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

The Birth of Japan (1959)

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema, Historical

Dragon Inn (1967)

Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn; aka Dragon Gate Inn

Director/Screenwriter: King Hu

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By Roderick Heath

King Hu was born Hu Jinquan in Beijing in 1932. Scion of a prominent and prosperous family, Hu nonetheless was borne along with a generation displaced by war and political upheaval, and washed up in Hong Kong when still a teenager in 1949. After working for a decade in a variety of odd jobs, Hu started working at Shaw Brothers Studio, where he worked in front of and behind the camera, eventually becoming an assistant to the respected Taiwanese director Li Han-Hsiang, a role that primed him to become a director himself. Hu made his debut with the 1965 war drama Sons of the Good Earth, but it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966), that proved a legendary moment of crystallisation for both his career and the movies in general. Hu melded together the traditions of Chinese historical genre writing, dubbed wuxia, with ideas borrowed from Japanese samurai movies and Hollywood westerns as well as his own feel for character and philosophical ideas, and reinvented it for a movie style that became the mainstay of Chinese-language cinema. One of Hu’s most distinctive and consistent motifs was his fondness for placing interesting action heroines at the centre of his films, giving the genre a new energy and accessibility for a broad audience. Come Drink With Me made a star of Pei-pei Cheng who, decades later, would appear in Ang Lee’s hugely successful tribute to Hu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Although he had laid down a blueprint Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong studios would follow and revise for years to come, the newly emboldened Hu decided to take up an offer to work in Taiwan for his next film, Dragon Inn. By shifting his filmmaking base, Hu left behind the stylised, set-bound approach of the Shaw Brothers production mode, which was exemplified the same year by Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, and embraced a more realistic and expansive sense of landscape, and swapped the lush colour and cheery, musical-inflected naivety of Come Drink With Me for a tighter, sterner approach, albeit still with time for dashes of comedy and character interaction. Dragon Inn proved an instant, colossal hit across the South Asian film market, and became such a touchstone for later wuxia filmmakers that Tsui Hark remade it twice, in 1992 and 2011, whilst filmmakers not known for genre work like Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Tsai Ming-liang all made their tributes: the latter built his 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn around a closing movie theatre screening Hu’s work, a nostalgic tip of the hat to a fading but legendary era of simple dreams and enterprise. As Hu struggled to escape the strictures of genre cinema, he would go on to make his ambitious and heralded epics A Touch of Zen (1971) and Raining on the Mountain (1979), works now regarded as the height of his aesthetic, but which failed commercially in comparison to his early hits. Tsui Hark’s attempts to shepherd him back into the hit-making fold in the early 1990s failed, and Hu died in 1997 just before his work began to be revived by his fans.

Dragon Inn is today regarded as something very like the Stagecoach (1939) of martial arts movies, the moment a genre known for innocent thrills and fun evolved into something more rigorous and mature. Both movies sport far-flung settings, action revolving around a social microcosm, and an outmatched, assailed cast of heroic characters, as well as a directorial eye keenly engaged by the interaction of human fluidity and the landscape’s unyielding stature. The plot, similarly, pits restless motion against immobility, rigidities of social power structures and political oppression tested by personal bravura and fortitude, the space and freedom of the land offering a way out. Hu’s prologue situates his tale in the 1400s when the Imperial Chinese government was strongly influenced by courtier eunuchs, divvying up power through various autocratic departments like the dreaded secret police service called the Eastern Agency. A high-ranking soldier, General Yu, is framed for crimes and executed by his political enemies, chief amongst them the head of the Eastern Agency, the malignant eunuch Zhao Shao Qin (Pai Ying). Yu’s family are sent in exile to a remote border area known as Dragon Gate.

