows the wedding scene illustrates the ruthless intelligence in the Corleone method. Tom flies to Hollywood to try and convince producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast one of Vito’s favourite pet projects, the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), in a war movie Johnny thinks will revive his career. After Woltz aggressively refuses Tom’s offers because he’s furious at Johnny for seducing one of Woltz’s prized starlets, the producer wakes to find the severed head of his hugely expensive stud horse Khartoum tucked into his bed.

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Another spur of The Godfather’s success was the way vignettes like this fed public interest at the time for portrayals of systems and confirmation of hidden truths behind official facades. Puzo immortalised barroom rumours about Frank Sinatra and the like and blended it with familiar factoids about the great crime bosses, with many ready analogues, including Bugsy Siegel stand-in Moe Green (Alex Rocco), who gets rubbed out by the Corleones to subsume his great creation called Las Vegas, and Roth, patterned after Meyer Lansky. The film’s many moments of verbal and behavioural specificity and quirkiness, often bordering on black comedy in their sharp juxtaposition of normality and easy acceptance of deadly extremes, provided a plethora of catchphrases – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – and electric images, particularly the head of Khartoum in Woltz’s bed, all retain a similar buzz of forbidden lore. It’s easy, even essential, to be a touch cynical about the way The Godfather films walk a line between outright valorising and deploring of its criminal clan. Small wonder that The Godfather is only outpaced on the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted greatest movie list by The Shawshank Redemption (1994), another film that describes the same cherished macho fantasy, that with just a little bit of cleverness and dedicated amorality all forms of authority and impediment might be circumvented. Coppola himself, disturbed to a certain degree by popular revelry in the original’s glimpse of the underworld, worked to undercut the vaguely chivalrous aspect of the Corleones in Part II through such touches as replacing the horse’s head with a slaughtered prostitute.

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But it’s also fair to say that depicting efforts to retain something like a code whilst squirming in the muck is interesting territory to chart. Precisely this theme, this question of where and how to draw lines of fair play, drives the trilogy, as Michael is pushed constantly into new and dizzying abysses of behaviour; by the time he’s obliged to kill Fredo, the ideal of defending family has become a mockery, whilst Kay has detonated the rigid parameters of marriage. Kay’s complaint that “senators and congressmen don’t have men killed” is met by the archly cynical proposal that she’s being naïve and that all public life operates, to a greater or lesser extent, like the Corleones. Coppola and Puzo take the inherent tension between the Mafia clan’s view of society and the outsider’s view of the clan to a logical extreme in Part III where Michael finally finds himself up against the forces that originally gave birth to the Cosa Nostra in the first place, the entrenched and respectable yet utterly merciless potentates of Italian political and religious regime who posture in palaces but have their heavies in the streets too. The Godfather hardly invented the gangsterism-as-capitalism metaphor. But it did extend that notion into a metaphor for family and social life in general, describing a purely Darwinian sense of social dynamics where only the walls of the family castle stand in contradiction.

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The oft-repeated slogan that subordinates personal feeling to business is obviously ironic as business is only ever deeply, urgently, and dangerously personal in this world. Cagey old Roth gives a lengthy speech noting that he never targeted Michael for revenge after the death of Moe Greene because it was “the business we’ve chosen,” but this is coloured by both men’s awareness that Roth is trying to kill him anyway for reasons that patently have little to do with business sense and everything to do with ego and denial. Michael makes his first foray into criminality to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey nominally to keep them away from his father but also delivers, despite his protestations, some heartfelt payback for their treachery and brutality. The saga dramatizes a dynamic notion of masculine duty, onerous and inevitable, with the detectable corollary that the level of power and danger the Corleones court in some ways delivers them from having to reckon with the modern world, a world that slowly breaks in regardless. Vito is the ideal old-school, old-world patriarch, a man who’s used raw muscle and genius of a kind to arrange the entire world for the sake of prosperity and peace that shelters his loved-ones.

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Soon Michael steps up to replace his father and brother and take on the responsibility of “saving” his family. “You can act like a man,” Vito barks furiously at Johnny when he shows feelings of weakness, and soon chases it with the assurance that “A man who spends no time with his family can never be a real man.” This highlights Vito’s certainty that it’s the capacity for loving rather than brutality that makes a man, although his cruel schooling as a youth has taught him the two can only ever be entwined. But just how one keeps the living stem of one’s emotional life growing whilst nursing the gift for annihilation is a deep and abiding enigma Michael never solves as he slowly becomes his own golem. The Godfather’s story laid claim to territory mapped out by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whilst struggling with its basic question as to whether Americanism could make good on the promise of self-invention and an ahistorical spree severing past from future (a kinship Coppola surely recognised, having penned an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book that would become the 1974 version). The film’s release at the wane of the counterculture era perhaps gave it some of its signature punch in this regard, offering up a story where identity wins out over idealism and the promise of generational revision, as youth wearily steps up to the plate in the name of cold realism. Not at all coincidentally, modern cinema’s other great original myth, created by Coppola’s pal and protégé George Lucas, revolved around a similar terror of becoming one’s father. Michael’s semi-sheepish protestations to Kay that his father is “no different to…any other great man” has the unmistakable tone of philosophy at one hastily erected but also long-nursed as an internal reality.

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Before writing The Godfather, Puzo was saddened that his previous novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, strongly inspired by his tough mother, had gained little attention, and so he transcribed her character as Vito, finding success by concentrating on manly business. And yet emphasis on the criminal world as a redoubt for masculine dominance is subtly but steadily eroded by the choices women make, and by the menfolk’s hypocritical failings in regard to them. Vito’s wife (played by Morgana King and as a younger woman by Francesca De Sapio) is the model Mafia wife, capable of maintaining a hard and functional border between her domestic zone and the rest of it. She’s just as much the last of a breed as Vito; her reward is to be buried with the honour of an ideal, and spared seeing one of her sons kill another. Michael gets Apollonia and Mary killed simply by being close to them, and by his self-deluding desire to annex their innocence. Connie evolves from collateral damage decrying her “lousy, cold-hearted bastard” of a brother to his supporter and then a rising neo-Borgia who sets about supporting Vincent’s rise and ordering and performing hits. Connie’s assault and battery by her husband following a raging domestic breakdown is in a way the most violent scene in the first film, a searing evocation of what Michael will later pompously call the “things that have been going on between men and women for centuries,” whilst Sonny’s infuriated protectiveness conflates with his bullishly insensate streak, a trait that’s so predictable his enemies play on it to destroy him.

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By the climax of Part III Connie has bought into the legend of the Corleones on a much more fundamental level than Michael ever did, savouring opportunities for intimate punishments and righteous muscle-flexing. Even Kay reveals something of a gangster’s aim for where it hurts when she deliberately targets Michael’s family man pride by confessing to getting their child aborted, going so far as to tell him “it was a son and I killed it because all this must end!” Kay is soon cut out of Michael’s existence, not quite as finally and coldly as Fredo but with a similar act of erasure. The door he closes in her face echoing the end of the previous film, fulfilling its promise and threat, whilst also marking another step in Michael’s self-defeat, confirming the price he’s paying for his acceptance of duty is ossification. Puzo’s fondness of The Brothers Karamazov is plain in the first film, not just in the structural and character affinities with the Corleone boys mimicking the Karamazov clan’s conception as a troika of traits, but also in the distinctly Dostoyevskyian journey Michael commits himself to. The trilogy as a whole could be the closest thing cinema has ever offered a Confessions of a Great Sinner, as Michael experiences the fall in terms of several different faiths – in religious terms, of course, but also from immigrant aspiration to assimilation and prescribed prosperity, from the religion of family, from the cult of community.

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Michael breaks with each in the name of an unstated hierarchy of priorities, each nesting in another, until he finds there’s no bottom to his plunge. That plunge is ironically charted in a constant social rise until by Part III he’s angling to become a pan-Atlantic CEO, even as some people can still spot “the map of Sicily” on his face, the rough and lumpy look of someone who’s had his face punched in and his soul turned inside out by drawing his will to a hard and lethal edge for survival. The costs Michael pays and the spurs that drive him are unstintingly stated. His picture-perfect traditional romance with Apollonia ends in an instant of fire and blood. His father and brother are riddled with bullets. He stalks halls of a deserted hospital in increasingly grim awareness of vulnerability as he realises his father has been set up for another hit; nothing, not even the humdrum business of a New York hospital can ward off cosmic corruption, only two scared men pretending to be resolute centurions. Death haunts Michael’s every step, and he fights back with every tool at his disposal. Rites of passage recur: Michael getting his jaw broken by McCluskey seems to have happened to his old man at some point. Vito’s husky drawl and pouchy cheeks, both of which deepen as he recovers from being shot six times in the street, are charts of pain and rage echoing back to another land.

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Scenes of Part II depicting Vito’s rise squarely place him (played as a boy by Oreste Baldini and as a young man by Robert De Niro) in the great immigrant tradition of the United States in scenes intensely evocative of a wistfully recalled past squalid in its moment but loaned a gloss of romanticism by time and longing for dispelled certainties. Vito, fleeing ahead of murderous wrath, arrives at Ellis Island only to be quarantined because he has scarlet fever, leaving the Statue of Liberty as an emblem beyond the grill of his cell’s window, to be admired and yearned for but never gained. In a present-day episode of the same instalment, Michael is told in no uncertain terms by a WASP Nevada Senator, Geary (G.D. Spradlin), that he despises their pretensions and ethnic traits. Vito’s ambitions for Michael highlight him as an aborted John F. Kennedy figure, doomed by his background to be unable to erase his past in the same way the other war hero son of a bootlegger could. Coppola, who had ambitions to being an empire builder himself as he tried to set up his own film enterprise, American Zoetrope, surely identified most particularly with that aspect of the Corleone tale, fighting not just for a foot in the door but for his own corner of the world. The ironic brand of ethnic pride that informs the Godfather films is balanced by awareness of the limits of empathy such parochialism can instil, particularly in the gross racism members of the Mafia underworld display: “They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls,” declares one mob boss as he proposes only selling drugs to black communities. But the films spoke to a multiplicity of outsider identities regardless, including as style guides for hip-hop’s ardour for outlaws.

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Coppola eagerly exploited the new absence of punitive censorship for depicting the brutality inflicted by and on the Corleones. Part of the first film’s particular cunning and art lay in the way he carefully varied scenes of bloodletting in the way he shot and conceived them. The slaying of Vito’s treacherous driver Paulie (Johnny Martino) in a car parked on the Long Island shore conflates hard irony and dreamy meditation, with the swaying rushes lending muffling music and the distant, looming form of the Statue of Liberty indifferent to the scene. Vito’s bulbous lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) waters the earth with his piss as his button man waters it with blood; that’s how a homeland is made. Most other ferocious scenes are more direct and confrontational. Even the non-lethal, entirely quotidian moments of violence, like Connie’s battery by her husband and Sonny’s attack on Carlo, are gruelling spectacles. The first death in the film, Luca’s, and the last, Carlo’s, both come by garrotting, a terrible and intimate dealing of death Coppola shoots with cold regard, particularly Carlo’s end which sees him kick out the windscreen of the car that’s also his hearse in his death throes. This is achieved in one, fixed, utterly transfixing shot from the hood, the revving engine counterpoint to the desperate struggle, a flourish Anthony Mann might have been proud of. Sonny’s death is an orgiastic consummation a man as strong and virile as Sonny requires and understands, his entire body a canvas of erupting blood and pain, under the overkill fusillade of Tommy guns aimed his way – his enemies need to annihilate Sonny in a way that so contrasts the more targeted and precise Corleone method.

