2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Historical

The Northman (2022)

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Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.

That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.

Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.

More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.

Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.

The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.

From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.

Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.

Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.

One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.

Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.

Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.

Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.

Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.

Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.

The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.

Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women  and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.

I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.

Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.

At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Historical, Uncategorized

The Last Duel (2021)

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Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener

By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s first film in four years wields the unavoidable feeling of a culmination, and repudiation, more than forty years after his debut feature, The Duellists (1977). Scott’s career hardly seems finished yet and yet if he had retired after making The Last Duel the sense of circularity in regards to The Duellists would be irresistible, particularly in coming after his divisive but brilliantly grim and meta revisit to the Alien series, Alien Covenant (2017). Here he offers another film with “duel” in the title, sustaining in part the same driving theme of irrational and self-destructive resentment and fixation and acts of antiquated violence, as well as casually casting two American actors as period Frenchmen and avoiding Old Vic accents, to the consternation of some. The differences are revealing, of course. The Duellists was made heavily under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), whilst The Last Duel, whilst paying overt homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), sees Scott truly wrestling with only one master, himself. It’s also now more than twenty years since Scott revived his stature as a major Hollywood director with Gladiator (2000), one of his most popular and beloved movies, albeit one that dated with punishing speed. Scott’s been returning to and improvising variations on that hit since, partly for obvious reasons – sticking “From the Director of Gladiator” on a movie poster featuring some hairy, sweaty dude clutching a sword seems an easy sell, even as these revisits have generally failed with audiences – but also, as has become increasingly clear, because it was the gateway into his late career obsessions.

So Scott has been revising Gladiator’s straightforward, even simplistic exalting of heroically bemuscled men resisting tyranny (I’ve long thought of Gladiator as less a modernised sword-and-sandal film than as a period transposing of the sports movie, depicting as that mode usually does the physically dynamic sporting hero as the only figure left to use who can transcend pure commerce and stick up for individual will in determining outcomes) from different angles of questioning, in the tangle of religion and sectarianism explored in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and the exploration of emerging democratic impulses as presented by folklore in the violently uneven but doggedly interesting Robin Hood (2010). All of those films dealt in varying ways with Scott’s recurring late-career fascination with the birth of a modern concept of individual worth and identity in relationship with raw tribal identity and political power. The Last Duel completes the arc in essentially renouncing Gladiator’s fantasy, by recounting an obscure but fascinating nugget of authentic history, involving a duel to the death. The battle between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was one of the last to gain official sanction as a holdover of the old chivalric faith that trial by combat invoked direct deistic judgement. The clash was held outside Paris in 1386, after Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite.

Through its very nature and moment, the event of that duel rests on a fault-line in historical consciousness, confronting our lingering fascination for the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair walked with wafting silk trailing, with our simultaneous cynicism, which is also the period setting’s, an emergent scepticism close to the cusp of the Renaissance when, whether the powers that be admitted it or not, people knew damn well God didn’t express his will through two guys trying to murder each-other. It’s the sort of subject one could imagine an array of great filmmakers tackling with very different art – Robert Bresson, say, casting his dour eye on men wrapped in cold grey metal bashing each-other to death, or Richard Lester, impishly smirking at the absurdity, or Ken Russell, relishing the ritual of bloodshed and locus of wilful lunatic energy. For Scott, it’s a story that engages multiple strands of his career long concerns and stylistic explorations. The Last Duel offers a chance to bind together ways of seeing, ways that unfold on multiple levels – the narrative itself proffers multiple versions of the same events according to different viewpoints, correlated with the way the film operates as both a definite portrait of a historical epoch and a parable for contemporary concerns.

Unlike Rashomon, The Last Duel doesn’t hinge on a disinterested party’s viewing of events. Instead it presents the viewpoints of Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). After a brief prologue showing the preparations for the title duel in all its careful ritual measure presaging the unleashing of pure physical force, the relationship between the three characters is sketched in Carrouges’ opening narrative. Carrouges, the son of a respected Norman knight, sees himself as a doughty, unappreciated, wronged and justifiably frustrated man who has to pay his way through the brutal and dangerous life of a professional soldier. He saves Le Gris’s life when the two men are involved in an ill-advised but honourable attempt to lift the English siege of Limoges in 1370. Whilst they remain friends for a time afterwards, their bond sours as Le Gris becomes a trusted agent of their mutual lord Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and is increasingly favoured by him to the extent of being handed both Carrouges’s father’s former title and estate. Carrouges marries Marguerite, the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), an aristocrat held in general odium for formerly siding with the English. Carrouges is willing to overlook the disgrace in the face of Madeleine’s beauty and the opportunity to get hold of fine new estates.

One valuable parcel of land, Au-le-Faucon, which Carrouges firmly insists Thibouville give as part of his dowry, is instead claimed as recompense for feudal dues by Pierre and then handed over as a reward to Le Gris. Carrouges sues Pierre over the title to the estate, but fails, earning the lord’s peevish enmity and convincing Carrouges that Le Gris is plotting against him. Carrouges and Le Gris reconcile for the sake of accord amongst Pierre’s vassals, but the peace doesn’t hold, and Marguerite eventually reports to her husband that Le Gris assaulted her whilst Carrouges was in Paris collecting payment for one of his military ventures. The second narrative presents Le Gris’ perspective, seeing himself as a man of talent and intellect suitably rewarded. Pierre, disliking what he sees as Carrouges’ stiff-necked, charmless, and resentful persona, prefers Le Gris as an industrious employee and friend, inviting him into his inner circle and nightly orgies. Le Gris sees himself as tested to the utmost by Carrouges’ increasingly paranoid and irate streak and generally poor judgement, and feels an immediate connection with the multilingual and well-read Marguerite when he encounters her after reconciling with Carrouges, a connection which he interpreted as inevitably romantic. When questioned about his visit to the Carrouges castle to expiate it, Le Gris explains, “Of course she made the customary protests, but she is a lady.” The third chapter illustrates Marguerite’s experience, a perspective from which both Carrouges and Le Gris are seen as stripped of their pretences and self-delusions.

In terms of the film’s interlocking units of storytelling, each bearing the contrasting imprint of a different screenwriter which Scott has to stylistically unify, the impossibility of knowing crashes against the certainty of result. Damon’s chapter hands himself a part that hinges on his screen persona as a man who people tend to underestimate, for his curiously nondescript good looks, turned increasingly heavy-set in middle-age and matching capacity to play men driven by deeply repressed social or class resentment. Affleck’s chapter is as much a lampoon of Hollywood players in the fashion of his own movie Argo (2012) as it is a portrait of a destructively egocentric pair of men. Holofcener brings the feminine perspective, forcing a discomfortingly close identification with Marguerite as she sweats through several different forms of abuse. The real history invoked in The Last Duel is opaque. Just what really went down between the Carrouges and Le Gris is unknowable beyond what they themselves said happened. The film itself finally is not. I gritted my teeth just a little bit as Scott designated the first two chapters as “the truth according to” but the last, more than a shade archly, sees “the truth” as those words fade more slowly from the screen. The ultimate point of Rashomon was that people inevitably see events that encompass them with a slanted perspective, according to the way they think of themselves and of other people. But fair’s fair: The Last Duel has a different end in mind, that yes, there can be a specific and ultimate truth that other people don’t always want to see, for whatever reason, and that people can also edit their own reality to make sense of what they do.

With a kind of irony allowed only to deities and film directors, Scott can make his film equivalent to the proposed metaphysical reasoning behind the concept of the trial by combat itself, as a vehicle to reveal such hidden truths. Only at a couple of points in the film does Scott and his trio of screenwriters entirely contradict what has already been portrayed, a way of approaching cinema that has a controversial aspect, as it requires the camera which reports narrative to us to lie. But it is used here with exacting purpose. Thus, where Carrouges remembers his attempt to intervene when the English slaughter French hostages at the Battle of Limoges as a valiant if doomed charge demanded by honour and humanity, Le Gris recalls as a calamitous surrender of reason to emotion that cost victory in the battle and almost got him killed. The event binds the two men in their erratic orbit, whilst also defining their relationship to Pierre, whose power over their lives and careers plays no small role in what happens. Carrouges becomes increasingly convinced that Le Gris, perhaps constantly aggravated by owing his life to the older, tougher knight, has become pathologically fixated on taking his stuff and showing him disrespect. Le Gris sees Carrouges as increasingly ridiculous and impossible in his lack of moderation and reason, and that he himself is merely the accidental beneficiary of Carrouges’ self-invited bad luck. Pierre’s personal detestation of Carrouges, sparked by his actions in the battle and reinforced when Carrouges sues him, and his indulgence of Le Gris, reinforces the deeply personal nature of power the age, as the lord has the right and facility to award and strip favours and posts, to oversee and manipulate legal contests, and generally make life easier or harder. Moreover, as Pierre admits to Le Gris in speaking of Carrouges, “He’s no fun.”

Affleck, in a performance reminiscent of the kind Peter Ustinov once gave in movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960) in the way he manages to offer levity and glimmers of satirical anachronism without despoiling the overall texture, portrays the medieval lord as a man with a strong streak of smug brattiness, but also a keen sense of his own prerogative and a good sense of which people will meet his needs and those who will not. Pierre comes to lean on Le Gris as both an intelligent manager of his affairs who can get things done, chiefly by employing standover and shakedown tactics to get money out of his vassals and tenants, and as a friend and confederate who comes increasingly to share and enjoy Pierre’s predilection for hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that are readily served up by the in-built pyramid scheme that is medieval social structure. Affleck helps to also bridge the film’s period setting and the more contemporary concerns, pitching Pierre as an indulgent friend and protector for Le Gris, and coaching him on how to handle Marguerite’s accusation: “Deny, deny, deny.” Affleck and Damon of course owed much of their breakthrough as major Hollywood players to the now disgraced and jailed Harvey Weinstein, and this line had the stinging quality of something they might have heard bandied about the Miramax offices at some point. Scenes depicting Pierre playing the easy, jocular host for his circle of friends, making a tart speech farewelling his pregnant wife as she heads off to bed, similarly lampooning a certain kind of Hollywood grandee as he and Le Gris then settle down to the proper business of buttering up the gathered with choice bawdiness.

A key encounter in the course of the tale as a whole sees Pierre deftly counter Carrouges’ scarcely controlled fury in reminding him of what he has every right to do, in a scene where Carrouges confronts Pierre and Le Gris at the celebration of Le Gris being given his father’s title. This scene is cut away from in Carrouges’ chapter, as he reports to Marguerite that he feels he spoke well, whereas through Le Gris’ eyes it’s the spectacle of his old friend making an ass of himself before a much-amused crowd, where Carrouges’ anger is self-defeating, and his attempt to argue to Pierre that Le Gris is a snake in the grass falls totally flat. Carrouges sees himself as a kind of working stiff of the aristocratic warrior class, the guy who, robbed by The Man and unfairly penalised for standing up for his rights, has to go to Scotland to find work, risking life and limb, gaining a knighthood in the process but still returning home to what he feels is snooty disdain. Glimpses of combat in the film in which Carrouges fights at Limoges and in Scotland exemplifies the famous formula of life being nasty, brutish, and short, but battle is also a realm where Carrouges is at least comfortable and competent. This self-portrait is undercut to a degree later when Marguerite learns Carrouges neglects collecting rents on his estate, and takes it in hand herself. Which is actually a nice depiction of one rarely elucidated aspect of medieval life, when the running of a great estate was a task that needed intelligent and competent people and often fell to wives to perform when their husbands were off at war, which tended to be frequent.

The Last Duel in this fashion assiduously details the mores and structures legal, military, and financial that underpinned feudal Europe, and examines the way those things meshed with the people who inhabited it. Part of the challenge in making such a film is to animate the very different ways the society of the age understood cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and individual identity itself, even as the actual people are entirely recognisable to us in their motives and emotional and behavioural extremes. Carrouges, for instance, is revealed through signing his name with a mark, to be illiterate, not uncommon for his time but giving a fascinating and revealing dimension to his feelings of paranoia and persecution in the face of Le Gris’ learning and competence in abstract matters like finance and letters. This represents an entire world at once readily visible to Carrouges but also entirely incomprehensible, much in the same way that much biliousness today stems from the simultaneous ubiquity and incoherence for many of dominant areas of specialised learning like computer technology or high finance. As the titular duel itself confirms, this was still a time when a fearsome price to be paid in physical suffering was supposed to both substitute for, and potentially alleviate, spiritual suffering. Or, to take another attitude towards the same idea, fear of the latter was made more palpable and therefore more impressive and real by the threat of the former, helping create a kind of mental surveillance system to ensure good behaviour.

