1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Scifi

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) / Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) / Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas

By Roderick Heath

The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.
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Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans, but he left many feeling he conceded to those young folk excessively. The people who already loved Star Wars certainly weren’t kids anymore. They were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent yet equally necessary sensations: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood even whilst simultaneously acknowledging their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be, a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. That said, I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.
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I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain exemplified something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and over-hyped a lot of modern franchises have proven over a stretch of ground—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and The Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films. So many are testimonies to a brand of professional smoothness or an anodyne brand of fun, rarely taking any risks or offering real ambition to match their flimsy gravitas. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, formidable as they are, rendered the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they seem. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.
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The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in utterly crucial ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.
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The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also much more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s. The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.
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Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.
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That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with edits that come a beat too late. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
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An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé begins her evolution into perhaps the most interesting character in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core theme of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the trilogy’s developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of turmoil, ruction, and bloodshed. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
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The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth. It is the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serves at least four purposes in dramatic context. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars, as tiny, enriching details flit by, from a bored Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers whilst the two-headed race caller mouths off with sarcastic glee. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen, and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with awkward ones, like Anakin being teased by some fellow Tatooine waifs, where the style of acting and humour strays too far into a broad and juvenile place, like a Saturday morning children’s show.
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Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the lightsaber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition, and indeed perhaps can be said to re-found that tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.
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Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a lightsaber duel, are great entertainment, gathering a rolling, rollicking intensity. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.
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But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.
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A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.
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Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.
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This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.
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Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirements of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.
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The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.
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That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.
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I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.
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Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.
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At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
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Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.
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The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.
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One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace, the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works resounding throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are perhaps excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.
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Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, as the dashing figure she cut in the first two instalments is here reduced to mere weepy baby mama, for the most part. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.
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Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.
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Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.

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Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to these scenes that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.

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1950s, Epic, Japanese cinema

The Samurai Trilogy (1954-56)

Samurai (Musashi Miyamoto, 1954) / Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Musashi Miyamoto: Ichijôji no kettô, 1955) / Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Musashi Miyamoto Kanketsuhen: Kettô Ganryûjima, 1956)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hiroshi Inagaki