Believing that Yu’s relatives and loyalists will stage an insurrection, Zhao decides to exterminate all of Yu’s family sends out his agents, known as the Fan Zin, commanded by Pi Shao-Ting (Miao Tian). The family are being escorted by a unit of Imperial soldiers, but are hunted all the way by Fan Zi sent out by Zhao. A swordsman, Chi Chu (Hsieh Han), intervenes as the Imperial soldiers try to fight off the killers, and gives them and their charges time to get away. Meanwhile Pi and his second-in-command Mao Zong-Zian (Han Ying-Chieh) arrive at an inn at Dragon Gate, a waystation the Yus will inevitably visit, with another cohort of Fan Zi. Pi rents out the whole inn and forbids accepting any more guests, and has his men pose as travellers in readiness. In order to not give away their presence, however, the Fan Zi are obliged to let the innkeepers keep serving food and drink to passing trade. Pi has a nearby outpost of army soldiers wiped out, as well as the hapless porters who helped bring the Fan Zi gear to the inn. But the Fan Zi don’t know that the Inn is own by Wu Ming (Cho Kin), one of General Yu’s noted subordinates, who, aware of what’s heading his way, has begun taking steps to save the Yus from their fate.

Into their midst comes first the polite but cagey Xiao Shao Zi (Shih Chun), a white-clad traveller who, provoked by the disguised Fan Zi, reveals startling gifts as a martial artist. Deciding to dispose of this potential problem, one assassin poisons Xiao’s wine, but the inn’s waiter (Ko Xiao-Pao) warns the warrior, who chases away his tormentors, leaving one with a bloody x scratched into his cheek. Pi decides not to antagonise Xiao anymore and instead brings him partially into his confidence. Xiao seems satisfied and takes a room at the inn. Next to arrive is Chi Chu and his sister Huei Chu (Polly Shangguan Lingfeng). The siblings contend with an ambush by two gangly men on the road to the inn, Tuo La and his brother (Wan Chung-Shan and Wen Tian). Xiao warns them with a note about the poisoned wine when they arrive at the inn, but they remain distrustful of Xiao, especially as Pi experimentally sets them at odds by having one of his men make it look like Xiao is trying to kill the siblings and vice versa. But Xiao proves to be a mercenary fighter hired by Wu Ming. Wu also meets with the Chu siblings who knew him as children, although they don’t recognise him at first, and the two camps join forces. Eventually, their number is augmented by the Tou brothers, who prove to be Tatars who came south to China to find action but were impressed into Fan Zi service and forcibly castrated for their pains, and very understandably want some payback.

Dragon Inn is a film in two defined sections: after introductory scenes that swiftly and essentially set up the plot and moral imperatives, the drama shifts to the Inn itself, a ready-made amphitheatre for Hu’s characters to interact in a succession of charged exchanges with incipient violence in the offing, blended with a skittish comedy of manners. Hu was essentially revising the first part of Come Drink With Me here, refining his use of a far-flung socialising situation, the remote Inn, as a stage to suggest titanic forces slowly building in a gyre under the surface of petty human interaction. The second half heads outdoors for eruptive battles and flight to freedom. Hu’s innate mastery of this kind of narrative is immediately announced as he sets up the entire storyline in a pre-credit sequence, a voiceover explaining the basic plot, identifying the villains, their methods and aims, whilst the visuals depict the execution of General Yu on screen. The clean geometries within Hu’s framings see the precisely ordered columns of regime heavies and the ritualistic act of political homicide unfolding as a succession of cleanly geometric priorities, precursor to a film where the heroes shattered the illusion of order.

The Fan Zi assassins try to provoke and kill the threatening interlopers who come to the Inn, stoking instead various displays of pithy attitude and extraordinary ability, displays that seem to suddenly light up a dingy and depressing corner of the world with the hope of something extraordinary in the offing. Another director might have filmed this segment from the viewpoint of one of the heroes as a mystery, arriving in an ambiguous situation where nothing seems quite right. Hu instead depicts his villains’ arrival and arts of stage management, and instead the thrill of these scenes comes from the disquiet of the Fan Zi as they’re confronted with such evidence of prowess as when Xiao hurls a bowlful of noodles from table to table without spilling it, and dispenses a pocketful of coins into a box, landing in perfectly arranged forms. Hu’s theme becomes, then, not the hidden nature of menace but the unexpected and often clandestine nature of goodness in a time of general corruption. This proves a quandary that vexes the heroes as much as their foes, as Xiao and the Chus, although working towards the same end, trip over each-other’s toes and are almost tricked into clashing.