A very crucial part of the plot of The Last Duel as it reaches its home stretch is the revelation that loss in the duel for Carrouges also means an even more terrible fate for Marguerite too as the accuser, placing Marguerite in an impossible situation according to the sexist and doctrinaire rules of the time. Marguerite would be brandished a liar and heretic through the failure of her husband’s muscle rather than through any reasoned parsing of her testimony, and whilst Carrouges himself certainly risks violent and gruesome death in the hunt for satisfaction, still rather pleasant compared to being burned alive. Marguerite doesn’t even learn this until they’ve travelled far too far down this road to turn back, but she successfully maintains a façade of adamant poise in front of the hearing. Carrouges, knowing that Pierre controls the local courts and can therefore ensure Le Gris’ acquittal, as he does, instead petitions the king for the right to trial by combat, which means weathering a hearing presided over by the king and his Parlement including church elders. Le Gris, for his part, turns down the plea by a cleric, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), to take advantage of a loophole that will let the case be heard in an ecclesiastical court instead, nullifying the risk of the combat, insisting that to do so would be tantamount to cowardice and a tacit admission of guilt, which means he is, more subtly, a victim of a similar bind to Marguerite.

At the same time, the contemporary likenesses are hardly disguised as the film’s driving concern is winnowed down to the offence done to Marguerite, an offence that to gain any kind of justice entails risking still worse suffering. The hallowed cliché of “he said, she said” trotted out in ambiguous accusations of sexual misconduct played here as a particularly lethal game of chicken. The problems identified in the period are the problems of today when it comes to such matters. Marguerite has the right to have her accusation taken at face value and seriously delved into, but faces the presumption that she’s a pawn, or a harlot, or a conspirator in her husband’s desire to revenge himself on Le Gris, who himself has friends in high places who can stymie any semblance of justice, and so she must submit to questioning tantamount to another form of rape as her sex life is probed. Meanwhile by this stage she’s grown heavy with child, an event that might be the ironically late fulfilment of her marriage contract with Carrouges or the product of Le Gris’ assault.  It would be more than a bit rich to call Scott the inventor of Hollywood feminism, but what he did do was create, with Ripley for Alien (1979) and later Thelma and Louise (1991) and G.I Jane (1997), templates for how popular cinema approaches such things. Marguerite is a particularly potent extension of this facet of Scott’s oeuvre, in the way her presence is used to purposefully unpack the kind of warrior mystique Scott served up so ripely in Gladiator. But she’s also something of a critique of that iconography of strong women. Marguerite is at the mercy of the men around her, be they officially protective like Carrouges or predatory like Le Gris, and her attempt to stand up for herself never really escapes this zone. The Last Duel dismantles the idea of the white knight standing up for his abused lady, but it also firmly reminds that the kinds of empowerment fantasies we see in a lot of movies today are just that.

Carrouges’ self-perception laid out in the first chapter is undercut in the second and finally laid totally bare in the last, particularly when his reaction to Marguerite’s rape is revised from calm sympathy to one of raging peevishness, seeing himself wronged before Marguerite and demanding she prostrate herself so he can try and efface Le Gris’ imprint on her. It’s an ugly scene that largely dispels what little sympathy one has for Carrouges by this point. But the film succeeds in being more nuanced than expected on this score. Carrouges’ anxious desire to sexually please his wife whilst knock her up avoids the standard vignette in a lot of recent historical dramas of a brutishly indifferent husband, and even in this scene there’s the feeling this is another of Carrouges’ incoherent emotional expressions, beset by the absurdly provoking notion that he can literally fuck Le Gris’ taint out of his wife’s vagina. Driver has perhaps the most perfectly medieval face to appear in cinema since Ron Perlman with the added advantage of being considered handsome, and he gives perhaps his best performance to date as Le Gris, particularly in his playing of the crucial rape scene(s) where he seems to be acting a little drama to which he’s written the script in his head with scarce reference to reality, a playlet in which he’s the ardent suitor locked in a game of erotic hide-and-seek with a proper but lusty lady, much like the games played in Pierre’s chambers every night. Indeed, Scott films one such game, which culminates in the beginning of an orgy, and then recreates the framing in Le Gris’ version of his attack on Marguerite, suggesting the degree to which his reality is by this point forged by the bubble he lives in.

The shift to Holofcener’s presentation Marguerite’s viewpoint adopts a similar tactic to Affleck’s but with a different frame, ticking off chick flick clichés. Marguerite contends with her haughty and critical mother-in-law Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) whilst being left alone with her for long stretches of time, and hangs out with her social circle amongst the real castle wives of Normandy like Marie (Tallulah Haddon) as they assess the local male talent, with all agreeing Le Gris scores high in the looks department, casual fun which provides another bitter consequence as Marie later resents Marguerite for her accusation against Le Gris. Marguerite weathers her returned husband’s anger over showing excessive quantities of boob, having adopted the queen’s latest, risqué fashion, and experiences bewildered frustration over her primary function, trying to bear children for Carrouges, with her clueless husband shooting blanks and leaving her resolutely unsatisfied, although in her inexperience she has no way to express this, much in the same way her husband cannot himself articulate his most powerful needs.

More substantively, Marguerite is able to put her intelligence and learning to beguiling use in running Carrouges’ estate and expertly assessing Le Gris’ real character whilst seeming to charm him, a foray that leads her to ultimately agree with her husband that Le Gris is a cunning but facetious personality, but also backfires as she hooks Le Gris’ interest. Comer, hoisted to prominence playing a globetrotting assassin in the TV show Killing Eve, gives a formidable and completely different performance here that immediately and firmly establishes her as a major movie actor. She’s particularly interesting in portraying not just the more spectacular dramatic moments, but in touches like her Marguerite suddenly crying whilst trying to sustain a conversation with Marie, and her slight air of pleased self-approbation as she reports her observations of Le Gris to her husband as they dance and notes the advantages in her way of handling problems. A crucial moment comes late in the film when the Carrouges matriarch confronts Marguerite and accuses her of stirring up dangerous strife to suit herself, and mentions that she herself was raped once when young, a secret she kept for the sake of avoiding more trouble, exposing a vast gap not simply in attitude towards such a crime between her and her daughter-in-law but in their methods of survival, as Marguerite notes the cost such stoicism has inflicted, solving nothing, salving nothing.

Alien Covenant achieved a mode of brilliant self-indulgence for Scott as a garish self-satire, restlessly rearranging and re-enshrining horror and melodrama canards whilst using them as fodder for the theme of a creator moving forward with eternally dissatisfied hunger, inventions both great and flawed left in a billowing wake. The Last Duel encompasses a similar reflex, albeit it more applied, in its triptych of auto-critiquing storylines. As well as allowing Scott to revise and complicate his own popular mythologies, The Last Duel unifies strands of his cinematic reflexes evinced throughout his career. Scott’s exactingly wrought and densely layered visual tableaux have sometimes been purely decorative but in his best work also support his attempts to weave a holistic vision of a created, or recreated, world, in movies as diverse as Blade Runner (1982) and American Gangster (2007). The latter film tried to do something most similar gangster films avoid and show how the criminal enterprise worked from the mastermind to the junkie at the bottom of the food chain, shedding light on the antihero’s wilful blindness to the misery he causes, and The Last Duel exhibits the same top-to-bottom thoroughness. The Martian (2015) was more jocular and light-footed in its similar preoccupation with process, exploring the manifold forces human and cosmic required to save one stranded human being. Blade Runner wove dreamlike visual textures from a rigorously detailed setting, and touched on a similar fascination for the depth of the cinematic frame as a zone where every grain or digit can contain meaning, most particularly in the long sequence of Deckard exploring a photograph for clues in the mystery he was unravelling, a sequence of which The Last Duel can be described as the feature-length extrapolation.

The business of husbandry is codified in a sourly funny and cunningly layered vignette, in which  Marguerite looks on in bewildered anxiousness whilst her husband gets furious over a big black stallion breaking into the stall of his in-season white mare and trying to mount her. This potent unit of imagery comes straight out of Shakespeare’s Othello but converted from verbal usage to visual. This image doesn’t just comment on their marriage and the impending act of sexual violence, but delves to the bottom of things, establishing how everything in this world is the attempt to desperately control the power of natural forces over the tentative stability of social structures, a world where dynamic, daemonic urges are scarcely leavened by fear of hellfire or a well-swung mace, and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. More subtle but most vital as a visualisation of theme and character are the three different versions of one kiss, which Carrouges bids Marguerite give Le Gris as part of their ritual of reconciliation. What is for Carrouges a glancing, purely polite gesture is for Le Gris a striking moment of chemistry and for Marguerite a perturbing signal, conveyed through both the actors’ actions and the variation in Scott’s camerawork. Such dramas that eventually finish up consuming a nation’s attention, as well as ultimately threaten three lives, can pivot on such fleeting yet intense moments, infinite realities packed into such junctions of human attitude.

The portrayals of the rape itself in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, again exemplifies the filmmaking care even in showing something that isn’t pleasant to watch. Small details tellingly differ – where, say, Le Gris sees Marguerite leaving shoes behind her like a saucy maiden discarding clothing, Marguerite remembers as simply accidental in the course of her flustered fear – and so too does the visual language. Scott holds back for the most part in Le Gris’ version, filming mostly in wide shots that emphasise the physicality of the event, Le Gris as lanky coyote after Marguerite’s darting roadrunner, before concluding with a point-of-view shot of Le Gris looking down at Marguerite’s face in contorted profile. Le Gris’ version of sex is duly pornographic, defined not by connection but by the erasure of need, and his self-created fiction resumes as he makes his apologies and leaves. In Marguerite’s version the shots are more intimate and urgent, climaxing in a long close-up on her shattered expression as Le Gris penetrates her and then leaves her, the storm having visited and then departed like some deeply ugly and surreal dream, reminiscent in a way of the imagery of violation and sudden, sundering ugliness in Alien.

The attack can only be properly avenged in the trial by combat, which means the Carrouges must work tactically, making their friends and social circle unwitting confederates by telling them and using them in the project of forcing the King to pay attention, circumventing Pierre’s control, essentially the medieval edition of a social media campaign. The hearing the King calls eventually sees the parties grilled by legal minds, a sequence that’s used to encompass the most egregious aspects of the period’s approach to things like sex and justice. The young monarch, Charles VI (Alex Lawther), essentially treats the event as a particularly juicy entertainment, whilst the duel itself is a spectator sport that’s also like watching a movie in that everyone has their rooting interest. Scott builds suspense as the film nears the duel as the potential price Marguerite must pay becomes clear, a truth that displaces the tension over Carrouges and Le Gris’ fates onto her, as she stands up to her irate husband with intense and righteous anger but then finds both a source of solace and further worry when she has her child and wonders if the infant will soon be orphaned after such a long effort by the parents to have him. Carrouges meanwhile is left isolated in both his alienation from Marguerite and most of the onlookers who want to see him fall, and Damon does an excellent job in invoking pathos in the character even when that’s not the focal point through his stolid, chastened affect as the moment of confrontation with mortality looms.

The duel, when finally returned to, represents an apotheosis for Scott in terms of sheer moviemaking craft,  capturing with concussive immediacy both the awful violence of the fighters and the nightmarish state of watching it with the certainty that life and death acted out on the sand is also one’s own fate being settled. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, with its stern, frigid, muted grey-blue palette only swapped out for the honeyed glow of candlelit interiors, mostly rejects the penchant for beauty found in Scott’s other historical films, and here become furious and alive in a way that feels as cutting-edge as anything Scott’s ever shot – beautifully dashing tracking shots cleaved brutally with inserts of mounted camerawork pursuing the duellists into the joust. Thunderous editing of both images and sound helping lend you-are-there palpability to the shattering lances spraying splinters, horses colliding with walls, and cold steel blades sinking into soft warm flesh, and none of it seems to be augmented with special effects, a particular blessing in this accursed moment in action filmmaking. Every blow and movement communicates physical effort and cost. What it isn’t is a cheer-along struggle of good and evil, even as Scott finally allows Carrouges to become what he wanted to think of himself as, the plucky, honourable underdog with a righteous cause, as he faces not just Le Gris’ unexpected fearsomeness in the fight but the general disdain of the aristocrats in the crowd, including Pierre, who want their charming favourite to win.