By Roderick Heath

In 1955, the foreign-language film Oscar, then still a special rather than a competitive award, was given to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi, retitled Samurai for foreign release. It followed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1954) as the third Japanese winner in four years, a highly visible recognition of the nation’s cinematic renaissance. Inagaki had close links to the stage, having followed his father into theatre acting at an early age. He found work with Nikkatsu Studios as a performer in the early ’20s, and a passion for fusing theatrical and cinematic traditions would define his work. By the end of the decade he was directing and screenwriting.
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Inagaki collaborated on many occasions with Toshiro Mifune, and their work together deserves consideration for the diversity and exploitation of the actor’s gifts alongside Mifune’s more famous work with Kurosawa: they joined forces on the Samurai trilogy, and then subsequently on Inagaki’s inspired adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Samurai Saga (1958), where Mifune played the large-nosed hero; the grandiose fantasy epic The Birth of Japan (1959); and Chushingura (1962), a much-admired take on the famous tale of the 47 Ronin. The Samurai trilogy is still probably Inagaki’s best-known work, however, a grand, richly textured, folkloric take on the life of Miyamoto Musashi as mediated by a fictionalised novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and its stage adaptation by Hideji Hōjō. Inagaki at once mythologises and presents a profoundly ambivalent analysis of the life of Musashi, surely the most famous samurai of all time.
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Musashi’s stature and allure combines aspects of legendary western knights, augmented by the peculiar spiritual and scholastic authority of the samurai tradition. Because of his obscure early life and his great career, which saw him cut a swathe through a host of challengers and officially sanctioned swordsman schools and champions, Musashi also gained the extra edge of glamour afforded romantic outlaws and rebels, a lone-wolf hero exemplifying his creed but obedient only to his personal honour. Musashi’s life coincided with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, the monolithic power that would rule Japan for 250 years whilst shutting down social mobility and progress. But Musashi’s example, whilst exemplifying his principles, held the promise that anyone could, with discipline and fortitude, become a good enough fighter to take on any force. Musashi wrote important books, including the canonical Book of the Five Rings, about swordcraft, but he was reticent about his background and experiences in his writing, leaving a lot of room for popular mystique. Eiji’s novel bent the historical bow quite a bit, presenting Musashi as a wild youth whose path to the standing of samurai master is a long and gruelling process of self-discovery and self-denial. This notion played to Inagaki’s affinity for finding the nobility in ordinary and luckless people: his Musashi, or Takezō as he was known as a boy, begins as an everyman, craving adventure and elevation, leaving his small village of Miyamoto to join the Toyotomi army, the anti-Tokugawa side in the civil war sweeping the nation in 1600, along with his best friend Honiden Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni). Inagaki had already, earlier in the ’50s, made a three-part drama revolving around Sasaki Kojirō, Musashi’s most famous opponent, also with Mifune as Musashi. That series had been the tragedy of a potentially great man brought down by his worldly and egotistical aims. The Musashi trilogy inevitably contrasts this concept, and yet Inagaki still finds surprising, even profound ambivalence in taking on such a storied folk hero’s life as he journeys towards his duel with Sasaki, taking Musashi from primal man to modern man, watching him flower from headstrong tough to brilliant but existentially desolate warrior to philosophical hero.
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Miyamoto Musashi unfolds as a tale of complex and shifting allegiances between characters across the breadth of the three episodes in a manner closer to epic saga. At the fateful Battle of Sekigahara, Takezō and Matahachi are mere foot soldiers digging trenches, but Takezō charges into the fray in the midst of the collapsing Toyotomis pursued by Matahachi, who has none of his friend’s nerve and skill. Inagaki’s camera dissolves from the midst of blood and thunder to the sight of his two hapless heroes squirming out of the mud in the midst of battlefield carnage, two losers stranded by the tide of history. Takezō searches for shelter for himself and the wounded Matahachi and eventually bursts into a cabin occupied by Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada), who survive by robbing the bodies of dead soldiers. They help the two men recover, however, and both women come to covet Takezō, who spends his time trying break in a wild horse he has captured while remaining aggressively uninterested in women. The dynamics described here define the whole series and its insight into Musashi’s character, who remains cursed in his incapacity to relate to women in his life under an assumed policy of monkish asceticism, as he tries to train another wild animal—himself.