The film’s first half sees these different camps try to fulfil their digressive missions without entirely giving their games away or violating the rules of the charade. This starts to become nearly as hyperbolic and self-willed as the mirror scene from Duck Soup (1933), particularly as the heroes are obliged to find ways to avoid drinking poison and the waiter is expected to serve it up with a smile. Xiao takes the play-act to a logical conclusion by pretending to drink the poison and scream in pain, only to then spit out the wine in an assassin’s face. Thanks to Xiao’s warning, Huei demands a drink from one of the assassins’ cups under the cover of having spilt her own, starting an argument. The assassin, infuriated, proffers his cup balanced upon the blade of his sword, but Huei keeps his weapon firmly pinched between two shuddering fingers, wicked steel held at bay by raw will and discipline of flesh, before cooly taking up the cup and swigging it down, and continuing to act is if a day’s pleasant luncheon has become unnecessarily offensive. There’s an aspect of character joke to this moment as well as a display of Huei’s startling skill, as she also serves as the canny and careful counterweight to her brother’s bluster and lack of smarts and often has to move quickly to repair his blunders, always keeping raw force at bay with elegantly contrived but concerted arts.

Hu’s story isn’t merely one of determined heroes coming together to fight a common foe, but a drama of reunions and recognition and bonds of family, with the two teams of related heroes setting out to save their victimised fellows, themselves condemned for their ties of blood and loyalty. The Chus recognise Wu under the disguise of time and age and hazy memory as the man they once called Uncle who served in their father’s old unit. Only Xiao remains something of an outsider, a man without apparent identity, but is included as the heroes slowly composite into a small tribe, the only way for them to become strong enough to take on the ultimate villain, Shao, at the climax. This last aspect was an idea soon to become pretty familiar in martial arts movies and even echoes through to contemporary, infinitely more expensive fare like Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but was at the time a risky deflation of familiar heroic modes. Zhao is talked about in anxious murmurs by all, feared not just for running an all-powerful repressive state but for his personal talents as a martial artist, skills he has honed to their height, liberated from all familiar weakness in his forced asexuality, but also impeded by one, specific vulnerability: asthma.

Part of the mystique Hu invested in wuxia cinema through his example lay in the evocation of perpetual exile and nomadic instability, articulated through his characters’ restless and rootless lives and search for the right stage to prove themselves upon. A equivalent to the figure of the knight errant was as common in wuxia as in western courtly romances and their descendants in westerns and superhero tales, but Hu used the concept to for his own ends, as an authentic way to channel the political, geographical, and cultural schisms that opened up for the Chinese community in the late 1940s into the iconography of the genre, pitting talented but freewheeling, displaced protagonists at odds with monolithic power blocs. Where in westerns the heroes usually contribute to the slow knitting together of community and order through their adventures, wuxia heroes very often battle against the abuses of government and law, and find themselves caught between communities. Dragon Inn explicitly invokes exile and separation, individuality versus mass conformity and terrible power, with a setting where the landscape has been colonised by representatives of implacable state terror and entire families must be exterminated to suit the ends of unaccountable potentates. The outsider heroes of Come Drink With Me, the intense and serious heroine Golden Swallow and the happy-go-lucky Smiling Tiger, loaned two different faces to this theme of footloose solitude.

Dragon Inn, whilst hardly humourless, nonetheless signals a new paradigm for both onscreen women and genre cinema at large as Huei calmly allows her back to be stitched up: she is Hu’s perfect hero figure, cool and stoic but driven by a powerful need to reforge moral order and protect people she owes allegiance to. Hu sets up a tension of motivation for his heroes, the Chus driven by family and political loyalty to help the Yus, whilst Xiao is a fighter for pay, which Pi tries to exploit be offering him a better deal. But Xiao’s own ethic – once he commits to a side he sticks to it – proves unshakeable. It’s an interestingly similar note to one Howard Hawks had sounded a year before in El Dorado (1966) in considering the fine line between villain and hero in a situation where both sides have a hired gun. In a touch perhaps slightly influenced by the Japanese cinema hero Zatoichi, whose favoured weapon was hidden in his walking cane, Xiao carries his sword concealed in an umbrella, and does not unsheathe the weapon until he intends lethal violence: he fends off most of the Fan Zi with blade still disguised. Chun amusingly plays his lone wolf hero not as a gruff Eastwood or Mifune type but as a man who acts always with calculated politeness, smiling amicably with just a hint of forced tension around his mouth, eyes locked still in his face as he does so. He contrasts the fiery Huei and reactive, slightly dim but stalwart Chi, as well as the initially timorous Tuo, who nonetheless give an impressive demonstration of their own skills as swordsmen.