The fight comes to its terrible, gruesome end as Carrouges manages to outwit Le Gris and tries to force him to confess, before showing his dagger into the man’s mouth, a bloody and awfully intimate mirror to his assault on Marguerite. Carrouges, still faintly hapless even after proving himself awesomely tough as he needs the king’s cue to face and embrace his released wife, now exhibits sufficient poise to offer Marguerite to the crowd for exaltation as well, before leading her to an under-construction Notre Dame, whilst Le Gris’ corpse is hung up naked and pathetic. Even Pierre is offered a moment of pathos as he’s left clearly mourning his friend. Carrouges fails at being a hero but finally triumphs in offering the crowd a better story, of a knight who has vindicated his wife. Scott nonetheless suggests the awful, lingering bleakness under the relief nonetheless as he cuts out the noise of the cheering mob and has only the sound of Marguerite’s strained breathing on the soundtrack as she rides in slow motion. A brief coda does give a modest dose of reassurance as Marguerite is glimpsed as a happy mother whilst Carrouges has gone off to get himself killed in the Crusades. But it’s with that image of Marguerite after the duel where the film should have ended, with that feeling that won’t go away, like standing on the beach with a colossal wave about to crash down upon you.

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2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

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Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

In The Mood For Love offered something so rare and specific amidst the frenetic climes of the millennium’s pivot it had a drug-like appeal for the international film scene. A bathe in a dreamlike evocation of the past, a tale of illicit passion played by pre-sexual revolution rules, a dose of heady exotica ready to go. Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed and beloved film, In The Mood For Love has also proved a creative millstone for its maker, at least in terms of his receptive audience, as everything he did after it was largely doomed to be found wanting, and what he’d done before a mere warm-up. From a slightly longer perspective, In The Mood For Love might well be Wong’s highpoint but, if not exactly an outlier in Wong’s oeuvre, certainly an obsessive distillation of one, singular aspect of it. After his debut with As Tears Go By (1987), a resituating of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) streaked with powerful hints of Wong’s emerging sensibility, the director hit his stride with the first of his studies in romantic eccentricity and ambivalence, Days of Being Wild (1990). Not for the last time in his career, Wong found himself stymied as he tried to get an ambitious work off the ground, as he struggled to make his purposefully eccentric take on martial arts melodrama Ashes of Time (1994), so in the meantime created Chungking Express (1994), a diptych of melancholy romances that gained him significant attention in the west.

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Wong quickly followed those works with Fallen Angels (1995), a darker take on a similar epic of super-modern social fragmentation, evanescent longing, and genre film caricaturing to that glimpsed in Chungking Express. Happy Together (1997) offered a more careful and considered study in a crumbling relationship with a queer twists and an international scope. Wong again found himself unable to make one film, the ambitious embarkation in metafiction 2046, and so developed a project designed to work in tandem with it, one that would ironically see the light of day first. Wong and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, had developed a specific and very influential aesthetic on their ‘90s films that they were already leaving behind on Happy Together, with Doyle’s swimming camerawork and blurred surveys of action and settings evoking a universe in a constant state of flux even as Wong’s refusal to traditionally bracket his sequences rendered the flux perpetually past-tense, at once immediate and anxiously remembered. The calmer style of Happy Together reflected a deepening concern for the pains of coupling, that attempt to fix one’s own nature by mixing it with another, whilst also taking Wong’s fascination for people compelled to wander to an extreme.

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Filming on In The Mood For Love went on for 15 months as Wong laboured to nail down the aesthetic he was chasing, leading to Doyle departing the production and being supplanted by Mark Lee Ping Bin, but the result assimilated them both, and the halting disconuity became an aspect of its style. In The Mood For Love returned to Days of Being Wild’s milieu of the early 1960s in Hong Kong, with Maggie Cheung playing a character with the same name as the one she had in that film, Su Li-zhen. Where in that film the character had been a lovelorn shopgirl who learns wisdom after burning her fingers in a romance with a callow, self-destructive womaniser, the one in In The Mood For Love is married and proper, feeling less like a mature version of that character as a different manifestation. But if there’s one notion that flows through all Wong’s films, it’s fascination for the way a human individual is often many different people in the course of their lives, changing apparel, jobs, roles, aims, lovers, even fates, often entirely reshaped by experience but with some core being unchanged. Taken on face value, In The Mood For Love is a story of romantic longing foiled by manifold forces and principles, but fundamentally, like most of Wong’s works, it’s actually about individuals trying to escape themselves but doomed to only graze against others because of forces both within and without.

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In The Mood For Love has a story, and people who inhabit it, but it’s just as fundamentally a work of incantation, resurrecting not only people but of a specific time and place, the Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood. A humdrum colonial outpost turned by tides of history into a pivot of civilisations and way-station for the dispossessed and yearning. Long before the halogen-lit markets and swooping road tunnels Wong would capture so exactingly with Chungking Express and Fallen Angels arrived, this was a place with streets of peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster, buildings packed to the rafters with human flotsam, people thrust so close together they can barely see each-other. The cheek-by-jowl romanticism of all-night mah-jong matches, basement food courts, and rain pattering on rusty street lampshades, the infestations of period kitsch, sunburst clocks and boss nova albums. The literally translated title original title, The Flowery Years, betrays the sense of nostalgic longing for a time of blooming possibility. Before prosperity would throw up skyscrapers, getting hold of a decent apartment is a matter of deep personal achievement.

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Two married couples move into neighbouring rooms, each sub-leased from the holders of larger apartments. The Chans’ room is in the flat of Mrs Suen (Rebecca Pan) whilst the Chows lives with the Koos, who like getting drunk and playing mah-jong together. We never properly see the other – better? worse? – half of the two couples, leaving us with Mr Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs Chan, aka Su Li-zhen. Their partners become abstractions, variations in an algorithm, cut off from the audience’s knowing except through signs and oblique depictions. Chow’s wife is glimpsed askew manning a lobby desk festooned with postcards, gatekeeper of the world’s promise and seller of cardboard dreams. Li-zhen’s husband has a job that takes him to Japan for unstated reasons whilst she works as the secretary for Mr Ho (Kelly Lai Chen) at a shipping company. Japan is a faraway mystic land of attractive consumer goods, the ironic key to identifying glitches in the system: the goods Su’s husband brings back are shiny and desirable and give away lapses in fidelity.

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In The Mood For Love’s narrative unfolds over a long time period, weeks and months and then years, but Wong’s scene grammar falsifies immediacy and logical connection. Telling moments clipped out of the familiar texture of time and experience and assembled in a manner that makes a sort of sense. Hitchcock’s rule of cinema as life with the boring bits cut out is both cited but also challenged: the action, the big moments of drama, are largely what’s cut out. Recurring patterns, and violations in those patterns, are instead the flesh of In The Mood For Love: “You notice things if you pay attention,” Su states at one point, not long before she subtly warns her boss into changing his tie, one she knows his mistress rather than his wife bought for him. The sensitivity to detail is engrained in the film’s texture: the languorous slow-motion sequences sensitise not just to Wong’s evocation of a lost and melancholically recalled past but also to objects and dress of the period usually dismissed as decoration, but which Wong identifies as the stuff that makes up people’s lives. The consumerist fancies that Mr Chan brings back with him are totems of another, more prosperous world – rice cookers, handbags, fashionable ties – and also lodestones of personal meaning and recognition.

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Whilst Wong never shows Mrs Chow’s face, the film represents her with the recurring sight of the workspace she inhabits, and glimpses of her bobbed hair. At one point, after Su knocks on the Chows’ door when she hears voices and correctly thinks she can hear her husband within their apartment, only for Mrs Chow to stonewall her, a phone conversation between her and Mr Chan is heard as she suggests they not see each-other for a time. Wong then privileges a mysterious, gauzily shot glimpse of Mrs Chow weeping whilst showering in some hotel room. Obsession is a matter of both display and receptivity. Chow (and Wong) is mesmerised Su’s slim form clad in a series of lush cheongsams, whilst she wears them to express stifled desire and boredom as well as her own elegantly correct sense of how to live. Chow’s colleague and pal Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam) offers comic relief whilst representing a type of human without the same kind of governor mediating between his appetites and impulses that ultimately foils both Chow and Su.

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Ah Ping brings a touch of amoral zaniness to Chow’s life with his misadventures like getting fleeced in betting on a horse and then visiting a whorehouse all after being in hospital (“You were in no shape for sex!” “I thought it would improve my luck.”), whilst his shameless but incompetent ploys in making a play for Su contrast Chow’s more gentlemanly approach but also render him something like his personified id. Ah Ping works with Chow in a newspaper offer touched with the same atmosphere of seedy romanticism as the rest of the locales in the film, a place where tousled, barely functional men work in a miasma of perspiration and cigarette haze. Place, exile, travel, all are major facets of In The Mood For Love despite most of the drama happening within one apartment block. That building itself is a kind of way-station for people who have found a momentary toehold. Chow, Mrs Suen, and others are former residents of Shanghai now crammed on a tight little island, the old Hong Kong soon to be swept away in the mad scramble for real estate in a city-state with a very finite amount of it. Wong had to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in Bangkok for that reason. Wong had gone the other route in Happy Together in portraying its fraying male lovers at loose in the world and also adrift. He would return more ostentatiously with The Grandmaster (2013) to the mythical Hong Kong of his youth as a tide pool where folk heroes and collective memories congregated and went mouldy amidst the project of survival and hybridisation.

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Mr Chan and Mrs Chow both cover their trysts easily because they travel a lot for work, with Chan often going to Japan on errands for his Japanese boss, whilst Mrs Chow’s workstation abuts a rack of postcards. Every place is exotic to some other place, particularly when you’re going nowhere. Wong’s period Hong Kong is mysterious to itself, a mythical place created by the pressures of history and human need, a place where eastern and western sensibilities don’t so much mingle as cohabit as restlessly and energetically as its people. to Wong’s eye it was a place of bygone splendours, nondescript urban architecture with the faintest curlicues of traditional architectural style here and there, the damaged glamour of a glimpse of a cracked wall and a window frame with fading paint and the glimpse into another person’s life-space, inside of which expression blooms in riots of clashing colour and teeming decoration, ringing to a meshed music of laughter and argument and work and soft radio sounds. Wong’s fastidious, usually rigid framing keeps turning portals and passages into frames within frames, with a careful conspiracy between Lim Chung Man’s art direction, William Chang’s production design and costuming, and Doyle and Lee’s cinematography helps create this lush world, half memory, half dream, part Edward Hopper, part Matisse painting, part classical Chinese scroll art. Many shots are filmed in distorted fashion, through fogged glass or using lens effects.

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Other shots are delivered with a dazzling clarity that only renders them stranger, like a shot down a hotel corridor where red curtains gently billow on a draft and the leaves of a potted plant tremble, absent any being and yet vibrating with mysterious life. The obsessive texture is exacerbated by the music cues, alternating composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s languid pizzicato string theme and a vintage Nat King Cole recording version of the Cuban song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” musical themes that manage to denote both immobility, the sense of arrested time and foiled action, and a dance-like sense of possibilities in play that come and depart before they’re even truly registered. Echoes here of course to one of the restless heroines of Chungking Express whose constantly played leitmotif was The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” whilst existing within a world of escalators and shoebox apartments and hole-in-the-wall businesses. But whilst there Wong remained outside of the bubble of floating insouciance she used the song to weave about herself, In The Mood For Love is Wong’s entry into and projection of that kind of bubble. Fallen Angels was an insomniac fever-dream about people who try ever more frantically to control life’s formlessness by contriving to dispense that formlessness, trying to live purposefully alienated and rootless lives, but eventually falling victim to gravity regardless.

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In Happy Together the post break-up pains of its lovers is couched not simply in the pain of losing a mate but also in the ultimate personal act for each man in confronting their own specific reactions and quirks of character that degraded the relationship, confronting the limitations and perversities of spirit that foil happiness and turn the wealth of possibility into a debit of rueful waste and costly experience. In The Mood For Love operates as its echo and amplification as well as its inversion: the portrait of characters who maintain discipline and personal integrity sees them even more thoroughly haunted by what wasn’t. Wong’s gestures and stylistics accumulate meaning as In The Mood For Love unfolds, as Chow and Su inhabit the same discreet zone by virtue of both being mostly alone and stricken with an initially confused but increasingly certain sense of wounding and abandonment. They pass each-other in their evening strolls down to the food court, waiting out rainstorms, smoking the odd pensive cigarette, swapping the odd word of greeting.

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Early in development the project that became In The Mood For Love was titled A Story of Food, and it is that, with the food the characters eat – rice, noodles, sesame syrup, steak – made a vital aspect of how their lives, habits, and gestures of affection interact. Chow and Su’s first, and for a long time only, real conversation takes place when Su visits the Koos’ apartment to borrow a newspaper because she’s keeping up with a martial arts serial story, and Chow mentions his liking for the genre, which he once made an abortive attempt to write in. Wong here nods back to Ashes of Time, which had taken on stories by Jin Yong, a real-life Hong Kong journalist-exile turned fiction writer, and translated them into one of Wong’s portraits of drifting, disconsolate people who, when separated from the romantic glamour of their prowess as warriors, are case studies in longing and confusion. The frontier post where the master warriors wait for work in Ashes of Time likewise is a kind of way-station of fate like the apartment building here.