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Oko and Akemi subsist under the sufferance of a bandit brigade that controls the area. The bandits demand the bulk of their recovered loot as payment, but when they come to collect and the leader threatens to rape Oko, Takezō comes out of hiding and slaughters several of the brigands in a display of ferocious fighting wit. Oko, beguiled by spectacles of male strength, clasps onto Takezō worshipfully after this feat, but he runs away. Offended, Oko tells Matahachi and Akemi that Takezō tried to rape her, and then she convinces them both to flee with her and the loot. On the way, Matahachi manages to kill one of another band of much less threatening robbers who attack them. Meanwhile, Takezō heads back to Miyamoto, but when border guards of the new regime try to arrest him, he cuts his way through their number and becomes a wanted outlaw.
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Soon Takezō is reduced to the status of a filthy beast subsisting in the hills, as his own family lead the hunt against him partly out of fear of the reprisals by the town governor. The first episode of Inagaki’s series in concerned with how Takezō is elevated from this degraded condition to the threshold of becoming the archetypal samurai. Inagaki portrays these states as points on an evolutionary progression, but vitally related: what Takezō lacks is not fighting ability, but discipline, and discipline, when he attains it, is in its way, just as knotty and self-punishing as base ferocity. The blend of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology Inagaki turns on Musashi in the course of a narrative that resembles a traditional bildungsroman is woven together with the real incidents of Musashi’s life tweaked to become illustrations not merely of his gathering skill and legend, but also as markers in the war of his head and heart. The catalysts for his transformation are Matahachi’s fiancée Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), and the Buddhist priest Takuan (Kurôemon Onoe), in whose monastery Otsu was raised. Takuan takes it upon himself to capture Takezō and punish him, but also to school him and put his spectacular talent to better use, whilst Otsu becomes fixated with Takezō, freeing him at one point and becoming the only woman he loves. Takuan manages to imprison Takezō in Himeji Castle, where he’s kept with piles of literature to train his mind as prelude to training his body. Takezō never emerges from prison, but rather who he becomes, the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. He is offered a chance to join the retinue of the lord, but Musashi declines, stating he still has much to learn.
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Otsu waits out the term of Musashi’s imprisonment, taking a job at a food stall near a bridge visible from the castle, but learns that his new path demands he renounce women. Musashi encourages Otsu to forget him and get on with her life, but Otsu refuses, equating Musashi’s sense of manly duty to hold true to his chosen creed with her own female duty to hold fast to hers. The Musashi trilogy is then, on one level, a romantic tragedy about two people permanently separated but eternally joined by their ideals. Their lives weave in with others in a tale that travels the expanse of feudal Japan, as Musashi gains ever-increasing fame as a duellist. Early in the second film, he wins one such duel, but when he encounters an elderly Buddhist priest, the priest dismisses him as still just a strong man out for glory with no concept of chivalry, a thought echoed by a weaponsmith who advertises himself as a sharpener of souls rather than swords, and refuses to work on Musashi’s weapon. Musashi, however, meets both challenges with gestures of humble suppliance, confirming that he’s attentive to his faults and still seeking the essence of his creed.
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The second chapter, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, revolves chiefly around the consequences when, seeking out the best schools of swordcraft to test and best, Musashi enters Kyoto and challenges the students of Yoshioka Seijūrō (Akihiko Hirata) to fight with kendo sticks. Musashi lays waste to the students, enraging Yoshioka’s protective clan and friends, who insist on keeping Seijūrō himself from battling the upstart. Instead, they send a gang to attack him, but Musashi fights them off, and when Seijūrō’s brother Denshichiro (Yû Fujiki) comes to fight him, he is quickly killed. Finally, the school gathers together a gang of nearly a hundred fighters to ambush Musashi even after Seijūrō has promised him a fair duel.