We’re in archetype land here, of course, even as some of the archetypes are being invented, and Hu’s singular realisation here is the notion that in an action movie, action is character. Apart from hints in lingering gazes from Huei and Xiao of interest, there’s no sideways distraction by romance, and whilst character relationships are stated, they’re not vitally important. Hu’s paring down the dramatic landscape in this fashion still feels radical to a certain degree even as it’s become a virtual norm in genre film. Hu’s emphasis on his heroes as implacable exponents of their own gifts has a certain similarity to American films of the same period like The Professionals (1967) and Bullitt (1968), as well as the James Bond films, where the heroes are celebrated for their ability to function a little like sharks in deadly and often dirty situations, and professionalism was its own virtue. That’s not to say these heroes are detached from what they’re trying to accomplish, but that they’re dignified by their skill and agency. After the comically flavoured early scenes, the climactic battles are totally free of swashbuckling jauntiness or slapstick humour: the business of fighting evil is a tough, mean business where the outcome is decided by a quicksilver blend of mental and physical agility.

It’s also bound together with Hu’s politically-tinged core theme as he explores a democratic ideal where his heroes, for all their talents, need each-other, and they and the villains are utterly human and vulnerable. As implacable as state power as embodied by Zhao seems to be, it’s still accountable on a human scale and beset by human failings. The protagonists, whilst great fighters alone, still must band together and work in coordination to bring down the monolith. The woman is just as good a fighter as the men because she’s disciplined herself with the same dedication. When the Yus and their escort finally do arrive at the Inn, the Fan Zi assault them, but our heroes intervene in a tag-team campaign to distract, divide, and foil the killers, starting with Chi, and then Huei, who fights Mao and manages to beat away a flock of assassins. Xiao sends her to join her brother in defending the Yus and when Pi and Mao return with their full force, Xiao goes out and takes them on. The heroes chase Pi, who manages to badly gash Huei in the back by throwing his sword at her. The heroes hole up for the night in the Inn, where Wu insists on treating both friendly and enemy wounded. The commander of the local Imperial troops who guard the border arrives at the Inn and learns what’s been happening and that the Fan Zi have murdered some of his men. He confronts the newly-arrived Zhao, only for the eunuch to skewer him with a sword: Zhao has become a law unto himself.

Hu might well have been picking up ideas from Sergio Leone, whose The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was released a year earlier. Hu’s exterior compositions betray a similar sense of design, and his long, comedic yet charged sequences depicting characters testing and revealing each-other’s abilities and probing their motivations also have a Leone-esque flavour. But Hu’s action staging is all his own, and when the film’s action-packed second half arrives, his technique is unleashed. The start of the second half realises Hu’s theme of meeting and unity in coincidence with a new dawn, his heroes setting out with a new sense of understanding and purpose, dispersing from the inn in a crescendo of imagery and swelling music that signals changing gears. Meanwhile the villains arise from their beds on the stony plain, silhouetted against the rising sun. This moment sets the scene rhythmically and visually for what follows, a long battle around the inn, beginning as Huei marches alone across the rocky plain and quickly churns the Fan Zi into confusion, battling Mao in a series of deftly athletic movements.

The early action sequence where Chi intervenes to save the Yus on the road is a potent example of the way Hu situates his actors in relationship to the landscape, in diagonals ranging from large figures to small, humans planted upon the flat stretches of the plains with mountains soaring high above. The final shot of the sequence sees the gang of assassins Chi has just sliced through falling dead like skittles as the Yus and their escort flee across the plain. Hu succeeds in a fine balancing act, framing his shots with the care and precision of classical artists, the essence of rigidity and inflexibility, but then agitating them, turning the film into a quietly dazzling dialogue of motion and stillness. The fight scenes around the Inn see Hu unleashing a a formidable string of delicate yet muscular tracking shots, constantly situating his heroes at the centre of spiralling teams of bad guys, swords brandished, trying to cage their foes but failing, Hu’s camera gliding in and out of the rolling scrums and duels. There’s a rhythm to Hu’s presentation of his heroes and villains within shots: Huei’s initial advance on the Inn sees her as a stark and solitary splash of colour in an otherwise harsh landscape, a lonely hero.