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Part of what distinguished Wong particularly in the 1990s was that Wong was a formalist with a sense of what style could accomplish: In The Mood For Love was perhaps the most accomplished work of high style in narrative film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and it shares certain nagging fascinations with that film, most particular its sense of dreamy melancholy and portrayal of swarming city life. Wong’s regard for genre writing, however sarcastically reflected through his resolutely slice-of-life tales, engages here with the roots of such storytelling, noting the mid-twentieth century and its wealth of creativity as stemming from people clinging on in such places, dreaming intense dreams, fantasies of power and freedom shot through with reflections of damaged humanity. Wong’s fascination for how people inhabit an urban space together but also entirely separately is here illustrated with an intensity that renders it close to a philosophy of life, depicting people who, for whatever reason, cannot ever quite leap over the divide that separates them as bodies and minds.

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Wong would deromanticise the theme with purpose when he finally got to make 2046 (2004), as he went to the opposite extreme of portraying desperately carnal relationships only to confront the same spectacle of who people who cannot surrender themselves. When Su finally invites Chow to dinner, it’s to try and get to the truth linking them through their partners, a problem that must be approached circuitously, through laughing admissions before direct statements, as when Su final notes that her husband and Chow both have the same tie despite them being bought overseas, proof that Mrs Chow bought them both. Wong’s squared-off shots, engaging both actors in profile within the crystalline perfection of the period setting with studied back-and-forth shots of the two actors heightening the sense of formal games, before a precise violation of the style when Su finally directly queries Chow about what he thinks is going on, Wong moving the camera laterally from behind Chow onto his face, depicting the queasy, blindsiding moment of truth exactly.

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The point of connection between Chow and Su is initially a kind of osmotic attraction in shared romantic desolation and the absence of their partners. The deeper one that forms is creative. Thrown into each-other’s company as people drawn together through a mildly perverse instinct to penetrate the separate psychic and physical world of the people who are supposed to be close to them but have in fact created their own distinct pocket of life, Chow and Su vow “we won’t be like them.” as they’re quickly driven to begin role-playing in answering Su’s pondering of how the affair might have begun. Wong tips the viewer suddenly into momentarily bewildering vignettes where the two flirt and make protestations of love only to then break character because of some detail that seems off or, rather, cruelly accurate, before resuming or restarting. The two set down at dinner, each eating a meal the person they’re standing in for would usually order.

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This presents a kind of method acting offering proxy introduction the tastes and personalities of the missing person for the person filling their role, and also a casting session, seeing how well the other can fit into their assigned role. “You have my husband down pat,” Su comments when Chow uses a line on her, “He’s a real sweet talker.” These odd rituals are nonetheless ones that helps Chow and Su fumble towards understanding, creating a fiction that explains reality, whilst also elucidating Wong’s interest in the similarity, even interchangeableness, of people, the recurring codes of behaviour and the finite variations that constitute individuality. They also lead to the duo beginning to collaborate in trying to write a martial arts story, a collaboration that begins as a panacea against boredom and loneliness but soon becomes a genuine success for Chow that he sometimes privileges over his journalism. Chow’s habit of hiding from life by hanging around the newspaper office at night becomes a portal of escape into dreams of a heroic past. So compelling does this pursuit become that the two consult in Chow’s room only for Mrs Suen and the Koos and other friends to suddenly return from a night out drunk and rowdy and settle down to a marathon mah-jong game that goes on for a night and a day.

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Chow and Su are besieged in their room, afraid for Su to take a chance to dash back to the Koos’ apartment in case she might be seen, so Chow covers for her whilst ducking out to bring back food, and the two keep working on the story: Chow is inspired by the sudden arrival of the blotto Mr Koo to introduce a drunken master into the story. Finally the game breaks up and Su gets to return to her room, where she strips off the high-heels she’s been wearing with palpable relief, hoist on her own well-dressed petard. The chasteness of Chow and Su’s relationship and their toey fear of being apprehended in a compromising scene gives this vignette its irony, as well the old-fashioned brand of sexual tension inherent in their situation as a couple of good-looking people in a small room, the kind that could have fuelled a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is indeed one of the many retro things Wong nods to. His plot has the quality of something William Holden and Nancy Olson’s characters in Sunset Blvd. (1950) might have cooked up, or provided a solid premise for a Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle. This misadventure also inspires Chow to rent a hotel room – numbered, with totemic import, 2046 – for a time to try and get the story finished, and also perhaps presenting to Su a locale where they can meet without being found out.

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In The Mood For Love contrasted most of Wong’s previous films insofar as those were mostly tales of characters who can scarcely control an inner drive pushing them into irrational acts, people who are conduits of spasmodic behaviour. Those urges might drive them across the world, to cling to or to cruelly spurn a lover, or face a situation of life and death, in search of something that gives shape to their lives. The torment of being inescapably themselves was often simply intensified rather than cured by gaining what they want. In The Mood For Love is instead the tale of characters who pointedly can control themselves, and yet their actions ultimately come to seem just as deeply rooted in satisfying inchoate need. It’s compulsory with In The Mood For Love to note that it’s a film about a love affair without physical intimacy beyond a moment of hand-holding, at least, not that the audience is privy to. Wong’s venture back in time also accepts the idea of two people with a sense of personal honour, a gesture that feels equally bygone in its idealism and yet still reflects truth: how many of us day in and day out rein in all kinds of impulses?

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The film’s opiated haze of nostalgia, its acceptance of the past as another country, can only be sustained as long as Chow and Su don’t give in to their romantic impulses, because once they do they become of the earth again. The very lack of any momentous significance in their relationship, its everyday and ephemeral texture as light and brief as morning frost, is precisely the quality Wong sets out to celebrate, to hold as vital to the sustenance of the world as any cataclysms. It can also be read as the two lovers sharing a trait with their creator, a dislike of cliché. Chow and Su’s resolve to keep things above board seems as much about their own embarrassment in potentially getting caught being unimaginative as immoral: it would too humiliatingly crass to reproduce their feckless partners’ betrayal, although Wong’s oblique portrayal of that verboten tryst suggest it’s every bit as complex and tortured. More immediately, Wong tries to illustrate without sentiment the fate of falling in love whilst also dealing with heartbreak, leaving his two lovers trapped in a limbo where pleasure is also painful, tender gestures constantly running the risk of mimicking another, and abandoned as they have been by their partners Chow and Su serve as stand-ins for the vanished lover, to be both cherished and also farewelled.

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A montage depicting Chow and Su’s happy writing collaboration, which is also clearly signalled to be the process of their falling in love if all their happy smiles and pleasure in each-other’s company is anything to go by, also sees Wong make a constant refrain of including mirrors, often with more than one facet, in his shots. These split his protagonists into multiple versions, each imprinted with a separate reality, some branching off to become the ones glimpsed in 2046, some uglier, some more perfect. this islet of ease ends when Su gets a lecture from Mrs Suen about being out too often and asking when her husband will return. Despite there being no hint of connection between them, Su still tells Chow they should spend less time together, a moment that despite the vow “not to be like them” nonetheless echoes Mrs Chow’s earlier warning to Mr Chan to stop seeing each-other for a time. The two drift in the course of their days subsequently, Su distracted amidst raucous mah-jong games and Chow gazing out through the newspaper office window, and when the word finally comes to meet up again, Chow comes dashing through a downpour for a confrontation that finally demands the two speak honestly but also makes a choice.

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The choice is made: Chow decides to accept an offer to follow Ah Ping to Singapore. But the catharsis of admission also finally allows shows of feeling, as Su sobs in Chow’s arms and leans on his shoulder as they ride in a taxi together and hold hands, a vignette of perfection to last decades, and Wong would indeed return to it in 2046 with just that meaning. Wong shows Chow and Su on either side of the wall that separates them in their rooms engaged in listless meditation. Finally, Chow retreats back to the hotel room and leaves a message for Su to come join him there if she wants to leave with him. Chow is seen leaving the hotel room with a look of sad but slightly wry acceptance that Su never came and he must head off alone. Su eventually makes a dash to meet him, only to finish up seated on the hotel room bed alone and weeping, suffering the hellish fate in being entrapped by unwitnessed solitude and kitsch décor.

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The film’s last act offers vignettes that refuse to underscore the drama with any kind of dramatic declaration, accumulating instead as a long grace note signalling Chow and Su maintain a long and halting sense of connection, misty-eyed memory of their time together but refusing to violate the seal of perfect imperfection about it. Chow, working in Singapore, is disturbed by something missing in his room, and finds a cigarette with traces of lipstick on it. Soon afterwards Wong offers a sequence, possibly Chow’s imagining or a flashback, depicting Su entering his room and leaving these traces, a glitch in his stable reality. When she actually does call him at his workplace, he answers, but she hangs up after a moment of silence. Later they’re both drawn in turn back to the old building where they once lived. She speak with Mrs Suen, the last of the old crowd still around and herself packing up to move to the United States to help her daughter with her kids. The moment is changing, the mood: Mrs Suen is uneasy about the political situation in Hong Kong, and so is ready to move. Su herself has a son and merrily assures Mrs Suen he’s doing well, but no more is revealed. The old balance has shifted, history’s tides are rolling on. Su chooses a return to a comfortable setting, taking over Mrs Suen’s apartment.

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Chow arrives with a present for the Koos but finds them long gone, and leaves it instead with the new tenant who agreeably lets him look around, turning a wistful glance across to the window of the neighbouring apartment oblivious to the face Su has returned there. The film’s final portion is Wong’s most allusive and subtle, as he briefly interpolates some old newsreel footage of Charles De Gaulle as French President visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966. A final flourish of postcolonial cordiality, a last glimpse of a vanishing moment of stability. Soon Cambodia will dissolve into anarchy and genocidal tyranny as the Vietnam War spills over its borders and monsters are birthed. Chow seems to be there on assignment, but we only see him visiting Angkor wat, the ancient temple-city: Chow performs a little ritual obedient to an old folk practice he mentioned to Ah Ping, of whispering a secret into some nook and sealing it away to divest one’s self of the past. This he does in a gap in Angkor’s walls and plugs with a sod of earth and grass, before leaving the ruin which accepts all such memories great and petty. Wong ends the film with a series of slow, exhaling shots of Angkor, weaving a powerful sense of the temple as something at once desolated by time but also standing as a perpetual marker of history in a violently changing world, abiding under the early-rising moon in the waning Cambodian day.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Waterloo (1970)

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

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1930s, Action-Adventure, Historical, Romance

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Screenwriters: Seton I. Miller, Norman Reilly Raine

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

It’s been said that old Hollywood conquered the world in large part because it contained the world in small, a provincial place ruled by some very parochial ways but where people from around the globe, driven by their strange talents and the tides of history, congregated to manufacture the fantasy life of billions. Few films embody that success so perfectly as The Adventures of Robin Hood. The most famous of action heroes, Errol Flynn, alongside his most beloved on-screen partner Olivia de Havilland, in a splashy production from the usually budget-cautious Warner Bros., The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t just fail to age, but seems utterly outside the flow of time, exemplifying a way of making movies and pleasing an audience rooted in a specific moment, but managing to inhabit a rarefied realm, becoming its own myth. The Adventures of Robin Hood was originally intended as a vehicle for James Cagney, and a semi-remake of the 1922 film that had starred the first great screen swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks , even carrying over co-star Alan Hale reprising his role as Little John. Cagney’s quarrels with studio boss Jack Warner delayed the film. Captain Blood (1935) established Flynn in the meantime as Fairbanks’ heir, and De Havilland as his ideal leading lady.

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William Keighley, a respected theatre director who had come to Hollywood with talkies and made some excellent, streetwise thrillers with Cagney like “G” Men (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936), started the film. But Keighley soon fell behind schedule and turned in such lacklustre action footage Warner quickly replaced him with Michael Curtiz, who had directed both Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Flynn and De Havilland. It’s hard to imagine three more different people than Curtiz, Flynn, and De Havilland in terms of temperament and background, and yet they were all people who had come a long way from where their lives had started, collaborating on a film about a culture-specific hero who nonetheless finds echoes and avatars the world over, and it almost seemed they born to play the parts they did in making The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn, the Hobart-born public school brat turned fortune-hunter who slinked back to Sydney after adventuring around New Guinea, was trying to settle down when he suddenly found himself thrust into an acting career playing Fletcher Christian in Charles Chauvel’s In The Wake of the Bounty (1933) because he seemed to embody the role, swiftly catapulting him in Hollywood’s direction.