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That method is described in all its intricacy and unforgiving force in the first film’s climactic sequence, where Coppola cross-cuts between assassinations whilst Michael is made his niece’s godfather at her christening. In quick succession Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene, and other foes are gunned down in moments of vulnerability and surprise by a foe more patient and devious than them, all the Byzantine plotting and aesthetics suddenly cut through by the harsh report of gunfire. Coppola turns this sequence into a ritual in itself, the blaring church organ serving as funerary score lamenting the whirlwind Michael unleashes in the name of revenge and security. This sequence became another series fixture. Coppola’s reaction to a yahoo streak in the first film’s reception was to play the sequel as a far more minimal exercise in violence, although there’s still some punchy moments, particularly when Michael’s bodyguard (Amerigo Tot) tries to smother an ailing Roth in his bed only to be surprised by some Cuban soldiers who instantly gun the hitman down. Roth’s eventual slaying mimics TV footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby. By Part III, Coppola was back to being more indulgent again, offering up a sequence that plays in part as a miniaturised repeat of the village attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Zasa and his shadowy backers assault a meeting of Family heads with a helicopter machine-gunning the collection of old men, as well as a finale that turns murder into grand opera.

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Another vital aspect of the trilogy’s mystique is the way members of the little community around the Corleones is fastidiously identified, thanks to Coppola’s attentiveness to giving each a little performative space. These people fill out the margins of this created world, imbuing it with continuity and constantly rewarding the attentive viewer, and Coppola often casts people not known for acting in such parts, including the likes of Gazzo, King, and Corman, to obtain a crackle of authenticity and nail down a character quickly by exploiting a particular persona. Figures of note range from major supporting characters like the Laurel-and-Hardy-ish contrast between Vito’s top enforcers, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), down to the people who graze the family mythos like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei). Some minor but consequential characters recur through all three movies, like Michael’s resolute goon Al Neri (Richard Bright), and Don Tommasino (played young by Corrado Gaipa and as an older man by Vittorio Duse), a Sicilian crime lord and Vito’s local partner, who protects Michael during his Sicilian sojourns. When Tommasino is gunned down by the assassin hired to kill Michael in Part III, his employee Calò (Franco Citti), who long ago guarded Michael, vows revenge and sets out on a suicide mission to achieve it.

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Other characters are fated not to last through individual episodes. The trilogy’s roster of villains rarely dominate proceedings, but there’s some marvellous miniature portraits in arrogance and menace in all three films, including Rocco’s flashy and aggressive Greene, Conte’s tensile Barzini, Gastone Moschin’s strutting Don Fanucci, Vito’s quarry in Part II’s flashback scenes, and Robutti’s Lucchesi. Lettieri and Hayden make a great double act in the first film as a hood with fierce motivation who soon plainly feels the fear of someone up against the Corleones, and a vicious old coot who confesses “I’m gettin’ too old for my job.” Some of the most vivid characterisations subsist in greyer zones of motive, like the hoarse-voiced Gazzo, himself a respected playwright, as the indignant but upright Pentangeli, and Wallach’s superficially charming yet covertly serpentine Altobello. One clever aspect of the follow-up instalments is the way they generate and hinge on nostalgia for the original. A gag at the outset of Part II, as Pentangeli tries to school some musicians in playing a decent tarantella only for them to turn it into ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ illustrates how far the Corleones have drifted from the sustenance and specificity of their roots. This also taunts the audience with the same awareness: things that seemed so cosy and alluring in the past aren’t coming back. The circularity of events – births, baptisms, weddings, deaths – drag the generational frame both forward and backward in each episode, the cyclical sustenance of family and identity constantly recapitulated. The famous musical cues of the original become diegetic aspects of the Corleone legend, offered as pieces of folk music from Sicily that provoke misty-eyed longing. The climax of Part III sees Coppola intermingling shots of Michael dancing with the women in his life, Apollonia, Kay, and Mary, each one of them lost to him in one way or another.

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Brando’s turn proved an instant resurgence to respect and clout and also gave birth to one of the most mimicked and lampooned characterisations in cinema history – even Brando himself would send it up in The Freshman (1990). The remarkable thing is that his performance eternally refuses reduction despite all that. Vito’s soft and gravelly sobriety, his shows of sudden ferocity and remnant strength when he tells off Johnny and runs from his assassins, his air of melancholy and careful drip-feed of charm, truth, and affected modesty, are utterly hypnotic when on screen and register like background radiation when he’s not, even into the sequels; he is the man who creates a world and all others are forced into mere response. Brando’s careful balance of reasonable fraternity and hinted fury when assuring the gathering of fellows Dons that he won’t break the peace unless Michael is harmed, even in a seeming accident (“…or if he’s struck be a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some people in this room!…”), is one of the great pieces of screen acting. De Niro had a hell of a task stepping into his shoes to play the younger Vito, almost entirely in Italian no less, and yet he also turned in a master class in performing, not just depicting Vito’s nascent mannerisms but building on them, portraying a man whose quietness and thoughtfulness register as more interesting and dynamic than other men’s frenetic actions. His Vito watches and listens, the cogs of his mind all but visible as they turn over responses to situations. Rarely were the Oscars the two men won more justified.

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But it was Pacino who was destined to become the series’ axis and mainstay, and the trilogy charts not just Pacino maturing but also finding his feet as a screen actor. I find him a touch ill-at-ease in certain moments in the first two films, although he’s never less than an obvious star and hugely talented actor. Pacino was almost entirely new to the screen – he had only been in Panic in Needle Park (1971) before, playing a squirrely addict perhaps more in his Method comfort zone – and he failed his screen test repeatedly, but Coppola kept faith in him. The slightly clumsy, theatrical feel of Michael and Kay’s rupture in Part II betrays the way both actors were still learning to project effect and manage their bodies in a new medium; suddenly we’re back in the actor’s workshop under Strasberg’s watchful gaze. But for the most part the callow hue to Pacino’s performance was a strange bonus, giving flesh to Michael’s slow evolution and accumulation of pain and air of forced and premature solemnity. One of his best moments in the first film comes as he works up the nerve to gun down Sollozzo and McCluskey, his eyes jumping about like his pupils are fleas, offering those men a façade of thoughtful attention whilst we all but feel his pulse galloping, his nerves drugged by the oncoming moment of irrevocable action. When he returned to the role for Part III, Pacino was only just picking up his movie career after a few years recalibrating following the poorly received Revolution (1985). By this time Pacino was a man in total control of his craft and the medium, whilst the struggle with disillusion he’d been through off screen gave deep conviction to his portrait: Part III is very possibly Pacino’s greatest performance. The 60-year-old Michael as a man who’s obtained something like his father’s ability to coexist in two zones simultaneously, with a certain wry and crusty charisma balancing his weariness with the ways of the world, and he sets about courting Kay’s understanding and forgiveness with a needy streak.

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Coppola was too much of a cineaste to entirely detach himself from the classic American gangster movie. Midway through the film he offers a montage of newspaper headlines and photos in a typical old Hollywood expositional ploy, predicting his later efforts on The Cotton Club (1984) to more fully immerse himself in that style. The expanse of the narrative and attempts to make a statement about the criminal’s place in the broader sweep of history had some precursors, particularly Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). But The Godfather perhaps represented the first time since the early 1930s that Anglosphere film audiences had been exposed to a major film as vitally influenced by non-English-language cinema as by Hollywood norms, through Coppola’s borrowing of effects from the likes of the Italian neorealists, particularly Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The music score, provided by Nino Rota who had scored films for many of the major Italian directors, gave the film a haunting lustre that was also unmistakeably rooted in this cultural background. The narrative unfolds as a restless and relentless arbitration between plot and character obeying familiar Hollywood storytelling ideals, but with Coppola’s carefully worked style used to render the film an aesthetic avatar for the experience of its characters, as a hybrid of methods and sensibilities, the meditative weight of the old world influence inflect the hard and punchy necessities of American life.

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Perhaps the strongest influence, Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), dealt similarly with a Sicilian family assailed by changing times, although nominally with the social opposites of the Corleones as protagonists. If the opening wedding takes Gone With The Wind as its narrative model, it’s the climactic ball scene of The Leopard that’s the template for how Coppola shoots it. Coppola’s tendency to let his camera stand away back and allow many shots to drink in panoramic detail cut against the feverish grain of much filmmaking at the time, often placing important gestures and highly dramatic moments in the distance in his framings, like the way Vito’s death sees an out-of-focus figure collapse whilst his uncomprehending grandson remains centre-frame. Coppola’s discursive evocations of emotion are perhaps most brilliantly illustrated by the key scene in the saga where Michael realises that Fredo is a traitor. Coppola goes in for a close-up that registers Michael’s cognition of the fact, but his private squall of grief and rage that follows is then thrust into the background of the next shot.

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The context of the revelation is just as noteworthy, a ribald excursion into Havana nightlife to a live sex act with a woman “sacrificed” to a man with a colossal penis, an outsized mockery of the social dynamics of both the potency-obsessed gangland and strongman-dominated pre-revolution Cuba, and with the act of revelation itself a gag before it suddenly becomes high tragedy. Cazale, an actor who made his debut in the first film, had a potentially thankless task in his role as the family stooge, trying to make the most dispensable man in his clan a worthwhile figure. His best moment in the first film comes when Fredo fails to ward off his father’s attackers, fumbling his gun and left weeping over Vito’s bleeding form, having faced the kind of moment of truth requiring action that defines manhood in his world and utterly failed in it. But Cazale’s highpoint, and perhaps that of the series, comes in Part II when he delivers a portrait of feckless despair, as Fredo confesses his sins to Michael, at once crushed by the weight of his guilt and vacuousness but also suddenly electrified by finally expressing his resentment and frustration. His bleating protestations – “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! I’m smart and I want respect!” – become the lament for every loser in the world. Suffering utter humiliation and exile, and with perhaps the underlying sense that his days are numbered, Fredo is later seen striking up a friendship with Michael’s son Anthony, all fire doused, exhausted and acquiescent to fate.

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Coppola readily admitted to taking on the project to make money and leverage more personal work. And yet, once more in affinity with Michael, he found The Godfather was destined to remain the cornerstone of his reputation, an ideogram of his art – small wonder Part III hinges on the rude bastard offspring becoming the embraced and accepted heir. The Godfather gave his career and directorial stamp definition he hadn’t really been able to give it before that, as the material allowed him to express so many of his creative talents at once, and most of his later films are rather permutations of the various facets found here. The protagonists of his juvenilia, wayward folk seeking a place in the world and a certain sense of self, evolved through Michael into the kinds of antiheroes littered throughout the rest of his oeuvre, Harry Caul to Willard and Kurtz, Motorcycle Boy and Tucker and Dracula, titanic figures who contend with their own dark and self-consuming sides whilst chasing their illusory goals. The painful romanticism and nomadic nostalgia of Rumblefish (1983), One From The Heart (1982), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are prefigured by Coppola’s efforts to portray marital strife and the relentless tug of a remembered, idealised past. Apocalypse Now would take up the attempts in the Godfather films to conceive personal, psychological strife as an extension, or rather wellspring, of larger social and historical travails.

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Coppola’s most important characters experience their most cherished and transcendent truths – love, creation, loyalty – as mortifying events that torment and wrack rather than free, whilst also conceding the blessed pain of having something to care that much about and suffer for is as much part of the life drive as pleasure. As he became more of a formalist, Coppola also became more interested in the dialogue between reality and fantasy, usually worked through in the tension between cinematic artifice and raw emotionalism, although the aesthete could win out in works that are little more than rampant exercises in stylisation (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). The dominating style of The Godfather maintained a balance: the trademark photography style successfully evoked the past through shadows and saturated colours but also allowed a fine-tip realism. The first film is dominated by the use of doorways as a constant visual motif, from Michael and Enzo taking up station at the hospital entrance to the final, famous shot of the door closing on Kay’s face with all its intimations; Coppola’s compositions so often take a squared-off, rectilinear stance in regarding buildings, facades, and corridors, that reduces the universe into two states, within and without, and correlating these to various forms of power and autonomy. Water dominates the second film with similar immersive import, the lapping waves of Lake Tahoe glow gold at night under electric light and sparkle in the sun, but become cold iron grey as Fredo meets his end out there, prefigured by the rain that sheets down the glass as Fredo makes his confession to Michael.