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Woven in with this violent drama are the other characters introduced in the first film. Matahachi’s mother Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), who betrayed Musashi when he sought refuge with her, leaves their home town with an escort, determined to kill both him and Otsu for dishonouring her clan. Matahachi, Oko, and Akemi are living now in Kyoto, Matahachi having devolved into a fetid, pitiful drunk, whilst Oko has taken the wily and opportunistic Toji Gion (Daisuke Kato) as a new lover. Together, their amoral activities counterpoint Musashi’s transformative labours in a manner reminiscent to the Thenardiers in Les Miserables. Toji is trying to make their fortune by marrying Akemi to Yoshioka Seijūrō. The swordmaster, encouraged by Otsu to claim her daughter with force, sexually assaults her, rendering Akemi’s relationship with her mother even more dank and contemptuous. Akemi, more than a little unhinged by the experience, is fixated on Musashi, and she confronts Otsu in laying claim to the ronin’s affections as both women rush to help him as he fights off a Yoshioka gang. Musashi gains a supporter in master swordsmith Koetsu Hanami (Kō Mihashi), who invites him into his household and introduces him to acclaimed geisha and courtesan Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), who has such composure and poise that even Musashi is astounded by it, whilst she, like Otsu and Akemi, falls powerfully for the great warrior. Most portentously, another young and brilliant ronin, Sasaki Kojirō (Kōji Tsuruta), arrives in Kyoto and studies Musashi from a distance, even intervening unbidden to guard Musashi’s back and keep the Yoshioka gang at bay at crucial moments. Sasaki’s ambition is not ultimately beneficial to Musashi: Sasaki has him marked as his one great rival, and, knowing they must inevitably duel to decide who the best is, is determined to keep him from being killed by hordes or treachery.
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The Oscar the first episode captured may well have reflected, like the acclaim for Gate of Hell, the thrill the exotic beauty both works generated regardless of their dramatic wits, with bright colour effects and historical settings far detached from the transformations overtaking postwar Japan. Inagaki certainly never pretends to tell a realistic story, in opposition to the pungent authenticity Kurosawa strove to bring to Seven Samurai (1954). Inagaki’s filmmaking throughout the three films is tremendous, using any device he saw fit to render his story vivid and quick-moving in spite of the contemplative heart of the drama and the complexities of the human islands we see grazing against each other throughout: the Samurai trilogy is one of the fleet and gripping epic achievements of cinema.
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Aspects of the trilogy have sunk deeply into the cinematic landscape, less celebrated than the influence of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo (1961) and yet detectable in Sergio Leone’s films, which particularly enjoy the notion of antagonists who protect each other to better serve an ultimate confrontation, and as one of the many reference points of Kill Bill (2004-05), and perhaps even George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s growing ability and search for self-control recall Musashi’s, whilst Lucas’ narratives thrive on similar interlacing plot and character strands across multiple episodes—the final moments of Inagaki’s second film particularly resemble The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Inagaki may even have coined a quintessential martial arts movie cliché when Musashi awes people by snatching flies with his chopsticks. Inagaki pushes stylisation so far as to include a shot of animated birds flying over a set representing the countryside at dawn, echoing back to the artifice of silent cinema. Like many directors who started work in the silent era but whose careers were still strong in the ’50s, including John Ford and Fritz Lang, Inagaki seemed to lose interest in realistic precepts for cinema and turned back to a deliberately, conveniently stylised atmosphere, the better to play out psychological dramas and rock-ribbed moral tales.