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De Havilland, progeny of a posh yet unstable family, cousin to aviation pioneers and born in Tokyo, but fated to grow up in southern California, the shore she, her mother, and sister washed up on. Like her Maid Marian she rebelled against a despotic guardian and followed her own path, catching eyes in amateur theatre productions despite wanting to be a teacher, and within a year found herself starring in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Curtiz, born Manó Kaminer in Budapest in 1886, was the son of a Jewish carpenter and an opera singer, who as a young man roamed around Europe as an actor and circus artiste, picked up languages and talents in a wayward manner, and grew into a man famous for his extraordinary energy and bravura, eventually ploughing it all into cinema. He became an Olympic fencer and directed Hungary’s first feature film all in the same year. Curtiz, wounded on the Russian front during his World War I service, went back to filmmaking and was already a hardened filmmaking veteran when his Biblical epic The Moon of Israel (1924) caught Jack Warner’s eye, and quickly became a pillar of Hollywood film.

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Much of The Adventures of Robin Hood’s richness stems from the way it manages to walk a very fine line, offering a highly stylised vision of medieval England, with colossal sets and visual textures that mimic medieval tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and Victorian-era illustrators like Howard Pyle and Arthur Rackham, in attempting to entirely conform to a certain storybook ideal of ye olden days. But this is counterbalanced by coherent undercurrents of darkness and urgency, even a strange kind of realism, flowing under the glossy Technicolor. Amidst a sprawl of movies released in the last two years of the 1930s, The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the world around it, worried as it is about dictatorial coups and contending with the clash between official order and the rage of the dispossessed. As a film it speaks to the experience of the Depression and rising Fascism, whilst also affecting to deliver the viewer from all such cares in a florid dream of a legendary past. Robin as a hero is offered as a scarcely concealed guerrilla warrior and social radical, speaking out loud what was merely subtextual in Warners’ ‘30s gangster movies in presenting a hero for the economically oppressed and socially betrayed in thieving and offending the powerful, loaned a fig leaf of acceptability by the way he fights in the name of a just but displaced order rather than to supplant it.

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Early scenes immediately establish the drama in those essential terms. The opening depicts a town crier announcing that King Richard the Lionheart has been taken captive by Leopold of Austria, who demands a huge ransom for the King’s release. Prince John (Claude Raines), Richard’s brother, uses his captivity as an opportunity to start working towards snatching his throne, relying on his strong support from men like Nottingham potentate Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love), the county’s High Sheriff (Melville Cooper), and other barons, and enrich himself and his cronies by pretending to collect the ransom. Much the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin) is offered as the emblematic everyman, homely, modest, and desperate, as he shoots dead a deer on the fringes of Sherwood Forest for food despite the royal edict banning anyone but the king from hunting them. Caught in the act by Sir Guy and his squad of knightly goons, Much protests the impossibility of making a living with all the restrictions on the peasantry, particularly given the pervasive social divide between the ruling Norman elite and the Saxon populace.

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Much is saved from a quick hanging by the intervention of Sir Robin of Locksley (Flynn), hunting with his friend Will of Gamwell (Patric Knowles). Robin is a Saxon nobleman, and rather than see Much executed for his crime, instead tells Sir Guy that he killed the deer and wards off his own hanging with the threat of his formidable skill with a longbow: “Are there no exceptions?” Robin queries as he aims his shaft at Sir Guy’s face. At a grand banquet in Nottingham Castle, Sir Guy plays host to Prince John and royal ward Lady Marian Fitzwalter (De Havilland). The assembly of smug-ugly Norman nobles discuss the increasing resistance to taxation, and John reveals he’s removed Richard’s regent and is taking over the reins of government. The banquet is interrupted as Robin appears with the dead deer draped over his shoulders, swatting guards with the carcass and parading into the banquet hall to dump his gift of venison on the table before John and his allies. John, at once amused and goaded by Robin’s calculated show of insolence, readily plays along in offering Robin a chair and food and listening to Robin’s boastful declaration of intent to start fermenting resistance to John’s regime.

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This sequence plays as Robin’s true introduction, defying the Norman elite in all its pomp and happily playing the rogue, prodding his foes to make their play of violence before he retaliates with his immense gifts for fighting. The classical motif of the unwelcome visitor interrupting a feast, often Death incarnate as in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, is given a radical new twist as the visitor is rather the embodiment of insurrection and class war. Robin instantly becomes the idealised rebel and a fantasy projection figure, the man we all wish we could be in standing up to bullies of every stripe, so confident in his abilities and justifications that he can place himself in the very eye of all worldly might and still find his advantage. Prince John’s signal for a guard to hurl a spear into the back of Robin’s chair is the official declaration of war. Robin immediatley makes his foes regret missing as he uses every weapon at his disposal, from banquet tables to his slashing sword and bow, able to climb to a high gallery in a few deft gymnastic moves and rain death down upon opponents whilst everyone churns about in panicked confusion. The filmmaking and Flynn’s athleticism conspire to make it seem actually possible that one man can create such a furore, the action laced with symbolic immediacy: Robin literally upturns the tables and social mores and wallops his opponents with them, before gaining high ground to fire his stinging judgements.

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Robin battles his way out and reaches Will, waiting with horses in the castle courtyard, and the two men dash off into the nocturnal Sherwood Forest with Guy’s men in pursuit, where they give the hunters the slip. This sequence, nominally a very straightforward bit of action staging repeated in dozens of Westerns and swashbucklers, nonetheless exemplifies the peculiar mystique of the film. Robin and Will’s flight takes them through shadowy forest aisles scored by slanting beams of moonlight and shimmering streams, frenetic motion countered with evocations of nature as embracing, near-mystic in its affinity with the fleeing freedom fighters and a plunge into a dreamlike realm fitting for folk heroes. Much of the rest of the film unfolds as a series of set-piece vignettes depicting Robin forming his band of Merry Men and battling the Normans. Transferred intact from folkloric tales are Robin’s encounters with Little John (Alan Hale), as each man refuses to give way to the other on a log crossing a river, and Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette), both of which see Robin and the other man testing each-other’s character and fighting skill before making friends and alliances. Robin loses his fight with Little John, who proves more adept with staff fighting than Robin, but prevails over Tuck, whose fencing skills are infamous.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood repeats elements that worked in Captain Blood, whilst offering a simpler plotline and sustaining a more successfully balanced tone, taking the recourse into raw mythology as a good excuse to locate the primary ingredients for a great action-adventure movie. One particular recurring but also augmented idea was again offering Rathbone as dark mirror to the straight-arrow Flynn hero, a figure who looks enough like Robin to be a relative, is his rival in love as well as quarry, and something akin to what Robin would be if he lacked any degree of social conscience or ethical fibre, or indeed perhaps if Robin had simply been born on the agreeable side of a social divide. Sir Guy is promoted to foregrounded villain to contrast both Prince John’s effete egomania and the hapless chicken-hawk postures of the Sheriff, giving Robin a truly equal and dangerous foe and helping to flesh out the way the film emphasises the social conflict not simply as one of rich and poor but one arranged along ethnic lines. “He’s a Norman of course,” Marian acknowledges as Prince John presses her to see the good reasons behind marrying Sir Guy, illustrating this hegemony as an internecine phenomenon, even as Robin relentlessly sets about illustrating that such an elite cannot long survive the determined cooperation of the Saxon citizenry, a body that can easily be read as any oppressed faction conceivable.

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Writers like Walter Scott and Nathan Pyle, who imbued much of the shape upon the folkloric template that now stands as familiar, nonetheless didn’t emphasise the notion of Robin as a specific kind of rebel against a particular historical regime: it was The Adventures of Robin Hood that made this seem canonical. Robin in his earliest ballads and tales had been defined as a yeoman – a sort of middle-class in medieval English society – but he later became an expelled nobleman. The process of remaking Robin in this fashion might well have reflected the way the character stirred anxiety over the idea of class warfare, but it opened up interesting political ramifications in turn, making Robin the exemplar of how social order is supposed to work, those entrusted with power and responsibility using it for the benefit of the people rather than exploiting them as illustrated by most of the other noble characters. A key early montage, showing word going out amongst the commoners to meet Robin in Sherwood and him swearing his followers to a creed and purpose, evokes folk memories of Alfred the Great rallying his people in the wilderness for a resurgence, and a host of other historical likenesses. Like many Hollywood films depicting English history in the ‘30s and ‘40s, there is at once a jaunty appeal to a romanticised sense of that history but also a definite nudge towards making the hero seem a proto-American – Flynn’s odd mutt of an accent allowed him to inhabit a blurred identity in that regard, his clipped phrasing suggesting good breeding but his yawing tones hinting at new world shores.

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The romance of Robin and Marian depends upon the inherent sexual tension in the situation of the lady of the castle falling for the upright yet officially degraded and morally tarnished protagonist, a ready-made metaphor for a presumption about male-female relations once considered axiomatic. Marian’s initial detestation of Robin, clearly already stricken through with electric erotic awareness, manifests as she haughtily contends with his daring and impudence, and also carries political meaning, particularly in their famous exchange: “Why, you speak treason!” “Fluently.” The introduction of Marian into the Robin Hood folklore came relatively late in the day and might have stemmed from attempts to mate the gritty, parochial English tales with a French pastoral tradition and chivalric romances, Marian a figure associated with May Day and natural rejuvenation just as Robin himself embodied the dichotomous freedom and danger of the forest. Marian was initially a shepherdess and possibly a prostitute who nonetheless swiftly ascended the social ladder to become a figure from the upper aristocracy. Perfect for Flynn and De Havilland who seemed to inhabit by natural selection the roles of freewheeling male and well-bred lady who represent the possibility of social reconciliation, through transcending class barriers and gendered courtesies.

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In immediate terms for the film, this means that De Havilland’s Marian is predestined to melt daintily yet passionately as her love for Robin grows, a love that requires a singular transformative event to finally gain true expression. This comes when Robin and his men ambush a convoy ferrying plunder to another district, led by Sir Guy and the Sheriff, and including Marian and her aged but spirited nurse Bess (the eternal Una O’Connor). The Merry Men expertly manage to surprise their foes and take the nobles captive, obliging them to watch as the guerrilla warriors feast and celebrate and stow away the recovered fortune for Richard’s ransom. Robin takes Marian into the forest and introduces her to people sheltering with him, a pathetic mass of survivors of torture and deprivation, forcing Marian to see the reality of Prince John’s regime and the inevitable result of a social divide. Marian falling for Robin then is also explicitly an act of political awakening. Jack Warner was anything but a progressive hero, but the style of movie he fostered at Warner Bros. in seeking out an audience to appeal to became a consistent brand, with realistic scenarios and characters in their gangster movies and rugged thrillers and working class melodramas. Despite its historically remote lustre, The Adventures of Robin Hood and some of Flynn’s other swashbuckler vehicles would, wields the same sense of struggle by a victimised or degraded group fighting for their rights and defying power.

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Prince John accidentally knocking over a wine goblet in the second scene sees red dripping on the floor in mimicry of the blood he’s about to spill, segueing into a brief montage of scenes depicting the tyranny descending as merchants and farmers are plundered and punishment applied to anyone who resists. This flourish is repeated later in the film to more intense effect as the Norman knights double down in their ruthless assaults on the citizenry, sadistic goons unleashed to amuse themselves with a level of brutality that’s surprising when considered aside from the rest of the film as one man is hung up by his thumbs, others lynched from trees, another chained and humiliated and forced to watch his daughter being raped by a squire. There’s a needling potency to the film’s evocation of the period it portrays, despite the storybook colours and high spirits, as generally a place of horror and exploitation. Except, of course, that in this second montage of cruelty and suffering, Robin is on the warpath. Normans are cut down mid-chortle by Robin’s assassinating arrows, with a wonderful little detail when the knight molesting a tavern owner’s daughter takes an arrow in his back, the zip of the shaft extinguishing a candle’s flame. One of Robin’s arrows even skewers his own arrest warrant as Sir Guy moves to sign it in his council chambers, warning the Normans no place is safe from his infinite cunning and freakishly great aim. In these scenes Robin is transformed into something more than human through not showing him aiming or firing his shots, bolts coming even where it seems impossible, man swiftly becoming myth.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood’s script was the work of two of the canniest screenwriters of the day, Seton I. Miller, who had written several of Keighley’s films and would revisit this kind of swashbuckler material in a more overtly campy and metaphorically erotic vein with Henry King’s The Black Swan (1942), and Norman Reilly Raine, who had penned The Life of Emila Zola (1937) and would later write King’s marvellous A Bell for Adano (1945). By comparison to many modern films where smart-aleck dialogue comes on as an end itself, the twists of wit in Seton and Raine’s script help drive on the troika of plot, character, and atmosphere, like Prince John’s enquiry to Robin, after he spits out a hunk of roast duck, “Have you no stomach for honest meat?”, to Robin’s retort, “For honest meat, yes, but no stomach for traitors.” The Adventures of Robin Hood is the kind of film more recent takes on the mythology try explicitly to offer negative-image revisions of, aiming instead for a darkly textured and authentic lustre, seen in works like Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), and Otto Bathurst’s Robin Hood (2018). Certainly aspects of The Adventures of Robin Hood, like Will’s brilliant red robe and lute-strumming and the bawling matey laughter of the Merry Men, have a touch of camp that can make a modern audience snort in sarcasm.