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The ending of the first film rings so true and plangently because it captures the way subterranean certainty underpins agreed facades. Things will be swept under the rug, silences maintained, happy illusions forcibly preserved. By contrast, Part II, for all its determined gravitas, dedicates itself to finding a new and circumlocutory way of recapitulating the old message that crime doesn’t pay in a way that cuts against the grain of the original’s indulgence of violent power successfully articulated. Michael stills wins the great game but defeats himself in the fights that mean something to him. The series obeys Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate, but it could also be accused of illustrating character type as melodramatic function. Sonny’s temper and Fredo’s weakness are their broad defining qualities, scarcely complicated. Kay represents the goggle-eyed fascination and then punitive judgementalism of white-bread society. Only Vito and Michael might be called truly complex figures. The alternations of timeframe in Part II contrast father and son on both a personal level and on a sociological one. Vito’s relationship with community is organic and outward-directed, recognising that community as a group of people who, like himself, have experienced uprooting and exile and who all have, in their way, some ideal of revenge in mind, even if it’s only against a creep landlord. His charitable and amicable streaks are laced with self-serving, but Vito clearly learns how to work people as well as work with them, a quality that Michael, who tends to reduce everything to either a threat or a profit source, clearly misses, as much as he tries to act the cool and concerted businessman.

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Vito’s struggle is with the world without, climaxing when he finally returns to Sicily and slays crime lord Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), who killed the rest of his family, but by then only a pathetic old cripple. Michael rather contends with the inner natures of himself and the people around him: he, Fredo, Roth, Kay, and Pentangeli all are driven to self-destruction by little voices that won’t leave them alone. Michael’s world tends to shrink inwards, sheared of context and community. The mall the Corleones control in the first film, a carefully contrived semblance of suburban normality, gives way to the walled and remote compound by Lake Tahoe. At times I’ve grouchily referred to the present-tense sequences of Part II as “Gangsters In Mid-Life Crisis.” I recognise and appreciate the episode’s attempts to make overt the tragic undertone of the saga, but I still feel a touch of frustration with it. Part II is purposefully a much less gratifying and plot-driven than the first film, but some of the knit-browed self-seriousness feels strained. It also has story elements that fail, particularly the subplot of Pantangeli, which might have had more resonance if the character had been Clemenza as originally planned, but still doesn’t really go anywhere. Michael is so often so sullen and gloomy in this episode he threatens at times to become a nonentity; only his flashes of anger at Fredo and Kay wake him up. Coppola’s recreation of the look and sound of the Kefauver Hearings as seen on television is studious but dramatically inert. The episode gives Tom very little to do except for one graceful moment of instructing Pentangeli to kill himself under the cover of an historical anecdote. The scene of Kay’s leaving Michael comes abruptly and refuses to feel convincing.

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Where Part II works brilliantly is in the exchanges between Michael and Roth – Pacino’s respect for his old acting mentor Strasberg converts intelligibly into the cautious patience of one master gamester for another – and in the downfall of Fredo, which obeys the logic of Greek tragedy. Fredo’s character, or lack of it, drives him to make stupid decisions he can’t undo, just as Michael’s drives him to make smart decisions he likewise can’t undo. The scenes in Cuba are laced with a mordant sense of gangster capitalism fused with state oligarchy, illustrated with sublime humour as Michael and other tycoons are feted at a presidential banquet where a solid gold telephone is passed around. The flashback sequences are also superlative. The burnished images elsewhere are mediated here by a slightly diffused and hazy look befitting their backward-looking sense of nostalgia, nostalgia that doesn’t fend off the same confrontation with brute forces. The scene shifts from the primal rocky plain of the first shot where Vito and his mother (Maria Carta) try to bury his father only to find his older brother slain, killed in seeking a vendetta for his father’s assassination by the malignant Ciccio, to the streets of New York that teem with human industry and life, flotsam citizens of one land dashed against the brownstone shoals of another.

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Vito’s journey sees him barely avoid being slain whilst his mother is shot dead by Ciccio for buying her son time to flee by holding a knife to the Don’s throat. When the grown Vito is strongarmed by Fanucci, and the young entrepreneur, tired of being chased off and patronised, instead resolves to fight back and kills Fanucci, setting himself on a path he can’t leave but which immediately gratifies him with power. The sequence of Vito’s killing of Fanucci, carefully ambushing his foe in a grimy tenement building whilst festivities blare out in the street, has the quality of a communal dream, and stands as one of the best things Coppola ever did. The last flashback in the film is subtler, presenting a moment of totemic meaning for Michael that also again invokes nostalgia for the first film, as Michael remembers the occasion of his father’s birthday just before he went off to war, and several long-dead and disgraced characters reappear. Sonny is infuriated by his patriotic choice laced with undertones of rebellion. Fredo congratulates him. Michael is left alone at the table, anticipating Michael’s solitude as seemingly predestined whether he rebelled or became the perfect scion because of some misaligned element in his makeup.

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By Part III Michael has regained community, as the celebration of his receiving a Papal honour for charity work sees the Corleones back in their milieu, and something like the glossy, embracing feeling of a wealthy extended clan reunited has returned, in part because the processes of time has replenished their ranks, and Michael’s actions, however troubling, have bought him years of stability. Now the intruding hoods, like John Gotti stand-in Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), are notably out of place, like members of the family no-one thought would have the gall to turn up. Young Vincent is literally that, although he soon stakes a place inside the castle as a potent ally Michael sees potential in despite a temper the equal of his father – within moments of being ushered into Michael’s inner sanctum to hash out his differences with Zasa, his nominal employer, he’s tried to bite his ear off. Given that Michael’s oldest son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has chosen to become an opera singer rather than follow him into the family business and with daughter Mary given the task of managing charities, Michael uneasily accepts Vincent as the man who will fight off the new flock of circling crows. Eventually the scene shifts from New York to Sicily as Anthony makes his starring debut in Palermo in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana.

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In between machinations of plot Part III is preoccupied with Michael’s fumbling attempts to make some sort of peace with the past in general and Kay in specific. He gives her a tour of the Sicilian landscape and tries to give her and his children new insight into his background and motives, and even manages to strike up fresh chemistry with Kay although she realises he can’t ever escape the trap he made for himself. Part III has often been dismissed as an ill-advised revisit, with some preferring to ignore it altogether. But I’ve always liked it, and feel it resolves the saga with real punch by its end. It’s easy to agree with some common complaints, including that Sofia Coppola was unequal to her role, and that it misses Duvall’s presence – after Duvall refused to return after a pay dispute, Puzo and Coppola rewrote their script so Tom had died in the interim, with his son Andrew (John Savage) now a priest and a slick and urbane creature, B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton), now Michael’s trusted legal rep. Certainly, too, its mere existence despoils the symmetry of the first two parts. The absence of so many familiar faces is however turned into a dramatic strength insofar as it focuses most squarely on Michael, whose journey reaches a cruel apogee as he fumbles a chance at redemption.

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Another of the series’ pivotal moments comes when Michael talks with a genuine and kindly Cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who will soon be elevated as Pope John Paul I, and offers a memorable parable with a stone in a well to illustrate the lack of Christian feeling in a land long dominated by Christianity. Lamberto talks Michael into making his confession with an unerring eye for spiritual pain. Michael catalogues his crimes, building up to admitting to killing “my mother’s son,” and it becomes clear that twenty years have scarcely offered a scab over the raw wound of the deed. The sarcastic correlation of religion and mob power that informs the series from the start, the aspect of funerary rite that defines the climax of the first film and the subsuming of the role of giver of life and death by the Dons, here gives way to a more urgent questioning of just what if anything a man like Michael can ask of his nominal faith, and whether redemption, both worldly and spiritual, is possible for him. He tells Lamberto he does not repent his actions, but still seeks a form of release as he tries to turn his fortune to good works and sets out to try and save Lamberto’s life after he becomes pope. The film’s resolution suggests that the price for such redemption might be unbearably high. Keaton keeps pace with Pacino as the older and wiser Kay keeps a wary glint in her eyes and a slight smile on her face that constantly asserts her willingness to be friends and also her utter refusal to be bullshitted again. Around them is a bravura exercise in controlled style from Coppola, if also more flamboyant than its predecessors. This time around the signature sequence of cross-cutting ceremony and violence is inflated into a cinematic movement depicting the Corleones watching and performing Cavalleria Rusticana, turning the film into a meta-theatrical event. Gestures from life recur on the stage and vice versa. Identity has become as a ritualised script everyone’s doomed to read from, a passion play constantly repeated as long as humans remain so in thrall to their base drives and desires.

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As if reacting to the Michael-driven portentousness of the previous instalment, Part III offers Garcia as a revival of some of Caan’s strident force, with a new jolt of sex appeal as Vincent flirts with Bridget Fonda’s go-get-‘em journalist Grace Hamilton, who’s trying to interview Michael, a tryst that results in Grace getting caught between Vincent and two of Zasa’s goons hired to kill him. Although Michael wants anything but a new wave of bloodshed (he coins the line that serves as emblematic for so many neo-noir antiheroes, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”), Vincent, with Connie’s encouragement and with Michael out of action because of a diabetic attack, whacks Zasa. This sequence combines elements of various earlier killings in the first two films, signalling to both audience and Michael that Vincent combines talents of the Corleones but also has a hunger for the down-and-dirty side of their world he never had. Like Connie, Vincent loves the Corleone mythos, remembering his forceful but foolish father as “prince of the city.” His romance with Mary swerves into an incestuous stew befitting dynastic self-propagation, but Michael successfully buys him off by making breaking off the affair the one condition for Vincent stepping into Michael’s place as commander of the family muscle. Michael cleverly uses Vincent to gain Altobello’s trust and uncover his connection to Lucchesi, and realises that the efforts to kill off the Immobiliaire deal endanger not just the Corleone family members but also the new Pope, who signs off on Michael’s deal despite, and or perhaps because, he knows all about Michael’s dank guilt.

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Sofia’s performance as Mary got a caning from many commentators after Part III’s release, years before she’d find her real metier. She was only given the part after originally slated star Winona Ryder pulled out at the last minute, although Francis wasn’t really taking such a chance on her as she’d given a promising performance in Rumblefish. It’s definitely true that her scenes with Garcia urgently lack the crackle they need to drive the forbidden romance angle. But she offers a blowsy adolescent naiveté that suits the role to a certain extent, in keeping with Francis’ casting philosophy throughout the series. The second two films extended the original novel’s annexation of pulp paperback history blended with tart probing into the proximity of politics with money. Part III revolves around popular conspiracy theories regarding John Paul I’s short tenure as Pope, supposedly assassinated to prevent financial malfeasance and organised crime ties being exposed. The infamous, so-called “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who finished up hanging from a London bridge in real life, is here represented as Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger), involved in siphoning off Vatican funds to Lucchesi and his pals, and killed by Vincent in his retaliatory strikes. These also see Gilday shot and dropped from a great height and Lucchesi slain by Calò, who has to approach the honcho without any kind of weapon but improvises by ramming the man’s own spectacles into his throat. Connie poisons Altobello with cannoli. But these moves fail to head off the Pope’s gentle murder by poisoned hot chocolate, whilst a roving hired assassin, Mosca (Mario Donatone), zeroes in on Michael. After killing Tommasino, who recognises him on the prowl, Mosca tries to gun Michael down as he watches his son perform.