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Inagaki also bends the arc of his storytelling to include discursions into geisha dance and musical performance, as if rejoicing in the fabric of Japanese classical culture. Inagaki’s indulgence of his theatrical and nonrealist reflexes doesn’t mean, however, that these films are stagy: rather, they are filled with vignettes of astonishing illustrative verve. The early Battle of Sekigahara sequences is a brief but thunderous piece of filmmaking, frames packed with charging cavalry and contorting bodies, bolts of myth-writing lightning and pounding rain, whirling slashes of Musashi’s sword matched by the driving tracking motions of the camera. The location photography possesses the clarity and lustre that has long felt very specific to Japanese film, but Inagaki uses his locations with the same painterly élan as his artificial settings, alive to rolling mists, the fires of the rising sun, the wind-thrash of riverbank reeds, the glow of the moon. The duel that represents the climax of the trilogy, a battle filmed as a form of kabuki dance, uses trees to form a proscenium arch and frame the antagonists. Inagaki uses bodies of water as a leitmotif throughout, tethering Musashi’s journey both to coherent geography and to ready moral, spiritual, and experiential cartography. Marshy swamps and high, trickling streams denote the stagnant and violent state of Japan and the wild yet tentative nature of the hero at the outset. Inagaki constantly cuts way to shots of flowing rivers to denote the passage of time and the paths to maturity, whilst bridges across those rivers are both convenient landmarks for the characters, but also symbolically charged places where the characters often meet and form tentative attachments that may later be revised, as with Akemi and Otsu, who first share a moment of sunny, sisterly friendship when they meet and speak of their lost loves well before learning they’re speaking of the same man. The finale of the second film sees Musashi fighting in rice paddies, using the terrain to his advantage. Sasaki shows off swordcraft before the mercurial beauty of a waterfall. Rivers meet the sea in the last film, where Musashi must cross to Ganryu Island to meet his greatest enemy alone on the edge of the ocean and the day, in the null zone between life and death, the perfect Zen location. Musashi’s choice of armament for this grand battle, a hand-carved boat oar, attains special meaning through this motif.
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Paradoxically, whilst Inagaki evokes the most hallowed conventions and traditions of Japanese culture, his Musashi trilogy deals with turmoil on a social and moral level. Inagaki pays acute attention not simply to Musashi’s travails, but also to the way they affect others, most prominently the diptych of Otsu and Akemi but also from characters as diverse as Toji and Yoshino, orphan boy Jōtarō (Kenjin Iida) and braggart horse thief Kuma (Haruo Tanaka), who both become his protégés, and the boatman (Minoru Chiaki) who carries him to Ganryu Island. The voices of such characters are prized by Inagaki to the point where the trilogy starts to feel like a parable for the democratising process gripping Japanese life in the decade since the war, giving a sociopolitical context for Inagaki’s concern for downtrodden and outsider characters. Musashi is conceived as both catalyst and onlooker in this process, presenting a paragon detached from the power structure and upper classes of the age, a hero figure to ordinary people, but in many ways, cut off from such evolution (when Inagaki would cast Mifune as a version of Cyrano, it would allow him to perfectly unite both the exemplar and the outcast in one figure).
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Musashi is himself, ironically, often reticent, even inarticulate, particularly when it comes to the women in his life, who wants things from him he can’t give. When he finally does let his passion boil over and grasps Otsu in a desperately erotic clinch, it so powerful and unexpected a display that Otsu is frightened, and Musashi immediately ceases, suffused with shame. Musashi’s quest for discipline and perfect skill finds outflow in art as well as fighting, as he’s glimpsed creating delicately beautiful expressions of a Zen-infused sense of nature. Meanwhile the great warrior is most at ease with children, like Jōtarō and the doll-like geisha apprentice who becomes his handmaiden in Lady Yoshino’s house and whose solitary, rapturous singing in a garden Inagaki films whilst Musashi is off at another deadly battle, a moment of near-fairytale beauteousness that rejects just about every precept imaginable in an historical action film.