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And yet most revisionist takes stumble when it comes to apprehending a deeper, less obvious level of realism, missing the way Keighley and Curtiz expertly present the social background of the mythology and depict their version’s dimensions as parable. Scott’s version was ambitious in trying to refashion Robin into a plebeian figure and use him to describe the birth of democratic feeling, although the lumpy story got in the way. By contrast, Curtiz and Keighley’s film sees the historical detail and its interrelationship with folklore unfold smoothly, and connects with the scale of the production to give the film its monumental quality. The montages of beastly Norman depredations laid down a template for portraying tyranny that would be easily repurposed in films made during the oncoming war, and indeed there’s also a strong similarity to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, made the same year, a film that likewise reaches back into the dim past and a legend-encrusted hero battling monstrous opponents with implications about the looming moment, albeit with a more explicitly propagandistic purpose. Robin himself is presented completely against the grain of the contemporary pattern in his lack or neurotic or antiheroic traits. Instead the film constantly underlines how Robin and his comrades’ laughing opposition is their most authentic weapon. Robin’s refusal to let his foes intimidate him, to let them use the power of fear over him, and by extension those he protects, robs from them the pompous certainty that they embody and bestow harsh reality.

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Flynn’s Robin is the essential movie hero, able to seem big-hearted even when engaging in warfare, blessed with endless physical vigour and spryness of mind to match. Flynn embodied, thanks to his life experience, a peculiar blend of formative forces and traits, a life-greedy, knockabout man of action with gentlemanly bearing, a persona his films depended upon. Flynn didn’t receive much validation as an actor until near the end of his career, and he aggravated some on set through his breezy approach. But the way he holds the screen, with his precise sense of gestural effect and ability to vary his personality through degrees from satirical jester to awakened killer, reflects a naturally intelligent and expressive performer. Robin’s promise to Prince John in the banquet hall to “organise a revolt – extract a death for a death,” commences a precisely balanced campaign of resistance, measured and fair, even as he’s obliged to fight by different rules that allow his enemies to paint him as a mere brigand. Robin’s calculated risk-taking at both the banquet and later an archery tournament he knows full well has been staged to capture him reflects his consciousness that it’s precisely his acts of defiance, his willingness to take such chances, that fuel his following, the only way he can provoke an equally superhuman sense of empowerment in ordinary people. In the same way the character exists for the audience in the real world as a figure of emulation, so he also exists within the film.

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Goodness is specifically demarcated throughout the film by humour. Robin sometimes comes close to an all-action Groucho Marx in his general, breezy contempt for authority and social niceties and ready line in barbed quips, whilst the japes and teasing and boisterous laughter that permeate the interactions of the Merry Men, presenting an idealised version of masculine camaraderie, contrasting the coldly malicious undertones to Norman sarcasms and the outright enjoyment many take in dishing out brutality. The ambush on Sir Guy’s treasure convoy is the central sequence of the movie and a glorious piece of filmmaking that both illustrates Robin and his band’s method and captures their metaphorical appeal too. The guerrillas are filmed shimmying up the twisting branches of the forest trees and confirming to the bowers as if transformed into woodland creatures, before raining down on their startled opponents, the entire forest suddenly alive with manpower charging in to overpower the Normans, the editing carefully diagramming the assault as one coming from all vantages. One irresistible shot has the Merry Men charging at the camera and bounding over it (with the aid of a hidden trampoline), possessed of athletic vigour and gallant wit to the point of becoming an unstoppable natural force.

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The sequence reaches its climax as Sir Guy and the Sheriff realise they’re entirely surrounded and outmatched, at which point they hear Robin’s highy entertained laugh. The bandit chief is glimpsed high in a tree, swinging down upon a vine to land on a rock and declare, “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!”, the embodiment of rascal charm and daredevil prowess, mocking his foes with dynamic showmanship and ironic hospitality. All of this is wrapped in mischievous energy and a faintly sarcastic heroic tenor by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s scoring. The band’s triumph in capturing the convoy allows them an opportunity for a mighty, convulsive feast where the captured Normans are forced to don peasant rags and a bandit proclaims immortally, “To the tables everybody and stuff yourselves!” Flashes of bawdy comedy come as Much flirts with Bess despite admitting to never having had a sweetheart, to which Bess crows she’s “had the bands five times myself,” and Much answers Bess’s suggestion he says the same things to every woman who tickles his fancy with, “I’ve never tickled a woman’s fancy before.”

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Korngold’s music is regarded as one of the best scores ever featured in a movie. Certainly it’s one of the most influential, with just about every big orchestral score for a blockbuster today owing something to its example. Korngold was a musical prodigy who had impressed Gustav Mahler with a cantata he wrote at the age of twelve. Despite his serious musical reputation for his operas and orchestrations for other composers, Korngold is easily most famous today for his film scores, first coming to Hollywood to create an adapted version of Felix Mendelsohn’s score for Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his work followed on the heels of fellow Mahler acolyte Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) in expanding Hollywood’s understanding of how a sound film score could work, woven deeply into the rhythmic structure rather than simply punctuating scenes. Korngold then agreed to score Captain Blood and laid down the template for his floridly emotional and evocative soundtracks to a string of swashbucklers, music that worked in part through the complete resistance to any modernist impulses. Although his work for The Sea Hawk (1940) is arguably a more textured and painterly effort, his scoring here is the more perfectly attuned to the visuals. The banks of pealing trumpets and surging strings paint the emotional extremes of heroic warfare and intimate romancing, with a remarkable level of orchestrated detail apparent, reaching a particularly high pitch of bombastic greatness during the build-up to the climax as Prince John’s coronation procession enters Nottingham Castle, the surging strains capturing both the gilded grandeur and the undercurrent of peril.

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Most importantly, Korngold’s music helps to unify the film’s episodic structure, dragging it from one set-piece to the next as each section of the movie presents a small drama that contributes to the overall story whilst taking care to illustrate a vital aspect of the folklore. Robin’s choosing of his path segues into the process of assembling allies, before the attack on the convoy sees the Merry Men at a zenith. Robin’s capture at the archery tournament is a moment where his daring and brilliance prove self-defeating, but also crystallises Marian’s ardour and obliges her to pick a side. The last act kicks off when King Richard (Ian Hunter) and his retinue turn up dressed as monks in a Sherwood tavern, having escaped captivity, presenting hope for an end to the tyranny but also providing his brother with a chance to have Richard assassinated and take the throne without hindrance. The archery tournament is another great scene that revolves around the game of concealment and revelation Robin and his enemies feel almost honour-bound to play with each-other: the notion of suckering Robin in with the possibility of the reward of a golden arrow granted by Marian comes not from Sir Guy but the cannier if craven Sheriff. Robin, posing as a tinker with a disguise so amusingly paltry it suggests he might have inspired Superman’s bifocals, enters the tournament despite his companions’ worries.

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The editing by Ralph Dawson blends with Korngold’s music in making the tournament, a montage-like sequence, build nonetheless with ingenious dramatic cadence to a crescendo, with Curtiz throwing in canted camera angles and radical shifts in perspective, a mobile camera surveying the archers and rhythmic cuts, to create a scene that still feels remarkably fluid and modern whilst unfolding in manner you scarcely notice. Robin sets the seal on his legend when, faced with a seemingly unbeatably good shot from his final opponent with his arrow dead centre on the target, takes aim and splits the arrow with his own. But Robin is unable to slip the net this time as he’s caught and thrust before the triumphant Prince John, Sir Guy, and the Sheriff, with Sir Guy dealing out a slap to Robin’s face, but the Sheriff, trying the same gesture, gets Robin’s boot in the belly. Sentenced to death, Robin is flung into a dungeon, but Marian, who knows Bess has been seeing Much, obtains the password to meet with Robin’s lieutenants in their favourite tavern and, after assuring them through making a vow at Tuck’s insistence that she’s utterly in earnest, suggests a way for them to save Robin’s life. This involves a daring assault on Robin’s hanging, giving Robin a chance to jump onto a horse and flee with his friends for the great main gate to Nottingham, where upon Robin expertly foils pursuit by sabotaging the city gate’s portcullis with improvised gymnastics, realised thanks to some show-stopping stuntwork.

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Robin climbs the ivy – not a euphemism – to Marian’s chamber in the castle to thank her, allowing Flynn and De Havilland to realise their chemistry even in playing by most decorous rules, the perfect gallant and the ideal lady nonetheless dedicating themselves not only to an illicit and illegal love but also to continued political mischief. De Havilland would go on to win two Oscars and prove herself one of the smartest actors of her era, but her roles opposite Flynn as the genteel damsel were the bedrock of her career, partly because they seemed to suit her so perfectly. De Havilland in real life was the proper young lady whose own strength of character kept taking people by surprise, most fatefully when she battled Warner over her contract and established a precedent that emancipated many stars like her. Marian resembles her in being underestimated for her looks and breeding but keeps proving her very real moral fibre, to the point of being arrested after overhearing Prince John and his cohort plotting Richard’s assassination and trying to get warning out. As with her role as Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939), De Havilland’s lady fair parts depended her capacity to play characters who could seem cloying or icy or witless if handled badly, but De Havilland was able to present as inherently decent. Although a long way from any sort of action heroine, De Havilland’s Marian nonetheless provides her own kind of valour, eventually finding herself in the same position as Robin a few reels earlier where she is tried by Prince John and his cadre and sentenced to death, unleashing a fearless tirade at the usurper and his cronies with a show of steely character that justifies and exemplifies the ideal of nobility, and comprehending the Prince’s intention to have her executed with baleful comment on the depths of his arrogance.

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Despite the run of success director and star had together in their collaboration, which would continue with films like Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Sea Hawk, Curtiz and Flynn disliked each-other intensely, and some of the films’ energy seems to stem from the volatile relationship between the pair. Flynn was probably one of the few men in Hollywood who could match Curtiz’s relentless energy even as they turned it to different ends, the hard-living Flynn versus the work-loving Curtiz, and there was also the little matter of Flynn being married to Curtiz’s ex-wife. On screen at least, Flynn readily became the projection of Curtiz’s bravura and romantic impulses. Something of Keighley’s imprint is still apparent on the film: the portrayal of Prince John as an entitled and vainglorious but sardonic and formidable figure, rather than a skulking fiend, has some similarity to Monty Woolley’s overbearing critic in Keighley’s later The Man Who Came To Dinner (1941), and the almost holistic sense of social structure echoes Keighley’s anatomisation of such in Bullets or Ballots (Miller had also written that). The long, surveying camera tracking shots in the early banquet scene suggest something more like Keighley’s sense of theatrical integrity than Curtiz’s carefully composed mise-en-scene.

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Nonetheless I find it very hard not to see The Adventures of Robin Hood as ultimately a Curtiz film. Curtiz was the ideal studio-era director, a strong stylist who knew how to run a movie set, who could readily contour his talents into the production system and tackle a wide swathe of genres. Curtiz regarded his assignments from on high less as vexing chores than as challenges to his professional and aesthetic touch, his workaholic drive so reliable Warners set up a special unit just for him to use. But patterns still emerge from his oeuvre. There are inevitable connections despite Curtiz’s late arrival on the film with his other swashbucklers and with Casablanca and its follow-up Passage to Marseilles (1944), most particularly in the preoccupation with heroes in exile contending with political tyranny applied on a victimised population. Curtiz would often return to the theme of an artist, or an analogous fixated figure, driven on by his gruelling commitment through varying shades of heroism and antiheroism. Curtiz worked through this preoccupation in his horror film Murders in the Wax Museum (1933) and dramas like Four Daughters (1938) and Young Man with a Horn (1950), remaking both George M. Cohan and Cole Porter in his own image for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Night and Day (1946), and mediated it through such rovers and warrior-poet characters as Robin, Rick Blaine, The Breaking Point’s (1950) Harry Morgan or The Egyptian’s (1954) Sinuhe, men who experience extremes of their societies and their own natures to soul-cracking degrees, degrees only a creation like Robin can traverse without injury. Such characters are driven to achieve a certain perfection in their personal arts and crafts, which indeed Robin exemplifies this by feeling obligated to perform at peak despite the danger involved because that is what he is.