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Mosca battles with Michael’s bodyguards, managing to avoid disturbing the performance and instead taking another shot at the target as he leaves the opera house, but instead kills Mary. Coppola’s visual hyperbole throughout this sequence, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now, sarcastically contrasts high culture with dirty business, whilst allowing Coppola to indulge pure artifice in a more functional way than in the odes to represented reality in One From The Heart and The Cotton Club, whilst the tension between realism and stylisation extends with shots as precisely composed as any classical art hacked through by the hard purpose of Hollywood editing. The howl of pain Michael releases over Mary’s body is at once bloodcurdling and cathartic, as it seems like the wail of protest as well as pain he’s longed to release since the death of Apollonia or perhaps even since his father’s shooting, woe and infinite regret for suffering given and inflicted and over the damned inevitability of it all, all of it fated since Michael’s promise to his father in his hospital bed. The last shot, of Michael quietly dying alone in great old age, confirms he was doomed for all his works and efforts to end up a ruined and solitary creature, nursing his ghosts and sorrows like a brood of black kittens. And yet the way Coppola shoots his end, settled in a chair in what was Tommasino’s garden, a place of placid and dreamy longings for the fallen titan, gives him more grace than his father’s slightly pathetic end. Michael leaves the world in a state of peaceful reflection in a setting of personal import, his memories of people, whether they died violently or not, now all rendered equal simply by time.

 

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1960s, Comedy, Drama, Greek cinema