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The conclusion of Duel at Ichijoji Temple ironically contrasts Musashi’s loss of erotic control with his gaining of gallantry: after fighting off dozens of the Yoshioka toughs, he’s finally challenged by Seijūrō, who escapes his own followers who have tried to keep him from attending the honourably arranged duel. Musashi beats him and holds off killing him once he’s sure his opponent is defeated, proving he’s attained both the skill and wisdom not to kill when it’s not necessary. Yet after his lapse with Otsu, he slinks away from his victory a still-chastened and embarrassed wanderer. The long, intricately staged battle between Musashi and the myriad heavies is certainly one of the great combat sequences in any movie, depending on Mifune’s great physicality for its convincing force as Inagaki expertly films how Musashi takes on a mass of enemies, carefully using his blinding speed, precision, and wits to divide their mass into manageable sections. The subplot of Matahachi and his mother ends as a tragicomic aside, both trying to kill Otsu but meeting an amusing comeuppance when Matahachi, who’s trying to pass himself off as Sasaki, meets the real swordsman, who chases him away. Sasaki then shepherds Akemi away from the battleground, and she accuses him of coveting her because he wants anything Musashi has. In the third film, Sasaki gains the success he craves when he’s appointed fencing master to the shogun’s son, albeit only after Musashi proves uninterested in the job and after Sasaki overdoes things in a bout arranged essentially as an audition, crippling a court samurai in a fencing display.
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Sasaki eventually challenges Musashi to a duel, and Musashi accepts, but sends him a letter asking for the date of their combat to be put off for one year. Sasaki accepts, as it gives both men time to create a strategy and conquer their interior troubles. Inagaki pointedly portrays their divergent paths, however. Sasaki settles into the lap of court life’s luxury with the prospect of marrying a lord’s daughter, whilst Musashi continues to wander, eventually settling in a small village on a plain dominated by bandits where he, Jōtarō, and Kuma set about to work the land and teach self-defence to the villagers. The echoes of Seven Samurai here perhaps confirm the swift impact Kurosawa’s film had on the jidai geki genre, but allow Inagaki to bring the story full circle. Where Takezō went to war with a small town, now Musashi sets out to protect one. He chooses a path of abnegation and rude physical labour as the way to school himself for the ultimate trial, and the cause of common humanity rather than statecraft and power.
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As Musashi and Sasaki move toward their destined battle, the counterpoint of Otsu and Akemi’s war for his affection builds to a head as both find their way to the village. Oko has since been tracked down and murdered in revenge by Kohei, the leader of a bandit gang whose brother Musashi killed in the first film, and Toji has joined the bandits. When they capture Akemi in a tavern after she runs off from Sasaki, Toji and Kohei compel Akemi to infiltrate the village and clear a path for their gang to charge in, a game Akemi eventually plays out in anger at the way Musashi accuses her of possessing her mother’s malignant streak. Akemi even tries to force Otsu to solve their rivalry in a battle with axes, but the bandit attack forestalls this, and instead Akemi dies defending Otsu from a lascivious bandit. In many ways Akemi is the trilogy’s obverse protagonist in a way none of the men competing with Musashi manages, and surpassing Otsu’s fervent but straightforward passion. Her path from degradation to a flash of nobility in the moments before death mimic Musashi’s journey whilst Inagaki stresses the realities that keep her from obtaining the same stature, the cruelty of desire and forced engagement with the realities of the world that Musashi conquers by distilling them into the theatre of war, an option not open to many others. Her death comes amidst the final conflagration of the worldly distractions and the dramas of pettier men, seen as the villagers and the samurai defeat the bandits but suffer great loss: the tumult of an evil epoch is fading by the film’s end, and history, represented by the hardiness of the villagers, rolls on.
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The sequence of Musashi and Sasaki’s beach duel is conceived by Inagaki as a moment of perfect crystallisation, both for the narrative and for the experiences and principles of the duellists. For a brief moment each finds a perfect mirror of ability and the perfect moment of pure reality that is at the same time a gate of transcendence. Musashi’s ultimate victory is the result of forces we’ve seen building since the opening seconds of the first episode, a victory allowed by his final achievement of calm in the face of any event: he enters and leaves the arena without expectations, past or future, whereas Sasaki wants it to be the last chore before settling into a life of acclaim and marriage. True to his own principles, Inagaki’s final grace note is not one of triumph, but the awful fall following zenith, noting Musashi’s anguish in facing a future without such a beckoning purpose and, worse, looking honestly at what it cost him to get here.