As the number of enemies increases, they surround the heroes, but by the end, in a moment that anticipates The Wild Bunch (1969), Xiao, Chi, and the Tuos advance abreast together as a unified force for the great showdown, and it’s now they who surround the enormously talented but isolated Zhao. The tyranny of space down on the flatlands, experience here and later around the Inn with the stony plain surrounding it, is correlated with the dismal regime the heroes give battle to, and balanced by the sight of soaring mountains in the distance, beckoning with elusive promise. That promise is eventually fulfilled in the climax as the heroes flee for the border and make their great stand against the villains in altitudes where Hu’s visuals are at once rigorous in their shot-for-shot depiction of physical conflict but also, with cloud rolling down mountain flanks, evoking classical scroll paintings where transcendental longings are evoked, tethering Hu’s narrative together on political, character, and spiritual planes at apotheosis.

The beauty of the backdrop nonetheless still fades before the immediate context of the fight on dusty mountain trails, where the rarefied air and dust kicked up by the fights immediately start to impede Zhao. But he’s still strong enough to fend off all his massed opponents, leaving them bloodied and battered, trying to give them the slip and chase down the Yus, with only Huei managing to hold him long enough for her comrades to regather. Defeating Zhao, however, demands a completely selfless dedication, and it’s the Tuos who both die in the act of first skewering the villain with a blade and then lopping his head off. Whereupon Hu simply and tersely brings up The End on screen, spurning all further unnecessary business: the bad guy is dead, the heroes have won. Dragon Inn swiftly became a victim of its own great influence, as Hu’s straightforward, witty dance of skilled characters was endlessly imitated and remixed. But it still wields a stark, architectural authority, like many progenitors, that keeps it both vital and perfectly entertaining.

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

All the Money in the World (2017)

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Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Where Ridley Scott last left off, he was sending his biologically engineered übermenschen off into deep space to operatic fanfares of crypt-black irony. All the Money in the World, although set in the recent, very earthbound past, nonetheless takes up where that movie left off as young John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) reports in sad and bewildered voiceover his family’s elevation from the lot of common mortals to alien beings, existing in the world but scarcely belonging to it anymore. The idea that the rich might as well be a different species certainly feels rooted in the deepest recesses of Scott’s imagination, but so, too, is a probing, contradictory humanism that wants to understand even in condemning. Out for a walk one night in Rome in the balmy climes of 1973, Paul hears his name called out by the driver of a Volkswagen bus. When he approaches the vehicle, he’s bundled inside by masked, gun-wielding criminals, and spirited away to be imprisoned in an old cellar somewhere out in the Calabrian campagna. His captors are a scruffy bunch of low-rent criminals who see the chance for quick and easy riches. In himself, Paul is actually worth very little. But he happens to be the grandson of John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the world’s richest man not simply of the moment but in the history of histories.

Paul lives in Rome with his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has recently divorced old Getty’s dissolute son John Paul Jnr (Andrew Buchan). Young Paul’s strange situation as golden boy with the potential for vast fortune and yet, for the present, simply a good-looking young chancer kicking about Rome is sourced in the manifold ironies of his upbringing, raised in fairly normal circumstances as his boozy but good-hearted father was scarcely acquainted with his own tycoon sire. Scott offers a lengthy flashback to a time when the family was broke, but reasonably happy in San Francisco. In an attempt to deal with their money worries, Gail coached her husband in writing a letter to his father, stating his understanding that their long alienation was the result of Getty’s desire to see his boy prove himself on his own. To their excitement, this gained a telegram response offering John Paul Jnr a job, which proved to be director of Getty’s European operations: “Sink or the swim,” was patriarch’s advice. Getty seemed to take a particular shine to Paul, giving him a statuette of the Minotaur, one he held to be worth millions of dollars, and utilising him as helpmate in his correspondence seeing off the legions writing to him begging for money.