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

My father Douglas Heath died late in 2018 at the age of 71. Dad was a lifelong cinephile. Many of the films he held in fierce affection were movies he saw during his late teens and twenties, a time when he was often homeless and constantly adrift in life, but also intellectually voracious and consuming culture in any way he could. He told me he knew my mother was the woman for him when he took her to see Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967) at a revival screening and she loved it (a previous girlfriend had walked out during the opening credits). Later in life when asked what his favourite movie was, he tended to name one of two films as his favourite. One was the Robert Wise-directed, Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher (1945), which he held in particular esteem in part because of its dreamlike evocation of the Scotland he’d been forced to leave as a child when his father decided to emigrate. But the movie he most consistently named was Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek. It’s not hard for me to see why Dad was so particularly passionate about Cacoyannis’ film. Like Zorba, my father had done every job known to humanity, could make friends in an empty room, had talents he wouldn’t sell, and those he did usually left him rolling amidst the wreckage wondering what went wrong. I remember the first time I watched the film with him, as a kid, and being confused at the switchbacks of high tragedy and knockabout comedy throughout. I asked him what kind of movie this was. Dad responded, “It’s life.”
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Cacoyannis’s oeuvre in general and Zorba the Greek in particular perhaps need revival these days. Alongside American blow-in Jules Dassin, Cacoyannis captured the world’s attention for Greek film, well before the arrival of Theo Angelopoulos and the current brace of figures like Yorgos Lanthimos and Rachel Athina Tsangari. If Zorba the Greek still has any cultural cachet it’s certainly thanks to its famous theme by composer Mikis Theodorakis, which became emblematic for the post-WWII Greek diaspora and introduced something of the spirit of Greek rembetiko music to the world at large. Ironically the theme’s popularity might have done the movie few favours, perhaps making it seem like escapist exotica from another age along with the likes of Black Orpheus (1959). Cacoyannis’ reputation meanwhile never quite recovered from the bruising reception to his follow-up to Zorba the Greek’s great success, The Day The Fish Came Out (1967), a film which, in spite of its gutsiness in trying to be a queer-themed comedy at a time when that was still pretty outre, still can’t even claim cult status. But Cacoyannis’ career also included great, highly underappreciated adaptations of Euripides, including Elektra (1962) and The Trojan Women (1971), and he reunited with Zorba the Greek star Alan Bates in the early 2000s for a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
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The film was an adaptation of the novel The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis, (called Zorba the Greek in English-language editions), who had earned international interest for contemporary Greek writing up until his death in 1957. Kazantzakis’ art was built around apparently contradictory precepts, contradictions that gave his books their feverish sway. As a Marxist writer Kazantzakis wanted to dig into the authentic character of Greece’s working and peasant classes, and he initially annoyed cultural watchdogs by writing in demotic or popular modern Greek. But Kazantzakis was also compelled by a defiantly personal religious sensibility, which gave birth to his other best-known book, The Last Temptation of Christ, filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1988: the infamy that met Scorsese’s film had already been anticipated by the reaction of religious authority to the novel. Zorba the Greek was Kazantzakis’ attempt to summarise the vitality of the national character, so long buffeted by poverty and oppression since the ancient glory days, presented through the title character who’s uneducated but possesses great wisdom after a long, hard-knock life, and sufficient unto himself. Somewhat ironically, the character was bound to become synonymous with the Mexican-Irish actor cast in the film role, Anthony Quinn.
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Quinn was another man who identified deeply with the character nonetheless, as an actor who’d lifted himself out of a childhood of grinding poverty through creative talent and achieved a career as one of Hollywood’s perennial supporting players, in large part thanks to his ready capacity to play any ethnicity under the sun. Quinn owed some of his early career traction to marriage to Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine, and the filmmaking titan gave Quinn a lot of work, eventually producing Quinn’s lone directorial outing, a remake of his father-in-law’s The Buccaneer (1958). Quinn eventually captured two Oscars in the mid-1950s for Viva Zapata! (1952) and Lust For Life (1956), playing the more degraded brother of the folk hero in the former and Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas’ Vincent Van Gogh in the latter. But it wasn’t until Federico Fellini cast him in La Strada (1954) that Quinn gained traction as a leading man and became a popular figure in European as well as Hollywood film. Often cast as a Latin roué in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the grizzled and thickening Quinn became exalted for his ability to play strong, earthy, eruptive personalities, usually with a brutish streak, who thrive at the expense of the more neurotic, delicate, or victimised people they orbit. By playing Zorba, Quinn tried to revise his screen persona in inhabiting a similar role who nonetheless tries to pass on some of talent for life to others.
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Cacoyannis laid specific claim to the material with his emphases. Cacoyannis came from Cyprus and his father had been closely involved the British administration of the island at the time. Cacoyannis spent much of his youth in Britain, including a stint in the RAF during World War II, and so the novel’s narrator and viewpoint character Basil became a half-Greek, half-English intellectual trying to get back in touch with his roots. A subplot involving his ill-fated romance with a local widow was emphasised and refashioned into a tale within the tale close in nature to one of the classical Greek tragedies sporting a female figure of titanic suffering Cacoyannis was so compelled by. Basil, played by Bates, is on the way to Crete, having inherited a small property there that belonged to his father incorporating a seaside shack and a disused lignite mine. When the ferry to Crete is delayed by a storm, Basil waits with other passengers in the terminal; Cacoyannis offers the subtly weird touch of the sound of the storm abating as Basil senses a strange presence, and notices Zorba staring through the fogged glass. Zorba, on the lookout for an opportunity, quickly attaches himself to Basil, offering to serve him in any capacity he requires. Zorba seems initially a sort of vulgar, unctuous grotesque borne out of the storm, but Basil quickly takes a shine to his energy and gains increasing respect for him as he reveals surprising turns of personality, like his refusal to offer his talent for playing the santuri: “In work I am your man, but in things, like playing and singing, I am my own – I mean free.” Basil employs Zorba specifically to get the mine working again, and they board the ferry together.
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The corner of Crete where Basil’s land is proves poverty-stricken and defined by a finite balance the two arrivals find themselves doomed to disturb. The two men spend their first night in the town in a crumbling guest house amusingly styled the Hotel Ritz, owned by Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), an aging former dancer from Parisian nightclubs and courtesan who airily regales them with accounts of her once-wild life. She dances saucily with both men, although it’s Zorba who ends up in bed with her, after Basil, with the heedlessness of youth, humiliates her when he can’t help but laugh at her increasingly overripe anecdotes. After setting up home in the shack on Basil’s property, he and Zorba hire some workers and tackle the mine, but find the wooden props are too badly rotten to risk starting operations, after Zorba is almost buried alive twice. Spying a large forest down the coast, Zorba travels there and finds it’s owned by a monastery; after befriending the monks, he hits upon a plan to use their lumber to rebuild the mine, requiring a large zipline to be built down the side of a mountain. Basil sinks the last of his capital into supporting Zorba’s plan, whilst Zorba, who considers passion a veritably holy thing, in turn encourages Basil to romance a young and well-to-do widow (Irene Papas) who’s the object of desire for every man in the village, but only the young stranger has a chance with her after he aids her gallantly.
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Zorba the Greek revolves around fundamental oppositions, represented most immediately by Basil and Zorba, the difference between head and heart, reason and instinct, proletarian and intellectual, modernity and archaic lifestyles. Basil’s cautious and thoughtful manner stands in near-perfect opposition to Zorba’s gregarious, life-greedy sensibility, but the two men become inseparable precisely because they’re such natural foils, and has something to offer the other. Basil’s stiff Anglo-Saxon half wants to steer clear of intense and potentially unstable situations, whilst Zorba believes that’s the only way to go: “Living means to take off your belt and look for trouble.” The essence of Kazantzakis’ book, a dialogue of values and viewpoints between two long alienated ways of approaching the world represented by two mismatched yet amicable avatars, comes through. Zorba has plenty of literary antecedents, of course, as the voice of common wisdom, stretching back to Hamlet’s graveyard digger. Zorba the Greek never proposes that Zorba is a saintly character, although he also has aspects of a holy fool: he’s a sexist whoremonger and spendthrift, given to expansive inspirations and notions that don’t ever quite seem thought through. The main lesson he teaches Basil is that tragic moments in life can’t be avoided, and it makes more sense to celebrate living as something sufficient in itself than to live in fear of consequence or search for absurd designs behind it all.
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Zorba’s own melancholy history is grasped at intervals, as he memorably answers Basil question whether he ever had a family with the admission, “Wife – children – the full catastrophe.” Later, after one of his frenetic moments of incantatory dancing, he confesses to Basil that he danced the same way after his young son died. In a drolly comedic sequence, he becomes something like a literal Pan figure, as he goes to take a look at the monastery’s forest and scares the hell out of some of the monks when they find him hiding, so filthy from his forays in the mine they think he’s a literal devil rather than his mere advocate. Zorba plays this to his advantage as all the monks come out to hunt the demon only to finish up getting drunk with him. Zorba pronounces, with dubious theology if certain feeling, that the only sin God won’t forgive is if “a woman calls a man to her bed and he does not come.” Zorba gets along like a house on fire with the lusty, romantic Hortense, who subsists in a bubble of melancholic recollection of her glory days as exalted concubine for warriors and statesmen, an embodiment of forgotten belle époque and spirit of sensual exaltation who remembers being bathed in champagne by her harem of naval officers who then proceeded to drink the liquor off her body. But Zorba has no intention of marrying again or settling down, taking up with a young tart when he goes to Chania to buy tools and parts for his project. Basil semi-accidentally commits Zorba to marrying Hortense when she insists on hearing the contents of a letter he writes his friend, substituting romantic feelings for Hortense for Zorba’s actual boasts of erotic adventuring.
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When Kazantzakis wrote his novel he was trying to bridge the ways Greeks had of looking at themselves, and to forge a new literary zone for himself and followers to inhabit. When Cacoyannis made his film, he faced the task of making a relatively esoteric piece of regional portraiture interesting to international viewers. Cacoyannis had been directing films since 1953’s Windfall in Athens, but with Zorba the Greek caught a similar wind to what had made Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960) big worldwide hits. Cacoyannis absorbed the new lexicon of New Wave cinema, as Zorba the Greek is replete with jump cuts, zoom shots, and interludes of hand-held shooting, and took to the latter technique in particular as a way of getting close to his characters and evoking their extreme emotions. Over and above that, Cacoyannis might as as well have been trying to reconcile principles of early ‘60s art cinema style with more traditional theatrical understandings of performance and character. Moreover, Zorba’s unpretentious and expansive sensibility repudiated the navel-gazing tenor of the Italian “alienation” mode and the hyperintellectualised aspects of the New Wave, and anticipated the oncoming age of the counterculture, when Kazantzakis’ writing would find many new fans.
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Cacoyannis’ interest in behaviour as an object of study in itself distinguished his work from much other filmmaking of the period however, and laid down a blueprint that countrymen like Angelopoulos and Lanthimos would explore in their own diverse ways. Cacoyannis stands off for long stretches to watch Quinn or Bates in character eddying in moments of private compulsion and eccentricity, as in a scene in which the bored and bothered Basil tries falteringly to recreate some of Zorba’s exultant dance moves, Zorba’s own seduction of Hortense. Scenes of rollicking comedy, reminiscent of the likes of Rossellini and Buñuel, retain the same method, in Zorba’s encounter with the monks, and engaging in teasing sensual overtures with the young prostitute. When Zorba returns from drinking with the monks, he starts dancing in Basil’s shack, confronting his friend with the near-deranged force of his passion and need to unfetter the forces straining within him, and some wandering musicians, seeing Zorba on the move, start playing to whip him up and drive him on. Quinn and Cacoyannis locate something disquieting, even menacing, in this scene, as the camera reels about the room with Quinn and captures something noir-like in the heavy shadows and increasingly haggard, frantic look of Zorba. Even after Basil chases off the musicians Zorba keeps dancing and the fugue only climaxes when Zorba collapses exhausted on the sand and narrates to Basil the story of how he danced just this way after his son died. Zorba alchemises both physical and mental passion into direct expression, moving into a state of being without past or future.
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Basil’s situation, trapped between languages and adrift in a place where little of meaning is actually spoken aloud anyway, except by Zorba, ironically gave Cacoyannis licence to play much of the film as a kind of silent movie or theatrical pantomime, with dashes of classical theatre and ballet incorporated as well. Such method is plain in the humorous sequences but also defines the most crucial dramatic moments. The sequence when the widow makes her first significant appearance unfolds almost entirely in silence, as she chases her escaped goat only to find several of the village men have herded it inside a tavern to hide it, vibrates with an evocation of repressed lust and hatred turning to a toxic stew, as the widow scans the men with haughty challenge, the camerawork turning madcap amidst the laughing and jostling as she tries to catch the animal. The foul tenor of the episode is only dispelled by the grace of Basil handing the widow his umbrella, a simple gesture of gentlemanly feeling that quickly defines both their lives. The widow has a sort of servant in the mute and stunted villager Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas), who has a faintly Chaplinesque quality, or perhaps an extremely devolved version of the pantomime character Pierrot, slavishly enthralled to beauty.
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Zorba encourages Basil to make a play for the widow because “I saw how she looks at you,” the only true barometer, and Basil’s subsequent encounters with her unfold on a level of gesture, as when she sends back his umbrella along with food and rosewater, and then encounters him on a trail, charged with mutual awareness. The quality of the gaze obsesses Cacoyannis, sometimes furious, sometimes challenging, baleful, exalting, desirous. The sequence in The Trojan Women when he would stage a chorus recitation with the faces of many women staring into the camera is presaged by the sure sense here that eyes might be the windows of the soul but are also its cameras, demanding and excoriating in return. Another striking moment of mimed intensity comes when several of the villagers, infuriated by the knowledge Basil is spending the night with the widow, cruelly tell a young man of the village who’s obsessively infatuated with her, Pavlo (Yorgo Voyagis), holding him down in his tavern chair and whispering in his ear as she struggles and resists the knowledge as if he’s having evil spells cast down upon him. Meanwhile Basil’s time with the widow is a scene of pathetic displays, the widow experiencing a fit of inexplicable grief, followed by Basil suddenly and desperately grasping her naked form when she seems to feel embarrassed, revealing himself, and the depth of his feeling, for the first time.
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Gesture is just as important as gaze in Zorba the Greek, precisely where Cacoyannis identifies much of life actually happens, in silence, in cues and exchanges that have their own meanings. Acceptance of one thing is also rejection of another, however implicit or unintentional, and the widow’s affair with Basil drives the maddened and despairing Pavlo to drown himself, a tragedy which his father Mavrandoni (George Foundas) and other village men blame on the widow rather than Basil. They carry his body up to her door as if in accusation: Mimithos stands on her garden wall ready to defend her, only to fall off and be mocked by one of the old women of the village, “Is he her lover too?” Sometime later a gang lies in wait to ambush her as she goes to church. Mavrandoni bars her from entering, and villagers hurl stones at her, before one of the angry and offended men, Manolakas (Takis Emmanuel), moves to slay her in an honour killing; the circle of eyes that surrounded the widow in the tavern sequence has now grown and become malignant, a hydra now ready to devour. Basil, alerted from inside the church by the ruckus but unable to break through the cordon about the fateful scene, instead sends Mimithos to fetch Zorba, and he arrives just in time to save the widow from his knife in a trial of strength that sees Zorba victorious. But as Zorba stares down the other men and leads the widow out of the cordon, Mavrandoni springs upon her and cuts her throat.
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Cacoyannis’ love of tragedy and grand theatre certainly found its element in this movement of the film, and it’s a hard scene to take, in its portrayal of virulent communal misogyny and the cheerless confrontation with the truth that, however much moral and physical authority Zorba has and intellectual refinement and purity of spirit Basil retains, both are finally, easily outmatched when an entire community decides to consume its own. Basil confesses in a disorientated mumble his utter incapacity to help. Basil and Zorba are reduced to mere bystanders in someone else’s grim fate; indeed, the narrative implies, that is all anyone is, each in turn. One notable difference between source and film sometimes targeted by commentators is that Kazantzakis held Crete in greater affection, and balanced his portrait of the island’s inhabitants with more forgiving and indulgent aspects, whilst Cacoyannis seems much more prosecutorial of the Cretans he surveys in their brutal, hypocritical morality and vulture-like greed when they flock to raid the dying Hortense’s possessions. That said, Cacoyannis’ camera readily contextualises such behaviour, where scarcity engenders a form of madness that readily breaks out if the forms designed to keep life processes in play are disturbed. The widow’s commodity of beauty is retained chiefly because she doesn’t have to labour in the fields like the other women. Hortense’s pretences to keeping alive a little corner of romantic beauty are paltry by comparison with her dreams but might as well be royalty to her poorer neighbours.
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In Cacoyannis’s eye Zorba seems nonetheless less the archetypal common man than an exceptional one, one forged by a hard life of being used and absorbing such cruel lessons. An earlier scene in the film sees Basil facetiously accuse Zorba of being unpatriotic (in part to deflect Zorba from asking questions about the widow’s gifts) because he readily cited “a wise old Turk” as one source of his wisdom, stoking Zorba’s anger as he reports having “killed men, raped women” in the name of patriotism, led through paths of painful wisdom in a long life of being used to the conclusion that only his own sense of good and bad, right and wrong should guide his actions. The widow’s murder has no apparent consequence in the film (in the novel, Mavrandoni was hunted and eventually arrested), and of course there is nothing to be done: no rite or process breathes life back into a corpse. Basil and Zorba are left only to confront their own anguish, sparking one of the great dialogue exchanges in cinema, as Zorba demands Basil explain why the young die: “What’s the use of all your damn books if they don’t tell you that – what the hell do they tell you?” “They tell me,” Basil replies oh so poetically, “About the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.” To which Zorba retorts with all his peasant defiance, “I spit on their agony.”
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Quinn and Bates play off each-other beautifully throughout the film, and Bates, whilst cast in the far less eye-catching part, nonetheless gives the film its true centre. Carefully suggesting the lingering sorrow of loss and the wordless sense of need that drives him to Crete and makes him hire Zorba, Bates, with his inimitably lucid gaze and capacity for suggesting roiling emotions at war with cool intellect, balances Quinn’s evocation of bravura with a portrayal of a man for whom self-expression is like watching a golem trying to fashion its own clay. Papas, who had worked with Quinn on The Guns of Navarone and with Cacoyannis in the title role of Elektra, was always an astounding movie presence and she’s mesmerising here, her Widow a force of sensual imperative incarnate, glowing-eyed in the dark amidst the olive trees of her estate, until she’s revealed as all too human as Basil ventures close. Director of Photography Walter Lasally’s close-ups, particularly of Papas, are something close to shamanism in their enthralled study of intense and remarkable faces.
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Kedrova however emerged with the only Oscar for the film’s actors, with her marvellous blend of absurdity and pathos. Zorba’s decision to try and make Hortense happy, as he realises she’s dying, by actually agreeing to marry her, becomes another raw lesson in accepting loss. After she ventures out in rain to see Zorba, he goes through a mock wedding ceremony with her, and then looks after her as she becomes dreadfully ill. As it becomes clear she’s dying, the villagers flock to the Hotel Ritz as because Hortense isn’t officially married and has no relatives, the state will claim her belongings. The moment she expires, they begin stripping the valuables out of her house, leaving Zorba to only her corpse splayed upon her bed and her caged pet parrot in an otherwise completely bare room, a hyperbolic depiction of life and death as states of being and not being. Zorba’s simple reaction is take her parrot in hand and leave with Basil, after drinking a toast to her soul offered, with silent and conciliatory meaning, by Manolakis.
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Although Theodorakis’ theme is so well-known, it’s worth noting that his work throughout the film is excellent, snapping into lockstep with Cacoyannis’s images, investing hints of disquiet and abnormality as well as local flavour and comedy (Theodorakis became a significant voice of opposition to the military regime that took control of Greece in the late 1960s). An early scene, as Basil and Zorba travel on the ferry to Crete, becomes a kind of dance sequence as the passengers are tossed to and fro about as the ferry ploughs through heavy seas, reeling motions and editing choreographed with comic effect and Theodorakis scoring it like a madcap hoedown. Theodorakis’ scoring is also of course utterly vital to the film’s end. Zorba’s zipline proves to work a bit too well when they finally get around to testing in a moment of great ceremony and spectacle for the village, and the logs come flying down so fast they keep breaking, or ripping away and crashing, before shaking the whole array to pieces. Basil, aware he’s got no choice now but to go back to England, nonetheless asks Zorba to teach him to dance, and finally obtains the same talent Zorba has, laughing at disaster and determined to actually live life. Cacoyannis’ iconic final shot zooms back on the sight of the two men dancing on the beach, Theodorakis’ theme plucking away merrily on the soundtrack, two dancing idiots delivered from a sad world.