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1910s, Epic, Silent

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith

By Roderick Heath

One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.
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For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1913) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before and immediately responded to as something new and amazing. He had helped define the cinema at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.
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The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.
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Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith by this time already had a reputation as one of cinema’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.
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Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.
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The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.
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Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.
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The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a concise, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.
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The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.
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Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.
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At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.
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When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.
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One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.
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One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.
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As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.
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The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.
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One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.
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Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.
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Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.
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Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.
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The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.

Standard
1980s, Epic, Western

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino

By Roderick Heath

Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.

The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western movie. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner intending to shoot it at one point. Michael Cimino, still a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, and began fashioning the project into his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of major film artist by the Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for greatness—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
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The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
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Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, ethnic struggle against WASP pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as a vivid, multilingual polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter and their generally easy place in the modern social sprawl, with an eye to comprehending just how jarring and tense the early days of such a blend must have been. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative. Some have questioned whether, as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, and perhaps this contributed to its swift and merciless interment.
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Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork near-unique in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s talent for orchestrating both the grand and the intimate, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity on Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and personable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nearly nonfunctional on a story level but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
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The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Establishment’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” Oratorical dances segue into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
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The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth. Still, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, he has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who also styled himself a poet and perhaps even had hopes of dedicating himself to the art, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of moneyed power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association. They’re going to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
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When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
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As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino relays this tale via a series of lengthy, unified sequences, realised with painterly vistas and balletic camera movements. The mid-section describes the unfolding of Jim, Nate, and Ella’s romantic triangle, a quiet, almost unspoken crisis for the trio, and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), as Cimino and Leone’s heroes are both defined by a sense of nagging nostalgia in spite of stripped illusions. Just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual are both described in and woven through the fabric of the film. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
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The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
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Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, running the gamut from would-be bourgeois stalwarts to radical firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, reveals how the rudely compiled ethnicities in Johnson County have already fused into a quintessentially American populace, in their love of novelty and group optimism.
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Cimino imbues this sequence with a faintly unreal, particularly dreamy quality, via peculiar scene grammar that contrives to make the crowd suddenly vanish, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. It’s also here Heaven’s Gate that most clearly contemplates the John Ford Western style. In that style, the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as an angry and effective political voice, rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over all the accused people on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
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Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for. Inevitably, perhaps, his cabin is well outside the town, situated in a bucolic meadow, distinct from all the communities he cannot join yet. There he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead as a declaration of his new intentions. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival, and so has the army bombard Nate’s cabin with a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
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Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and a shared vision for life, rather than to its individuals, no matter heroic and impressive they were. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from a place run by a spiky western European enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
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Heaven’s Gate was both an apotheosis and last stand for the gritty, eccentric, deromanticised style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, often called the revisionist or “mud and blood” western. This brand was sustained by the western’s ongoing popularity, but doomed to help kill that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through bloody, anti-mythological takes on the underlying history and milieu. Kristofferson, who gives probably his best performance, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast by that director, who helped to found the movement, as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society. For Cimino, he plays a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level, a struggle that coincides in semi-symmetry with the same struggle of the community he’s chosen as his home and lot.
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If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressiveness of Heaven’s Gate often looks back to a more classical form of moviemaking. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts, and the diffused lighting and fuzzy-edged interior frames recall rather Robert Altman, the high sheriff of revisionism. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as place where complete abandonment of civilisation’s creeds is possible. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
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The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. This sequence portrays Jim in a traditionally heroic role, but Cimino undercuts it by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Jim is drunk and sleeping when Nate’s assassination sparks general insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own here, and in some ways emerges as the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential.
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Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and the insults and assaults she receives only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and surround the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover. Shop-keepers and plough jockeys turn paladins to pound their persecutors, their enemies shoot back, and the scene devolves into a wild melee filled with bullet holes, broken bones, kicking hooves, shattered wagons, and whistling bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
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Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself.
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Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding white dress.
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The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.

Standard
1950s, Epic, Religious

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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Director: Cecil B. DeMille

By Roderick Heath

Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927).
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DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear. DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942).
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After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a patina of unflinching moral import. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.
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The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including, yes, On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.
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DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.
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DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.
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Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.
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Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law.
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The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike. Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist.
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Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. Nefertiri is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.
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Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution.
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Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind. Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format.
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DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.
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Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence.
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Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness. DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent.
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Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, whilst also perhaps instilling quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?
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For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have pointed humanist messages. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic.
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If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people. The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line.
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But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).
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DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.
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The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.
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Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.
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The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience.
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But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme. DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd.
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One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.

Standard
2010s, Drama, Epic, Religious

Noah (2014)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky

By Roderick Heath

The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread variations of it are, scholars have speculated whether the story might be sourced in an oral tradition extending back to the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
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How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
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In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
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Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
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Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
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Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
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This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
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Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
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The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
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Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
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Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
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Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
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Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
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Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.

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1930s, Epic, Historical, Pre-code films

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

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Director: Josef von Sternberg

By Roderick Heath

In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
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Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
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Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
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For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
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The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
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Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
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The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the Tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
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Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
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Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
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Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
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Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
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The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
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Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
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Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declares war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes Tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself as well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
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When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming Tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor. Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
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Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as Tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
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Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
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Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
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Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with fearsome exultation, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.

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