John Paul Jnr, far from being remade by new prosperity, soon started living the bohemian high life, and sank into a drug induced stupor in Morocco. Gail divorced him, taking full custody of the children and refusing any compromises with the Getty dynasty by taking their money. Sadly, the result of this theoretically clean break leaves Gail totally at sea in dealing with the crisis that soon befalls her, and she’s obliged to ask Getty for the cash when the kidnappers demand $17 million for the safe release of her son. Getty, however, soon declares he has no intention of paying, nominally because he doesn’t want to encourage further such actions against his family and to hold a stern bulwark against the encroaching torpor and craziness of the age. Getty instead recalls a trusted negotiator and security chief, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), from the Middle East and assigns him to look into the kidnapping and advise Gail. One of the kidnappers is shot by his fellows after accidentally allowing Paul to see his face, his incinerated body is found on the roadside, allowing the carabinieri to track down his known accomplices and gun down several of them. But they’re too late to retrieve Paul, who’s been sold to the Calabrian mob, the ‘Ndràngheta. Paul forms a mutually tolerant bond with one of his captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), a gritty but empathetic personality who has committed himself with growing unease to a criminal enterprise, especially as he’s essentially sold onto the new masters along with his charge.

All the Money in the World, written by David Scarpa and drawn from John Pearson’s book about the true events that befell the Getty clan but making few bones about being a dramatic embellishment rather than exacting factual account, was given an unexpected boost in notoriety and intrigue even before it came out when Kevin Spacey, who had initially played old Getty, fell from grace thanks to sexual assault allegations. Scott made the decision, rather than see his film shelved and forgotten, to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer, who was closer to the right age for the character anyway, and still make the release date. All the Money in the World therefore provokes a level of admiration simply for existing at all in a coherent form, although perhaps not that much surprise. Scott, although long ensconced in Hollywood’s ponderous productions, has roots in the tight deadlines, low budgets, and pitiless pace of British TV work in the 1960s, and I get the feeling this was precisely the kind of challenge to skill and discipline Scott relishes. This achievement also meshes in an unexpected subtextual manner with the substance of the film itself, the sympathy it offers old Getty as someone who feels obligated by pride, business instinct, and pure predatory gall to turn every exchange into a test of professional strength. Scott understands that side of Getty, the man absolutely dedicated to his work.

The wrath of the outsider, the struggles of the frustrated would-be titan, the duels of individuals, communes, and classes, have long been fuel of Ridley Scott’s films as far back as the title characters of The Duellists (1977) and the working stiffs served up as lunchmeat and breeding husks by corporate paymasters in Alien (1979). Most of his films ably chart fault lines of self-perception and social identity, and All the Money in the World is perfect Scott material in recounting the tale of this benighted youth who finds himself defined and revised – psychologically and, eventually, physically – by inherited facts of identity like a uniquely cruel, inverted version of the sorts of lessons dealt out to Dickens’ waifs, whom Paul somewhat resembles as a wandering child who finds himself the object of both great good fortune and nefarious designs. Scott has also long displayed a fascination for characters nominally on the wrong side of such wars, a rarefied ardour for beings twisted into ignoble Calibans by their travails or separated from the common run of humanity by dint of their peculiar abilities or tastes, sometimes existing on either side of the patrician-plebeian divide or sometimes commingled in single bodies. Most of the characters in Blade Runner (1982) could count as both, but the image of the banished Replicants and ensconced magnate Tyrell in that film remains a blueprint for the essential struggle. All the Money in the World could offer a ready analogy between its vision of old Getty and the Satan figure in Legend (1985), the ultimate mythical reduction of the theme, except that even in that film Scott gave sympathy to his devil as the bewildered exile of a disinterested father clasping at anything precious that came his way.