Standard
1970s, African cinema, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental, Romance

Touki-Bouki (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty

By Roderick Heath

Following its 2007 restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki has emerged in recent years to be celebrated as one of the finest products of African cinema. Touki-Bouki made a Sight & Sound Film Poll as one of the hundred greatest films of all time, and these days even celebrities are paying homage to its most famous images. Quite a ride for a film that did make a mark in its time, gaining an International Critics Prize at Cannes, only to then generally sink from view. Touki-Boukis director took another twenty years to make a second feature, as Mambéty re-emerged for a brief spell of productivity before his death from lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. Mambéty, born in Dakar in 1945, was the son of a Muslim cleric who, after dabbling in theatre as a student, became interested in film, at a time when an eruption of new cinematic energy was taking place across Africa at the time, part of a general scene of cultural fervour in the post-colonial dawn. Mambéty’s countryman Ousmane Sembène had flown the standard for new African cinema with 1966’s Black Girl.
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In spite of his lack of formal training, Mambéty pieced together a short film, City of Contrasts, in 1968, dedicated to surveying haphazard attempts to synthesise a novel architectural style at various sites around Dakar with a sceptical eye. He followed it with another short that gained some attention, Badou Boy, a portrait of a young scallywag engaged in a duel of wits with a policeman, mediating Mambéty’s own formative experiences and looking forward to the larger clashes driving Touki-Bouki. Next Mambéty set to making his first feature with a budget of $30,000, most of which came from the Senegal government. One irony is that Touki-Bouki is both a perfect emblem of that moment of cultural energy and a reaction to it. Mambéty avoided the kitchen-sink realism and overtly critical style of melodrama being made by Sembène and others, in favour of an approach obviously influenced by the French New Wave, but also wielding a definably independent spirit rooted deep in its native landscape and sensibility. Touki-Bouki defines a more personal, allusive, but hardly disengaged reaction to the moment, celebrating the maddening mismatch of impulses and ambitions beckoning.
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Touki-Bouki emerged as a freewheeling tragicomedy with a rambunctious sense of humour as a well as a spirit of commentary and satirical import that lands all the more sharply for its deceptively breezy disposition. At times Mambéty’s eye is as cruelly excoriating of social disparity as Luis Bunuel was on Los Olvidados (1951), recording the day-to-day life of the poor citizenry who encircle the islet of westernised modernity in the downtown Dakar. His camera pans down from the gleaming ramparts of office blocks and apartment buildings colonising Dakar’s precincts to the shattered slums and shanties scattered around its fringes with a witty, needling sense of contrast, but also a casual familiarity with such violent contrasts. Mambéty sees in them the spirit of a place and a time, the super-modern colliding with the unknowably ancient, the slick with the gritty, the Western idea of time and space with the African.
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Mambéty’s antihero is Mory (Magaye Niang), a young man who makes a living driving cattle to an abattoir to be butchered, whilst his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) is a student attending college. Mambéty’s Dakar is a place of petty jealousies and tolerated pests. Anta lives with her Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), a produce seller and low-grade conjurer who lets friends take her produce on credit. Anta is first seen irritably forcing one to put back everything she’s taken if she can’t pay. Anta resists the cajoling, charged demands of a mob of young student radicals in a truck, whose political action meetings seem to be mostly an excuse to pick up girls. When Anta refuses to come to one of their meetings, the radicals, in their frustration, accost Mory when he comes to the campus looking for her, lassoing him and driving across down with Mory tied to the back of their truck. In a rage after this humiliation, Mory flees to a favourite place on the coastline, and Anta tracks him down. The duo make love on the cliffs above the ocean, a sequence Mambéty communicates with shots of languorously rolling, foaming waves on the rocks with the sounds of sex on the soundtrack. Afterwards, lounging in the sun next to the motorcycle, the lovers resolve to leave Senegal by any recourse and head for Paris to make their fortune.
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With a puckish sense of ne’er-do-wells at loose in the world, improvising their path through life, Mambéty’s assimilation of New Wave tropes occasionally feels closer in spirit to Richard Lester than Jean-Luc Godard. Still, Godard is an inescapable influence, with visuals that recall the bright, lushly-coloured, almost pictographic approach of Pierrot le Fou (1965). But there’s a stark, deceptive quality to Mambéty’s style that’s quite individual, unfolding through a succession of images precisely framed and lucidly composed, attentive to the pungent atmosphere of a time and place, in a way that’s almost still-life art, but which also merge to form a brisk and energetic whole. Touki-Bouki unfolds according to its own peculiar rhythms and focal points, but it also plays, interestingly, as a lampoon of a film noir plot. Mambéty’s portrait of desperate lovers making their ploy to escape their circumstances, turning to crime to better their lives, evokes a swathe of noir films and films that coexist on the border between that grim genre and social problem studies, particularly Nicholas Ray’s films like They Live By Night (1949) and Rebel Without A Cause (1956). Except that the crime is tepid and the criminal lovers’ escapades are more than a little absurd, thanks to Mory’s significant overestimation of his own street smarts. The very end can be read as a satire on the climax of that founding text of French poetic realism and noir aesthetics, Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1938).
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Mambéty starts the film with shots of cattle being herded and driven to an abattoir, lazy undulations of the haunches of cattle and the ponies bearing loft the herders filling the screen, for a scene from a rural lifestyle that might as well be taking place a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mambéty quickly despoils the placid mood as he depicts the cattle being slaughtered gorily. This unflinching segue anticipates a similar sequence in Rainer Werner Fassbender’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1976). Mambéty’s motivating spirit is rather different to Fassbender’s punkish effect, but there’s a similar idea at play, correlating the butchery of animals with the brutal processes of personal and historical transformation. Mambéty repeats the motif later on when he shows Oumi slaughtering a goat, all part of the raw and bloody business of providing food, the earthiness of the lifestyle of Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, laid bare in grim and dazzling detail. Mambéty cuts between Oumi slicing open the goat’s neck with Anta stripping off her shirt in the staring sunlight for her seaside tryst with Mory, evoking a sense of squirming desperation to the couple’s psychic horizons despite the often comic tenor of their adventures, as well as conjoining sex and death as sublime necessities.
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Early in the film Mambéty watches with a documentary filmmaker’s eye as women cue up for clean drinking water, a moment of reportage that could fit into any news report on life in the third world, except that Mambéty turns it into a scene of human comedy as two women begin fighting over their place in the line; when a supervising man tries to break up their tussle, both begin beating him up instead. Authority figures are either wielders of latent violence, like the cop Mory encounters, or absurd occupants of jobs that seem them disseminating a vague sense of state relevance, like the portly mailman who makes the rounds of the shanties on the Dakar fringes, with Aunt Oumi convinced he’s keeping letters from her son from her, and struggles to make a ponderous passage up a hill. Mory’s first attempt to rustle up some cash comes when he decides to take on a dude tantalising and tormenting pedestrians with his prowess as three-card monte. Mory bets a thousand francs he pick out the right card, but when he loses has to flee because he doesn’t have the cash to cover the bet, chased down the street by a mob happy to take off after anything that moves just for something to do.
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Mory manages to elude his pursuers only to come across a cop who enjoys intimidating him with the possibility he might just shoot him for the hell of it, before then asking for a match: Mory is so relieved he offers his whole matchbox. The same cop proves to be a nemesis for the next score Mory and Anta eye, when Anta realises they could rip off the gate take for a wrestling match. Several boxes are left in the cop’s keeping, one of which contains the money. Mory, making a declaration of status as boss man, decides the box on the bottom must be the one. The actual robbery isn’t shown, but Mambéty cuts to Mory and Anta’s getaway, hailing a taxi to transport the stolen box across town whilst Mory pursues on a motorcycle. He’s stopped by an officious traffic cop for driving through a zebra crossing, but Mory makes a successful ploy to scare off the cop by pretending to have seen him at a rowdy party that got busted. The cab driver, a wheezy old man, accidentally drops the cashbox when he’s unloading it for the elated bandits, only for the contents within to prove not riches but a skull.
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The title is usually translated as “Journey of the Hyena,” an apt description of Mory’s skulking opportunism as a criminal who dreams of grand successes, a small predator who darts around the flanks of bigger beasts. The early scenes of Mory and Anta on the beach see Mambéty breaking up the linear flow of images, weaving a texture at once repetitive and discombobulated, fitting for a film about Senegal, the westernmost country on the African mainland. The lovers confront the ocean as a vertiginous frontier standing between them and Paris, which might as well be Oz. Mory decides next to rob a rich gay man named Charlie. Charlie lived in Paris in the past, and now resides in a large modern house on the Dakar waterfront. He lounges about his swimming pool and extemporises airily from his bath whilst Mory gets down to robbing him blind. Charlie introduces a particularly noir-like development in Touki-Bouki’s plot, as a character whose erotic wont contrasts and mirrors the social and financial yearning of the young people and who float in a possible zone of mutual exploitation. The scene could be set like the ugly moment in Midnight Cowboy (1969) where that film’s desperate main character assaulted and possibly killed the old gay man he decided to rob to facilitate his own life escape. But Mambéty wryly deconstructs the canard by making Charlie a humorous and likeable figure whose supine good cheer is just as hapless as Mory’s half-assed criminal entrepreneurship. When he finds he’s been robbed his first response is to phone up the police and chat amiably and teasingly with some officers he’s trying to seduce.
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Charlie represents a gently satirised breed of cosmopolitan colonials. The uneasy relationship of colonised and colonisers is a nagging theme of Touki-Bouki, although Mambety’s credo that “anticolonialist laughter is also laughing at yourself” is illustrated as well, as he considers the landscape of modern Senegal as a strange mutt where eye, heart, and mind can leap from the primal to the space-aged in one survey of the landscape. Dialogue is littered with sniping mutual racism. Oumi and her larcenous patron kvetch about sons of the nation heading to Paris and not coming back, or worse, “They bring their white women back with their diseases.” When Mory and Anta finally do get aboard a passenger ship bound for France, they’re thrust into the company of patronising French teachers who complain in turn about just about everything, from the stolidity of their African students and the extremity of the radical movements back home, and make comments like “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy” whilst proclaiming Senegal barren physically and intellectually. The elders’ solution for everything is to call in a marabout (a variety of Islamic religious advisor in Senegal), and Charlie has the bad news as one who’s supped at the font of imperial beneficence and left no illusion for anyone who follow: “France isn’t what it used to be,” now that it’s no longer the beating heart of a great imperial complex.
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Nonetheless the siren call of Paris echoes irresistibly for Mory and Anta, represented by a soundtrack driven along by the sprightly strains of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris.” Baker, as the black chanteuse who found love and favour in France thanks to playing out an exotic fantasy of a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked jungle girl only then to reinvent herself as the essence of cosmopolitan sophistication, makes for a loaded, ironic touchstone for such ambitions. The cinematography by Pap Samba Sow keeps in mind both the potent colours and design intricacy of African art and also the purposefully flat and placard-like effects of ‘60s radical movie agitprop. Colours blaze with fervent immediacy, the gush of blood from the goat’s neck and the patterns of the kaftans and lettering of city signs all lit up with delirious intensity, as if the world is a great collection of hieroglyphs rendered in colour needing a sympathetic eye to decode. One of the funniest punch-lines comes when it’s revealed that the wrestling match Mory and Anta try to rob is being held to raise money for a statue of Charles De Gaulle, a symbolic erection in the name of continued close connections between France and Senegal.
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Mambéty’s preferred symbol, the lynchpin of the movie and of his protagonists’ lives, is Mory’s bike. It’s a practical instrument, Mory’s transport, his vessel of self-image and independence. Mambéty’s images of an outsider hero on a motorcycle echoes expressions of countercultural disaffection like Easy Rider (1969) coming from overseas and also rhymes with the same year’s radically different exploration of postcolonial crime and rebellion, The Harder They Come. But the bike is also a representation of Mambéty’s concept of Senegalese spirit, circa 1973, and his concept of a culture that’s a fusion of ways of being and experiencing: a cobbled-together chimera, western-made machine festooned with the potent animalistic totem of horns on the handlebars, and an incantatory, rather phallic sculptural veve on the rear. Such adornments elevate the motorcycle from mere device to a totem communing between the human and the animal, the spiritual and the historical. As long as Mory and Anta ride it, they retain a self-sufficient lustre, a dash of romantic heroism. Once they rob Charlie, Anta abandons the bike in a wasteground, leaving it to be retrieved, in a hilariously bizarre touch, by a man dressed like a Halloween caveman, who happens upon it like the spirit of atavistic anarchy, and begins riding it around Dakar in glee.
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Oumi curses Mory for failing to pay her for some rice she gave him, screaming that she hopes he winds up in hell to Anta with an incantatory air – not for nothing, it seems, does Anta call her “the sorceress” – and the fractured sense of time at play throughout Touki-Bouki seems to stem from Oumi’s curse; time, place, and self all splintered and randomly dispersed. The skull the luckless taxi driver finds inside the stolen box seems to be a relic of some esoteric rite, death’s head grinning out at the luckless would-be plutocrats as a reminder of strange and ancient forces working against their venture in self-improvement – small wonder the box it’s in rests under the one they should have stolen, which sports the colours of Senegal’s flag. The sequence following Mory’s robbery of Charlie is nonetheless a comic tour-de-force as he and Anta head across Dakar to the port, even subordinating Charlie’s chauffeur by pretending he’s been told to drive them. In his exultation, Mory strips bare-assed and stands triumphant in the back of the open-topped car, and flees into a lengthy fantasy imagining the two lovers returning from France, rich and powerful. Crowds flock to watch their progress and they’re given all the pomp and paraphernalia of national heroes. Even uppity Oumi dances in celebration before their car whilst the couple lounge with cigars and make like big shots.
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In more prosaic reality they still make a splash as their travel agent thinks she knows them (“Maybe from New York,” Anta suggests). They encounter a man named Margot, a con man they know who’s desperate to escape from Dakar as he’s being hunted down by a dude with a club after some misfired scam: Mory and Anta let him hide in the car into the port. The lovers have succeeded, making it to the ship on time and in style. But Mory is halted on the gangplank by the thought of one of the cattle he herds to slaughter, and suddenly runs off, desperately trying to find his bike. Anta, left alone, waits for him, but when sailing time comes, she remains aboard. Where Duvivier’s antihero was finally consumed and destroyed by his status as exile and petty overlord of a colonial citadel, and died at the dockside foiled in his last gesture of escape, Mambéty inverts the situation: his lovers are separated and his dopey protagonist pulled back to native soil in a sudden pang of realisation of what he’s abandoning, only to find he’s already lost his source of pride and energy. When he does find his bike, it’s been smashed to pieces, its cattle skull mascot broken, the caveman rider terribly injured in a crash. Mambéty sees a generation in flux, a wealth of possibilities on hand but also invisible to the needs of the moment.
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The ship is a vast, beautiful, floating white carcass spiriting Anta away to a vague fortune whilst Mory weeps over his own shattered machine and destiny. Mambéty returns to the pivotal image of Mory, Anta, and the bike at rest on the cliffs above the infinite dreaming ocean, perhaps as a remembered idyll or perhaps a suggestion everything we’ve seen has been one possible path these two might stray along. Mambéty later stated that he made Touki-Bouki to dramatise his own emotional and intellectual reactions when he fantasised about leaving Senegal for any greener grass – tellingly, when Mory halts on the gangplank, a “Mr Diop” is being called for to board – and the film, in spite of Mory’s eventual desolation, elucidates a specific faith, that any place and people retain the seeds of great dreams and possibilities. When he returned to filmmaking Mambéty made Hyènes (1992), a follow-up with a plot inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, taking up the theme of returning from diaspora to hammer out old debts. Every future is bought at the cost of another.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, War