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Curtiz’s trademark style provided a variation on the German Expressionism that had infused cinema in the 1920s, a style he appropriated as a light veneer of style rather than an obsessively suggestive texture. Curtiz’s version offered clean and spacious realms and minimalist sets but with declining stages of décor and performance within his frames, and careful use of light and shadow offering a dimension beyond the literal. Most famous is his recurring flourish of shadows playing upon walls, as in the finale here where Robin and Sir Guy fence, dancing across a chamber in Nottingham Castle, their very corporeal exertions suddenly transformed into something abstract and legendary, and achieving an effect close to animation. The Adventures of Robin Hood proved Curtiz’s first colour film, but was readily able to make his touch work in the new medium. Indeed, The Adventures of Robin Hood marked a radical expansion of what colour could achieve, with cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito and the Technicolor overseers W. Howard Greene and Natalie Kalmus making use of all eleven Technicolor cameras built up to that point. There’s some anticipation of the hyperbolic colour effects found in Gone With The Wind in a shot like where Saxons are being hung from a tree at dusk, Expressionist technique in the foreground and fauvist hues in the distance. But the colour textures are generally diffused to give the storybook-like visuals an extra veneer of faded charm.

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The precision of the casting down through the layers of the film as another of its multivalent joys, backing up the strength of the leads with actors who nail down the iconographic personas of their roles with quick, deft strokes, from Rains’ leonine smarm to Rathbone’s angular aggression and hood-eyed sexual menace, Palette’s gruff vigour and O’Connor’s cawing pluck, Hunter’s majestic largesse and Hale’s vivacity: the film makes space for them all and more, keen to the give and take of energy this kind of storytelling needs. Much’s ride at Bess’s desperate request to warn King Richard, after Marian is taken prisoner and Prince John sends an assassin after his brother, builds to a terrific fight scene whilst still sustaining the fairy tale lustre, as Much ambushes the killer as he crosses a stream, lethally slashing blades and splashing water glistening with steely texture in the Technicolor amidst dappled summery surrounded. This inverts the comedic tone of Robin’s battles with Little John and Friar Tuck, the struggle in the water pointedly taken up by one of Robin’s acolytes and this time played for history-changing stakes. The outcome is left on a cliffhanger as a dissolve leaves the fighter locked in a death match. Soon Will comes across the wounded but victorious Much and takes him back to Robin, who is already paying unwitting host to Richard as the King, in maintaining his monkish guise, has been robbed and then offered shelter by Robin.

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The colour pays off most memorably here as Richard unveils his royal livery in all its blazing splendour of red, gold, and white under the black cassock, stirring Robin and the Merry Men to kneel in awe and homage. Korngold’s scoring also helps make this moment emotionally and aesthetically moving, as the withheld promise of order and justice is suddenly personified and announced like dawn – putting aside all knowledge about the historical Richard, of course. This revelation is the key to the climax as Richard and Robin lead their forces in disguise as monks under the neatly compelled Bishop of the Black Canons (what a name!) and manage to interrupt Prince John’s coronation. Robin and Sir Guy split apart from the great battle that consumes the banquet hall for their duel. The frenetic swordplay of the many warriors is punctuated by comic relief as Much, trying to be useful despite his wounds, hiding in a nook and trying to swat Normans with a mace, asides that keep the tone from becoming swaying too far in either pole of goofy or dour. Robin and Sir Guy’s battle contrasts the wild melee in the hall by instead becoming a deadly dance, moving through cavernous halls, up and down staircases and around vast curving barbicans, space that scarcely makes more sense than anything in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), albeit a dreamscape inhabited not by ghouls but doppelganger incarnations of good and evil.

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The climax depends not just on Flynn and Rathbone’s skill and daring, but on their capacity to act in motion, particularly Flynn’s ability to depict Robin indulging himself to a degree even whilst fighting tooth and nail with Sir Guy, even going so far as to waste a chance to spear him and giving Sir Guy his sword back after he loses it so as not to spoil the match, in large part because his aim is not to slay Sir Guy but to find and free Marian. That is until Sir Guy violates the unspoken rules by trying to keep Robin pressed against a wall, whilst pulling out a dagger to stab him. The underhanded move plainly offends Robin by the way his eyes flash in anger and spasmodic alarm, aware the game as it’s been played is at an end and big boy rules now apply: Robin slays Sir Guy within a few seconds. Curtiz repeats a trick from Captain Blood to more succinct and iconic effect as the surrendered weapons of the defeated John partisans are piled up, and Richard holds court with the riff-raff who had saved his throne, granting Robin Marian’s hand and making him a Baron. A happy ending is also deliverance from social duty, as Robin performs a last sleight of hand as he and Marian slip from the congratulatory pile-on and offer their gratitude from the gate before scurrying off to private, connubial bliss, the shutting of the castle doors closing the movie. Likewise, The Adventures of Robin Hood bows out supremely justified.

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2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality of old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

Cabiria (1914)

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Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Screenwriter: Gabriele D’Annunzio

By Roderick Heath

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

What impact it must have had in some muddy Apennine town where the twentieth century had barely arrived, to file into a jostling, steamy town hall and fight for a seat to watch Cabiria as the days ticked down to the start of the Great War. An experience that would link such hardy viewers with the residents of the White House half a world away, when Cabiria became the first film screened there, albeit out on the lawn. Cinema on the grandest scale, a point of gravity so much of the still-fledgling art form would orbit, taking on a form that undeniably laid to rest any notion film was just another carnival novelty. Giovanni Pastrone’s film, with storyline and titles written by the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, expanded the scope of what cinematic narrative could encompass and how. Although it wasn’t the first film to run over two hours or to offer grand imagery and sophisticated directorial techniques, it was one of the new art’s great synthesising moments. On some levels, the weight of such historical importance can seem misaligned, as Cabiria is, in essence, a rip-roaring adventure story, replete with straightforward archetypes and heady melodrama. It survives as far more entertaining than any movie over a century old has the right to be. But it’s also a relic from a time when the new power of cinema was remaking our ways of seeing the world, even in ways that provoke misgiving in retrospect.

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Compared to The Birth of a Nation (1915), its chief rival as a landmark in feature film development, Cabiria seems much more comfortable to a modern audience with its historically remote setting, outsized, almost science fiction-like recreation of that past, and broad portrait of decency versus depravity as embodied by long-vanished civilisations. And yet aspects of its ultimate meaning and context are just as thorny. Pastrone, who also worked under the professional alias Piero Fosco, had been a precocious kid who made his own musical instruments, developing a talent for finely observed form and function that would serve him well as he turned to filmmaking. He made his directing debut with La glu (1908), and set up the production company Itala in 1909. The same year, he began his string of historical epics with Julius Caesar (1909), following it with The Fall of Troy (1911) and then Cabiria. Pastrone’s directing career ran out of steam in the mid-1920s and he decisively put the business behind him long before his death in 1959. Cabiria meanwhile has a title attributing its vision more loudly to D’Annunzio, who was paid a fat sum to loan his prestige and following to the film. D’Annunzio was greatly acclaimed at the time as a writer and whose life and career say much about the bizarre and worrying twists of Italian social and political life at the time.

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Pastrone’s most famous work was heavily indebted to Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, emulating its setting in ancient Carthage and figure of a royal femme fatale, mixed in with lesser historical novels and Livy’s historical accounts of the Punic Wars. Flaubert’s novel was laced with obsessive eroticism whilst contemplating the fractured political state of his era’s France through the lens of historical dreaming. Pastrone and D’Annunzio’s narrative, by contrast, was rooted in the traditional Roman view of Carthage as an embodiment of antipathetic corruption and perfidy, and they mixed in a familiar, sentimental Victorian narrative of lost foundlings and breathless rescues. The story commences in Sicily, just before the outbreak of the second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Title character Cabiria is the infant daughter of rich Roman Batto (Émile Vardannes), whose villa sits near the foot of Mt Etna – Cabiria’s name is based in the rites of an esoteric cult. When the volcano shows signs of life Batto and his household quickly make propitious offerings that seem to quell the mountain. But during the night the eruption starts up again, earthquakes shaking the villa until it collapses. Whilst Batto, his wife, and the rest of the family flee the building, the servants, including Cabiria and her nurse Croessa (Gina Marangoni) run down a secret passage unsealed by the collapse.

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There the servants discover Batto’s secret treasure horde, and flee for the coastline after looting it. But the thieves are surprised by a band of Phoenician pirates who take them all captive, including Croessa and Cabiria. The Phoenicians sell their captives in Carthage, and Cabiria is singled out for a terrible purpose, as one of the child sacrifices served up to the evil deity Moloch by high priest Karthalo (Dante Testa). After Cabiria is ripped out of her arms, Croessa searches in desperation for anyone who might help save the girl. Quicker than you can “improbable coincidence,” Croessa encounters just the right two men for the job: Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman patrician spying in Carthage, and his slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano). Croessa recognises Fulvius and begs him to help, and gives him a ring she took from Batto’s hoard, which she says is blessed by the gods with propitious powers. Fulvius and Maciste enter the Temple of Moloch pretending to be worshippers and manage to snatch away Cabiria just before she’s sacrificed. They flee and hide in the Inn of the Striped Monkey, threatening its keeper Bodastoret (Raffaele di Napoli) into fending off search parties. Cabiria however can never be entirely safe until she’s away from Carthage’s influence, for until she is sacrificed, the ritual goes on incomplete, and Carthage risks the wrath of its gods.

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Cabiria engages history but mixes in hype and propaganda, starting with the portrayal of the Carthaginians as bloodthirsty and rabidly superstitious compared to the noble, upright Romans. The film’s basic melodramatic propulsion derives from such libel, however, as Fulvius and Maciste are obliged to save Cabiria, a flower of Roman youth, from the billowing fires inside the colossal statue of Moloch housed in the Temple. This sequence evinces Pastrone’s vision at its height with the “Invocation to Moloch.” Dazzling framings of ranked priests in chiaroscuro lighting, proto-fascist vision of hands raised in salute amidst darkness next to flickering candles, and Karthalo hovering over billowing votive flames performing ritualised moves, come with titles declaring the phrases of the invocation, ablaze with overripe poesy. This is cinema both depicting and becoming an arcane ritual of blood and fire. Pastrone’s long shots of the temple interior with the monstrous idol still easily provoke the awe at the scale and boldness of staging that so struck 1914’s audiences in beholding Pastrone’s momentous set design. Most striking however is the unrestrained vision of sacrificial violence. The priests muster together ranks of children, screaming, wiggling, naked youngsters carried up and placed upon a hatch that dumps them into the idol’s blazing interior, great billows of fire spurting from the idol’s mouth as they’re consumed.

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It’s hard to imagine any contemporary filmmaker daring such a sequence now: only the relative distance of D’Annunzio’s camera is sparing. D’Annunzio’s storyline justifies Rome’s aggression towards Carthage in the face of its alleged brutality (there is some evidence to suggest that propaganda had basis in reality, although on nothing like what Cabiria portrays). Fulvius and Maciste sneak in disguise through the crowd, and finally launching their rescue, Maciste socking the priest gripping Cabiria and tearing her from his arms, Fulvius fending off others. They climb up onto the top of the temple, battling Carthaginian pursuers all the way, and scurry down its vertiginous exterior sculptural forms. When they return to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret sneaks out and brings city guards back with him, forcing Fulvius and Maciste to flee, and soon they’re separated. Fulvius eludes his pursuers by making a dive off a cliff into the ocean. Maciste strays into the gardens of Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, and encounters his daughter Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini), who is being courted by Masinissa (Vitale Di Stefano), the King of Numidia. Fulvius’ escape from Carthage proves to coincide with a fateful moment in history, as Hannibal (Vardannes again) leads his troops over the Alps to attack Rome, signalling resumption of the great contest between the two city-states.

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Pastrone here reveals a finer touch for effectively varying tone through alternations of imagery, as he cuts between hard-charging action as Fulvius, Maciste, and Cabiria flee soldiers, and dreamy, mystical romanticism as Sophonisba makes her invocations to Tanit. Matched with D’Annunzio’s purple intertitles, the effect pushes at the boundaries of mere adventure moviemaking and tries rather to grasp at the essence of a time and vision of society where the immediate and metaphysical worlds had a much more urgent proximity. Moreover it shows Pastrone was keen to the uses of cross-cutting for more than just generating excitement well before Griffith got around to his ride of the Klan. The first glimpse of Sophonisba sees her stroking a pet leopard, marking her instantly as a figure of lethal sensuality and remarkable power in an image many a director making their own decadent historical epic would copy. Sophonisba conflates roles as princess and priestess, elevated far above the gruesome fray of Karthalo’s religious duties but bound just as intimately to her nation’s fate as embodiment of its aspiring self but also its potential amorality. Small wonder D’Annunzio had been associated with the radical “Decadent” movement in art and literature in the 1890s, which was particularly fond of such imagery of supine, bodingly sensual female antiheroes. Sophonisba goes out to meet her Numidian suitor in a moonlit garden just as Macisete steals into the garden in eluding the searching guards. Maciste successfully pleads with Sophonisba to protect Cabiria before he’s captured, brutally tortured, and chained to drive a millstone for the rest of his days.