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Roderick Heath

Robert Wise was a professional. Such a description could be read as praise both high and faint, and it’s long been applied to Wise in both senses. A man whose early life was framed profoundly by the Great Depression’s impact on his family’s expectations and appreciation for the safe harbour working for RKO Pictures gave him, Wise spent over a decade learning film craft. Graduating to editing, Wise was Oscar-nominated for his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), where he laboured closely with the tyro blow-in to create the film’s unique textures and layered sense of the medium’s expressive modes and possibilities, through such tricks as dragging film strips over the editing room floor to reproduced the rough look of old newsreel footage. Wise knew film as a physical thing better than most anyone else in the business, as an organism of pictures and sounds wound together in complex, precisely ordered cords. Wise was soon pressed into service to patch together a releasable version of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) after Welles and RKO parted ways, tacking on a hastily shot final scene that was nominally true to the source novel but against Welles’ more downbeat intent. Wise soon came into the orbit of another genius impresario, if a radically different personality, in Val Lewton, whose series of suggestive horror films had proven a quiet boon for the studio.

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Wise made his directing debut on Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) when he was called upon to replace the first director, Gunther von Fritsch. That film belied its nominal basis as a horror movie to become more a darkly poetic paean to childhood. His third film for Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945), proved a masterpiece of psychological horror that saw Wise evolve his own stern, statuesque take on the template Lewton had developed with Jacques Tourneur. Wise was launched on a career that saw him able to master just about any genre he turned his hand to: stone-hard noir films, intellectually curious science fiction works, tough war movies and social-realist dramas, even musicals. Such capacities helped him rise by the mid-1960s into one of Hollywood’s most efficient and reliable filmmakers, capturing Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), two immensely popular movies that nonetheless still testify to how compartmentalised film appreciation can be, as they’ve never been in the slightest bit cool, in spite of the stylish and inventive filmmaking evinced in both.

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Wise was both esteemed and honoured by his industry and held in opprobrium by many critics for his dread status as a safe pair of hands, and he pulled off the trick of working long past the time when many old studio hands like him had been put out to pasture. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock and his thrillers or John Ford’s love of the western, Wise’s wide-ranging talents have long confused critical attention. But to scratch the surface of Wise’s films is to see his formative work with Welles and Lewton lingering in his shooting style and expressive lexicon, and to look past the frame of genre is to see threads of interest and refrains of substance running through Wise’s choices of material. Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles immediately appealed to Wise. It’s not hard to see Wise’s identification with the character of Jake Holman, another young Midwesterner given his slot in a disciplined organisation and mastering technical arts, seeking the elusive hope of reigning over his own small realm, where proficiency might be sufficient to guarantee stability in life even in the midst of terrible upheaval.

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Wise had trouble getting studio backing for making a film of this downbeat tale based in dated geopolitics. When he did finally gain backing production was delayed by weather in Taiwan, where he planned to shoot, and Wise took on The Sound of Music, ironically, as something to fill in the time before he could make his passion project. Wise converted McKenna’s book against all odds into a commercial success, in part because it offered a strong showcase for star Steve McQueen, who also gained his lone Oscar nomination for playing Holman. By the time Wise brought the film to the big screen, too, McKenna’s period tale of faltering imperialism was also starting to look more prognosticative than historical, as the Vietnam War was becoming a hot topic. Wise was steadfastly against US involvement in the conflict, and The Sand Pebbles presaged the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) in allowing him to offer backdoor commentary. It also dramatized the experience of the cultural moment in watching a formerly disinterested and focused individual slowly become aware of his surrounds and forced to make his own moral judgements against the tide of expected behaviour.

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The Sand Pebbles is in many ways a character study in an epic’s clothing, following McQueen’s Holman from the moment he begins his journey up the Yangtze River to his solitary death at its end. Holman, an engineer in the American navy, has been assigned to a gunboat, the San Pablo. The period is the late 1920s, a time when the US Navy was enforcing American commercial interests and sustaining a form of peace in China’s cripplingly schismatic post-imperial moment. Holman thinks he’s finally gained just what he wants, a boat just large enough to need his talents and small enough to give him an engine he can run to his own satisfaction. Holman’s hunt for an engine room he can lock himself in and run in peace proves to still be frustratingly elusive once he joins the boat, however, as he finds the craft has evolved as a microcosm of the political situation. The American sailors exiled to the San Pablo, or the ‘Sand Pebbles’ as they nickname it, are on the furthest fringes of the national consciousness and at the bottom of the military list of concerns. They compensate by leading pampered lives, their needs are tended to by a populace of Chinese coolies, for whom even the scant pay turned their way is a good living, an arrangement that also suits the boat’s commander, Lt Collins (Richard Crenna), who likes to keep his crew handy for action, should the need ever arise.

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Holman’s journey to join the San Pablo sees him thrust into the company of some other westerners on a ferry, listening to their discussions of big political matters and the rumblings of discontent with disinterest, and warning off pretty young Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), journeying upriver like to him serve as a teacher at a mission, that “girls don’t talk to China sailors.” Holman’s experience keeps intersecting with Eckert’s, however, provoking a tentative relationship. They’re trapped however on two sides of a dichotomy rooted however in the same basic fact: Eckert belongs to the missionary service, which considers itself above political ructions and dedicated purely to the betterment of the Chinese populace, but which one of the shipboard voices of wisdom warns her at the start represents a form of cultural imperialism to the locals only tolerated because of the harder, military version Holman serves. Eckert works under the idealistic Jameson (Larry Gates) at the Shining Light Mission, who becomes the unwitting, and unwilling, justification for Collins to launch an armed expedition to rescue them as the political situation deteriorates and China degenerates into civil strife. Holman inadvertently disrupts life on the San Pablo when he joins her. He finds the engine room is filled with coolies who don’t really understand the motor, but simply follow the instructions of their boss, Chien (Henry Wang).

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Chien jealously guards his tiny fief, to the point that when Holman embarrasses him he tries to cook him with a sudden steam release as he inspects the engine. The coolies aboard are overseen generally by haughty old mandarin Lop-eye Sheng (Paul Chun), whose authority is both unofficial and insidious. Holman’s lone real pal on the boat is Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who falls in love with Maily (Maryat Andriane), a missionary-educated barroom hostess being forced to work off a debt to a gangster, Shu (James Hong). During a river patrol the gunboat breaks down when Holman’s warnings are ignored, and Chien is killed during repairs, in an accident that’s the result of his own poor maintenance. Holman is ordered to train a new boss coolie, so he chooses Po-han (Mako). Holman labours in spite of the young man’s poor English and lack of education to explain just how the engine works, becoming fond of his receptive pupil in the process. When another crewman, Stawski (Simon Oakland), bullies Po-han, Holman socks him. The incident is covered up and Collins denies Lop-eye’s demand Po-han be fired, as the commander feels the occasional need to take Lop-eye down a peg. Holman baits Stawski by proposing a proper boxing match between him and Po-han: Holman thinks the scrappy little Chinese guy can defeat the hulking Stawski, and hopes to win enough money to pay off Maily’s debt.

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McKenna’s novel was based in his personal experiences, but also bore the distinct influences of other works in a similar vein. The detailed depiction of a fetid and frustrated branch of the US armed forces between world wars, revolving around an apolitical outcast hero, recalls James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, whilst the climax is reminiscent of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s the setting and the tale’s grim, unremitting vision of slow degeneration into chaos that sets it apart from both, where the great struggle against fascism was still looming for luckless heroes; here Holman is a victim of shifting tides that see the white, western fantasy of civilising the world according to its own precepts being finally beaten back and forced into a newly introspective posture. Wise had tackled a similar story before on Destination Gobi (1952), except staged there in reverse in both geographical and philosophical drift; a closer likeness was the study in besiegement and hanging-by-the-fingernails war effort and accompanying moral danger in The Desert Rats (1953).

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Wise had a fascination for odyssey tales, stories of benighted people pushed to extremes by their own perverse motives, and a love for dramas driven by characters who represent different ways of conceiving the world, depicted in closely revolving binaries. In his later career, Wise’s films began to bear an increasingly clear and sardonic commentary on his reputation as a professional and a technician, as he took on projects revolving around characters dependant on their tools, faced with crisis as their works and implements fail them, their incapacity to understand why life doesn’t function in the same clear and mechanistic way leading them into dreadful traps of fate and conscience. These ideas connect movies seemingly as random as The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), and Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), but it has also been bobbing around in his films since The Body Snatcher and his noir works like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

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The narrative also evokes Wise’s overtly pacifistic, if frighteningly contradictory, mythology exercised in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), except that here the pretences towards utopianism represented by Jameson and the missionaries are wedged between more worldly forces. The possibility that might makes right has been abandoned. Holman and Collins and also Jameson represent the kind of duologue who recur throughout Wise’s films, although where many such pairings in his films, from Grey and McFarlane in The Body Snatcher through to even Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music — characters with radically different moral precepts and ways of seeing the world bound together in a close and fraught relationship. Except that Holman and Collins don’t argue their values or radically different perspectives, but offer them instead in gestures and arias of feeling offered in their rank-enforced decorum. As he had on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise would transmute their dynamic into something more positive-minded in a science fiction work, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, where the conflict between discovery and discipline, rigidity and evolution takes on a radically different form but follows the same logical course.

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Although set at the time of the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek, the portrayal of the nascent Chinese nationalist movement is nonetheless styled to be more reminiscent of Communists, in their rhetoric and appearance. The regular drill sessions of the San Pablo’s crew sees them going through their paces in pretending to see off a hostile throng, enjoyed and mocked by a daily crowd who flee laughingly before the water spurts and steam plumes turned their way, until at least the San Pablo find themselves doing it for real, up against a suddenly naked and wintry fury. Holman is shamed in his disdain for the coolie system on board the San Pablo with the totemic phrase, “It’s his rice bowl,” allowing exploitation to continue under the guise of providing a living. The imperialist way also requires retarding all possibility of social change and advancement for the sake of general good order, represented by the rigorously enforced caste system aboard ship. The slow degradation of the San Pablo and her crew as representatives of their nation is first signalled when a Chinese general (Richard Loo) forces Bordelles and his escort to be marched disarmed back through the streets of Changsha, under a rain of refuse from crowds gleeful at the toppling of the strutting foreigners. The humiliated sailors are distraught – Bordelles commands his uniform to be burnt – except for Holman, who takes the event in his stride. Soon the ship is besieged by protestors demanding they leave, but the river level leaves the San Pablo stranded, rusting and abandoned by the coolies, forcing the resentful crew to do their job.

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Loss of face is diagnosed as a potent fear amongst the Chinese bigwigs Chien and Lop-eye, who stage punitive revenges in response to it, but the hapless Yankees prove equally hysterical and helpless before their own remorseless reduction to mere unwelcome interlopers and then quasi-renegades before the population they once policed. Lop-eye blames, credulously or not, Chieng’s death on a curse Holman put on the engine, a literal ghost in the machine, and throughout The Sand Pebbles individuals are crushed just as unheedingly as the unfortunate Chieng under the pistons. Almost every major character in the film dies like a dog in the course of trying to act upon their ambitions or principles. Po-han is caught and tortured by a furious mob, who use him as a prop in terrible political theatre in working for the Americans, obliging Holman to shoot him. Frenchy and Maily make a break to live together, but Frenchy dies from pneumonia caught sneaking off to join his wife and Maily is killed by thugs, possibly gangsters or nationalists, whilst Holman is blamed for her murder in the belief he was her lover. Jameson is gunned down by his former friends after Collins’ “rescue” effort sparks a local war, in spite of waving papers confirming that he’s made himself a stateless person. Jameson and Eckert’s student militia protector and former student Cho-jen (Paul Chun) is killed by Holman during a battle to penetrate a boom strung across the river, and Holman and Collins both die thousands of miles from home in a desperate rear-guard fight.

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It’s remarkable that Wise was able to sell such a bitter story to a mass audience. The Sand Pebbles mediates its darkness with fillips of crowd-pleasing, like Stawski and Po-han’s boxing match, which sees the diminutive yet physically dynamic Chinese man eventually work up the wherewithal to bring down his bullying opponent, and Frenchy and Holman’s intervention to snatch away Maily after Shu tries to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder to some sleazy Americans. The film’s only true weakness lies in part in this mediation, as these aspects border on the caricatured at points. Also, The Sand Pebbles was released at a time when a certain level of existential angst was considered pretty cool in a movie, and McQueen was arguably playing a version of his basic star persona, particularly reminiscent of the proto-beatnik soldier he played in Hell Is For Heroes (1962). Wise had helped solidify Paul Newman’s screen image with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), playing one of Wise’s favoured brand of bewildered, naive heroes, and given McQueen’s famous emulation of Newman’s career it made great sense for him to slip into a similar part.

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The quality of The Sand Pebbles’ collaborators is arresting in itself, and its eight Oscar nominations fairly reflected this, even if the film finally won nary a one. Wise cast a battery of excellent character actors, including Oakland, Crenna, Gates, Hong, Loo, and Joe Turkel. Andriane, an acting ingénue better remembered as the nominal author and subject of the notorious erotic tome Emmanuelle, is fairly good as the brittle, anxious, religious girl who believes herself cursed for her sins. I can’t think of another film where Attenborough ever played an American, and yet he handles the role with the same casual openness and natural presence he always projected, conveying Frenchy’s strong yet innocent love for Maily, depending on Attenborough gift for playing anxious, repressed figures, wearing an air of pathos like a wetsuit. Jerry Goldsmith’s score helped make him a go-to movie composer, establishing a mood of stark, grand yet menacing exoticism in the opening credits that sets in play the mood of an oncoming age of cultural crack-up.

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McQueen’s characters so often only showed their inner lives through finite registers of his cold blue eyes, otherwise trying to maintain their workaday veneer, expressed in concise and stoic physicality. Holman presents a variation as he’s not as remote as other McQueen characters nor as coolly mature. Holman is rather nudged gradually out of a state of semi-perpetual adolescence over the course of the film, starting as a man Jameson feels comfortable in describing as one of the type who just wants the navy to take care of them, casually racist but also boyishly fond of children. He becomes, as Eckert notes, a teacher just like her, taking pride in making a real engineer of Po-han, and is provoked to become increasingly rebellious towards the institution that has been his home. Wise allows time to depict Holman’s education of Po-han with a gently humorous sensibility, a sequence that follows the earlier sequence of the disastrous repair job that nonetheless allows Holman’s love of machinery to become almost palpable, articulated through Wise’s precise diagramming of the engine room as a space, and observation of Holman at work. Even when the machinery fails and crushes flesh and bone, Holman calmly disassembles and reassembles the problem part in his pure faith. Wise’s sensitisation to process and craft here is telling on both a storytelling level, bringing the audience into Holman’s mental space, whilst also underlining his own subtext. The smooth running of anything is the result somewhere along the line of someone who’s damn good at their job and finds it sufficient unto itself as a calling.

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McQueen and Mako make for a fascinating study of contrasts on screen in large part because they were both very physical actors, but in completely different styles: McQueen’s poised and efficient movements versus Mako’s fluid, scrambling dexterity. Po-han’s boxing match is a little masterpiece of slapstick as he tries to survive the bout without committing to it, too used to being the low man on the totem pole, until Holman is at last able to stir both his sense of personal need, in wanting to stay aboard, and also fellowship, in wanting to save Holman from losing money. McQueen’s physical expressivity on the other hand carries the weight of tragic drama with the most measured movements, as he furiously shovels coal after shooting Po-han, or his quick, deft, yet somehow utterly devastating movements as he reboards the San Pablo after killing Cho-jun; Holman is a man almost aghast at his own capacity to keep operating smoothly even after he’s just axed a man in the stomach, but grateful for this talent at the same time. Holman’s great crisis of choice comes when Po-han is being tortured, driven to take the risk of shooting his pal in spite of the chance of starting a war if he misses, and with Collins dashing to stop him. Collins comes to regard Holman as a nuisance and demands after the shooting that he ask for transfer as soon as events permit, something Holman assures him he will do, in a scene laced with clashing brands of contempt constrained by nothing more or less than the material of their uniforms.

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Collins’ status, both imposed and self-adopted, as the lone bulwark before chaos and representative of national strength and pride sees him tolerating the strange system aboard his ship in preference of the appearance of order and smooth working to its actuality. As events bear down upon him, they inspire him to provide a self-fulfilling prophecy as his actions provoke exactly the kind of violence he proposes to put down. Crenna’s performance is something of an antithesis to his today better-known part in the Rambo series as the soldier’s soldier; here his portrait of a self-appointed superman slowly devolving into raging, suicidal-homicidal neurosis is pungent, with his increasingly intense yet remote stair and tight-wound muscularity as if he can barely fit within his own skin.

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Collins’ own calvary comes when his men begin to refuse his orders as, blockaded by the nationalists demanding Holman be handed over in the belief he murdered Maily, they start chanting a demand for Holman to hand himself over rather than square off against the besiegers. Collins takes over a machine gun and, after firing a blast in the water to fend off the blockade, almost turns to gun down his own men, before checking himself, handing over authority to his second in command, Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson), and heading into his cabin to face a long night staring at his pistol in temptation to self-extermination. But larger political events hand him the chance instead to get lots of other people as well as himself killed in an auto-da-fe.

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Wise was the opposite a showy director, but all of his images have an adamantine strength, the rigorousness of his framings that manage to communicate without retreating into airiness, and yet also adapting into its era’s mode for epic cinema in the relative spaciousness it offers to tell its story. The film probably doesn’t look as radical now as it might have done in its day, in Wise’s complete eschewing of many of the usual shortcuts for this kind of moviemaking subject, avoiding back projection, model work, and Caucasian actors made up to play Chinese characters.

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The battle to break through the boom junks is a marvel of tight-wound directing, with Wise allowing the action to come on at the ponderous pace of the San Pablo, approaching the enemy at a slow chug, bullets careening off the hull, Collins hovering at the bridge windows in challenging one to give him his one-way ticket to Valhalla. Slow pace becomes subtly fluid and quicker in dashing lateral camera movements track the actors taking up station for battle, and then leaping into a fray that’s punishingly intimate, with much of the San Pablo’s crew being killed or terribly wounded in the process. The sequence climaxes in the raw shock of Holman, trying to hack his way through the boom rope, forced to defend himself and slaying Cho-jun. Death and carnage come on with reflexive speed and jarring pathos, satisfying the need in such a long, grim tale to pay off with some action at last whilst also finding nothing to celebrate in it.

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The film’s proper finale is even less consoling, but its sees Wise hit perhaps the directing peak of his career. Collins, Holman, and some other crewmen head to the Shining Light Mission to bring down the missionaries, but cannot talk them into leaving. Jameson is killed and Collin dies, after Holman at last makes his choice to remain with Eckert, refusing Jameson’s commands. But Holman is nonetheless force to follow Collins in battling off Chinese soldiers to allow Eckert and his fellow crewmen to escape. This eerie scene takes place in the mission’s vast courtyard, a reappropriated piece of Chinese infrastructure that finally becomes a nightmarish trap, mocking voices echoing out of the dark, bullets whistling and striking down men like the thunderbolts of a contemptuous god for human pretence. This sequence in particular seems to have had a strong influence on the Do Long bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979), with its assailed American warriors lost in a distant night listening to the taunts and cries of a determined enemy. The use of suggestion, the evocation of an almost cosmic dread through careful deployment of sound, confirms how much the Lewton imprint stuck with Wise, the sense almost of a landscape coming to life to clutch and defeat the humans scurrying upon it. Holman dies, shouting out his confusion in the face of such forces (“What the hell happened?”), propped up between the farm machines that should have been his next, natural life project, perched between the sword and the ploughshare. The difference between his death and Collins, however, is that Holman dies to save the life of someone he loves.

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