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The tremendous sway Cabiria would work on so much cinema that followed, directly and indirectly, is impossible to miss. D.W. Griffith saw it and immediately set out to match it: the interpolation of a central melodrama with historical vignettes predicts the structure of The Birth of a Nation and the vistas of cyclopean walls and colossal elephant statues plainly gave Intolerance (1916) its imaginative landscape. Fritz Lang plundered it for Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926), with the latter’s vision of the city machinery as a fiery-mawed, man-eating Moloch a special tip of the hat. German Expressionism in general would take licence from the stylised shadow play and totemic visuals of the Invocation to Moloch scene. Cecil B. DeMille built his entire historical epic style around the impression Cabiria made, an influence perhaps most obvious in the Temple of Dagon and the chaining of Samson in Samson and Delilah (1949). Sergei Eisenstein would suggest some lingering memory of it in his Ivan the Terrible films (1946-58), as well as the portrayal of the Teutonic Knights feeding captive children to the fire in Alexander Nevsky (1938). Federico Fellini would pay homage to it as the epitome of the bygone matinee ethos whilst sarcastically referencing its storyline for his tale of a wandering prostitute in Nights of Cabiria (1958), as well as channelling its imagery for his idiosyncratic tribute to the Italian epic tradition, Fellini Satyricon (1969).

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Through such mediators, generations of historical dramas and action spectacles owe it something, up to and including the lair of the Thugees in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Conan being chained to the wheel and battling with malign cultists in Conan the Barbarian (1982). Moreover, Cabiria gifted Italian cinema with one of its perennial hero figures in Maciste, who would still be Hercules’ rival as a mainstay of the peplum or sword-and-sandal genre in the 1960s (Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans might remember the host comedians mispronouncing his name as “Cheesesteak” when they covered Colossus and the Headhunters, 1962). D’Annunzio named the character after one of Hercules’ surnames reflecting his birthplace. Pagano would return to the role several more times, helping lodge the character firmly in the mind of audiences, in movies that sometimes resituated the character in different locales and periods. Pastrone himself directed several of these, including Maciste Alpino (1916). The character bears some resemblance to Ursus, the embodiment of muscular Christianity in Henryk Sienkiwicz’s Quo Vadis?, a touchstone for many of these early epics.

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Maciste is the model for the peplum hero, as a being of great physical strength matched to an unswerving willingness to fight for the bullied and distressed and take on tyrants, traits fully displayed here as he saves young Cabiria and wrenches apart prison bars so he can take a poke at Karthalo. When Bodastoret torments him in bondage, Maciste calmly waits for the right moment to send him flying with a kick. This is made all the more interesting given the fact that the original Maciste is a dark-skinned African, making perhaps cinema’s first black action hero, with the inevitable corollary that he’s played by a white man in body paint, and as Maciste gained independent popularity he quickly became a general-purpose white strongman. In Cabiria he’s also, at least nominally, a servile character, albeit one who shares bonds of amity and respect with Fulvius: they’re very much like the Batman and Robin of the ancient world. Maciste’s ultimate resilience is illustrated as he spends a decade chained to the grindstone but, so overjoyed he is when Fulvius comes to rescue him, he quickly tears loose his chains and returns to the fray.

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During the years of the war Fulvius becomes a commander of the Roman fleet besieging Syracuse, and he’s shipwrecked when Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli) uses his famous, if probably apocryphal, ploy of starting a blaze amidst the fleet with a reflective dish. Although fighting for the Carthaginian cause, Archimedes is presented as a nobly ruminative mind. The chaos of the fleet’s destruction is well-illustrated with some simple but effective special effects, much like the early eruption of Etna, mixing foregrounded live-action elements and model work. Fulvius is washed ashore and taken to Batto’s villa, where Batto recognises the ring Fulvius is wearing, and the connection is soon made. Fulvius promises to rescue Cabiria from Carthage if he gets a chance to. Joining the army of Scipio (Luigi Chellini) in North Africa, Fulvius is granted his chance, as Scipio assigns him to enter Carthage and spy out its defences. In another of the film’s famous images, used like the Moloch sequence on some posters, ranks of Roman legionnaires form a human pyramid for Fulvius to climb the huge stone walls of the city: the human becomes the architectural and geometric, anticipating Lang’s obsessive engagement with such visual design. Once he’s fulfilled his military mission, Fulvius resumes his personal one, tracking down and scaring Bodastoret into helping him find Maciste. Once Maciste is freed and Fulvius brings him back to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret is so frightened of Maciste’s wrath he drops dead of a heart attack.

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The grown Cabiria (Lidia Quaranta) is now the handmaiden of Sophonisba, known as Elissa. Sophonisba has married to Syphax (Alessandro Bernard), the King of Cirta, who deposed her former fiancé Masinissa and fights with Carthage, whilst exiled Masinissa has allied with the Romans. After escaping from Carthage, Fulvius and Maciste wander in the desert and almost die before they’re captured by some of Syphax’s raiders and taken into Cirta, where they’re imprisoned. Elissa’s innate decency is illustrated as she serves water to the prisoners, but fate catches up with her as Sophonisba has an auspicious dream telling her of Moloch’s wrath over Cabiria’s escape. When she reveals the dream and the truth about her handmaiden to Karthalo, who’s also in Cirta as an envoy, Karthalo demands Cabiria be handed over to him, with lascivious intent. As Masinissa lays siege to Cirta, Maciste breaks himself and Fulvius out of jail with raw, vengeful strength and Maciste kills Karthalo as he tries to rape Cabiria, but he and Fulvius are driven into the city keep by guards, where they command a great larder and are protected against assault. Meanwhile Masinissa, having captured Syphax outside Cirta, now gains entry to Cirta and lays claims to Sophonisba, but she tries to use her wiles on him to break his alliance with the Romans.

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Although for the most part largely interchangeable with any number of exotic adventure stories written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cabiria and others films like it rode a wave of Italian nationalist confidence following the country’s occupation of Libya in the 1912-14 war with Turkey, part of an attempt to build colonial might. Cabiria readily presents a popular metaphorical lens for that victory. Within a few months of the film’s release World War I broke out. D’Annunzio, who saw himself as a Nietzschean superman, would go on to become a successful fighter pilot and then leader of an aggressive populist movement that saw him briefly rule the city of Fiume and surrounds as “Duce of Carnaro.” During that brief rule he formulated customs and paraphernalia, as well as methods of brutal repression of dissent, which would be annexed and amplified by Mussolini into the trappings of the Fascist movement, although D’Annunzio would remain aloof from Mussolini’s version. D’Annunzio’s fascination with such systems of symbolism and obeisance is plain in Cabiria, most notably in the Invocation to Moloch sequence, which details the usage of such imagery and ceremony to unify an audience and dramatize collective identity. Cabiria itself has even been called the key moment in formulating the Fascist aesthetic. But the interesting disparity here is that Cabiria attributes such pomp and ritual to its villains, with a dark and ominous portrayal of communal hypnotism and performed allegiance in conjunction with acts of mass sacrifice. Perhaps this says something about how the interim of war and political upheaval in Italy altered D’Annunzio’s sense of such devices as well as that of his nation.

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Such ramifications don’t seem to have greatly preoccupied Pastrone, who found his singular moment of directorial stature putting over a story of such grand scope and immediate, personal travail for his characters. His faith feels more invested in Maciste’s righteous strength and Sophonisba’s suborning charisma. Some of the spectacle is straightforward and would already have been pretty familiar to an audience of the time, like the shots of a hirsute and igneous-looking Hannibal overseeing hordes of extras spilling over the snowy Alpine peaks. But an interlude like the human pyramid scene, with Pastrone’s squared-off perspective, entwine action with design, style with function. The ideal of the humans, with their dedication to making themselves a perfect engine of unified action and resilience, connects to Pastrone’s aesthetic, one that suggests the imagery of the geometric preoccupation of burgeoning, modernist art movements like cubism and futurism beginning a colonisation of cinema. Having invented an early form of camera dolly before embarking on the shoot, Pastrone employed a degree of camera movement scarcely seen in movies before on Cabiria, which he uses mostly to escape the old strictures of the rigid, stage-like shot that had defined much early film.

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The depictions of the siege of Cirta present yet more of the film’s influential visions as the warriors battle on and around massive stone walls, with men swinging on siege cranes and dripping boiling oil on their enemies. This sort of sequence, which still sparks a vague sense of awe in the scale of production and filmmaking chutzpah, explains why many found Cabiria in its day to be the first film to offer a vision of the past that felt not only convincing but palpable, and their influence on Intolerance’s Babylonian battle scenes is patent. Eugenio Bava, father of the great horror director Mario Bava, served as one of the cinematographers and worked on the special effects. Pastrone’s gliding camera still feels surprisingly modern in refusing to let the misé-en-scène become static, and he sometimes uses it for real effect, shifting zones in various sets and spaces to reconfigure attention and offer some dramatic punctuation, as when late in the film Masinissa is led away by some Roman soldiers and Pastrone zeroes in on a frightened serving girl peeking out from a curtain. Pastrone is hardly afraid of editing, with some sophisticated cutting throughout, but the effect of his moving camera feels like the beginning of a way of looking at cinema as an immersive experience, rather than just as a string of visual exposition. And yet the close-up remains alien to Pastrone’s visual grammar, where Griffith would forcefully embrace the dance of distance to create visual music and sharp emotional connections: Pastrone still mostly, merely describes where Griffith would dramatize.

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Fulvius and Maciste’s imprisonment in the Cirta keep sees them trapped in a world of plenty as they’re stuck with great stores of food and wine. Pastrone uses his moving camera here to strike a note of droll character analysis and even a faint edge of self-satire in regards to the historical epic’s idealising tendencies. Pastrone shifts from Maciste ferretting for food to Fulvius idling away time by drawing an elaborate chalk mural portraying an amphora-sporting goddess with a man perched worshipfully at her feet. This feels like the sort of joke Richard Lester or Frank Tashlin might have employed decades later, the improbably good creator of artworks for the ages. Pastrone makes more of it, however, defining Fulvius as a frustrated romantic in search of love and Maciste as a bacchanalian: Maciste offers an improvement by drawing a stream of booze pouring from the amphora. The difference between the two characters also says something about the schismatic impact the film would have on movie culture for Italy and the world. Maciste is a hero for the oncoming age of the everyman, a fond representative of the vast bulk of the audience, where Fulvius belongs to a hierarchy still indulgent as long as it thinks it rules. Sophonisba’s dream, with hovering eyes, reaching hands, and the face of Moloch with Cabiria in its jaws, presents a jolt of oneiric weirdness that also seems exactly half-way, in terms of cinematic style, between the theatrical evocations of George Méliès and the dynamic effects of the oncoming moment of cinema’s expressionists and surrealists.

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Sophonisba emerges as the most complex and interesting figure in Cabiria, where most of the others are simple extensions of their story function. She stands as a genuine antiheroine, the opposite of the eternal innocent Cabiria and representing a radically different value system. Her difference is hinted at as she makes invocations to different gods to her countrymen, and becomes more urgent as she obeys Karthalo’s demand to hand over Cabiria as her dream tells her the fate of her nation depends upon it. Sophonisba is a crafty arbiter of statecraft who knows how to manipulate men and situations and a walking icon of seductive intent, to the point where she manages to convince Masinissa not to let her be paraded as captured Roman chattel. Whilst Sophonisba initially seems sympathetic in her readiness to take in Cabiria, she proves willing to countenance her sacrifice if it means safeguarding her nation. But Scipio’s arrival and determination to see Sophonisba paraded forces Masinissa to fool Fulvius and Maciste into delivering to the princess a means of killing herself to avoid the humiliation. The dying Sophonisba tells Fulvius that Cabiria is still alive, being held in a dungeon for sacrifice: Sophonisba has her released as a show of mercy in exchange for being allowed her own death, and also perhaps because Sophonisba herself takes her place as a state-sanctioned victim, and the two women embrace tearily before Sophonisba expires. Pastrone’s last shot is both absurd and a great example of his art, as Fulvius and Cabiria, now married, ride on a galley’s prow for home with Maciste, a flight of sprites circling in the air about them in celebration of their union. Like many films from the decade of cinema’s adolescence, Cabiria often reminds the modern viewer just how long ago that was. But at its best, Cabiria can still arrest to the point where the interval vanishes.

Cabiria can be viewed here on YouTube.

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1950s, Drama, Historical, War

Alexander The Great (1956)

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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or download the podcast

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

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