Getty is Ozymandian colossus, gazing down balefully on high upon anyone fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to fall into his orbit, a Midas whose touch turns relations not to gold, but to ashes. Getty gives his grandson tours of Roman imperial palaces, explaining his conviction he’s the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian, an echo of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, where Henry Ford and JP Morgan were depicted with a similar conviction. Later, Chase is privy to Getty’s designs to rebuild Hadrian’s palace “with flush toilets.” But his everyday life is a parade of skinflint habits, like washing his own clothes and installing a payphone in his English country estate, that are wryly amusing until suddenly they’re not. Chase is first glimpsed in his capacity as a negotiator for Getty, trying to strike a deal with Saudi princes and sheikhs whose fortune Getty made by taking the risk of drilling on their land, but not as much as he made his own. Now the Arab leaders are simultaneously bemoaning their own sons’ profligate carelessness but also hoping to snatch the reins of power from Getty now that his leases are ending and the advent of OPEC is shifting the orbits of the fiscal universe. Ironically, the tools of OPEC in choking off oil supply and sparking energy crises threaten to make Getty even richer. And yet as Gail and Chase press him to consider paying the ransom, Getty states he’s in too precarious a position financially, and responds to Chase’s question about how much he’d need to feel more secure with a simple “More.” This response carries instant and obvious film noir associations, as it comes straight out of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), as the answer Edward G. Robinson’s gangster gave to the same question.

At his least Scott has sometimes been a purveyor of pretty pictures merely encrusting studio labours rather than enriching them. But at his best he’s a fashioner of little universes replete with suggestions of transitory states of being and feeling. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Counselor (2013), are works that capture in visual textures the gratitude of their protagonists for the islets of beauty and comfort that gave restful ease from a buffeting universe. The opening of All the Money in the World is a dreamy little etude that captures the feeling of being young, reasonably free and able, at large in a city that offers all experience as a bounty, Scott’s camera gliding with Paul as he soaks in the night’s textures, including the erotic promises of the prostitutes who both mock and covet his youth. This sequence is quietly rhymed later to an interlude, earlier in the timeline of events recounted, when Paul is seen wandering the Moroccan abode his father has taken over, a hushed, shadowy abode, ripe stage for decadent adventures, lithe-limbed odalisques on the prowl, and Paul a bewildered youth adrift amongst the tides of greedy pleasures. It’s startling how much texture and self-referential verve Scott packs into this little scene, calling back to the retro-futurist stately abodes of Blade Runner and the historical exoticism of Kingdom of Heaven, capturing the psychic horizon in either direction that lurks for the weak-willed plutocrat, the bastions of dissolute collapse. Scott’s casting of Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin in the latter film, as one of the Sheikhs arguing with Chase over oil rights brings that story up to date, the course of history also a metronome of shifting economic and political contest.

The ethical schema of All the Money in the World seems so obvious that it’s tempting to rebel against it, and although Scott and Scarpa don’t go easy on Getty for his monstrous clumsiness and abnegation, they do chart with surprising intensity and depth the specific walls of self-protection and carefully nurtured systems of removal and estrangement. Here are the habits of an aged and cynical man who infers emotions through the seismograph of economic appeals and expectations, and for whom truth long ago melted into a perverse geography, the gravitational force of his fortune working like a black hole to distort all relationships. Getty sits uneasily on a relentless source of horror, buried under layers of hard-bitten disdain for lesser mortals, at the pits money can open. He explains to Chase why he entitled a book he wrote not “How to Get Rich” but “How to Be Rich,” a guide to the habits that must be necessarily cultivated and practised with ruthless discipline in order to not merely accrue a fortune and then expend it and one’s self with it, such as instantly befalls his son the moment the taps of addiction-indulgence are opened. Getty sees traps in plenty and the call of boundless possibility. Such a theme echoes one of the best lines in a film by one of Scott’s cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which proposed that too often the aspects of a character that drive one to make a fortune all too often ruin them after gaining it.

And to be fair, Getty has a point, when any quick survey of his immediate family offers plenty of support to his thesis. After all, Chase has found that Paul’s proposals to stage his kidnapping were in league with nominal revolutionaries, who Chase confronted only to be left rolling eyes at their threats to put him trial for crimes against the proletariat. The trouble is, Getty’s cynicism is bound up with a sense of moral phthisis eating its way into everything in sight. Getty practices rigorous tax avoidance by plying all of his earnings into purchasing artworks that pile up around his manor, including purchasing a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child by for over a million dollars on the black market even as he’s fending off Gail’s entreaties. When Chase learns that Paul had floated, possibly as a joke, the idea of staging his own kidnapping to earn ransom money for himself, he reports this to Getty, who takes it as a sign he’s been used again, and to dig in his heels against any further attempts to get him to pay up. Scott drops hint as to Getty’s part in the sociological upheaval his own acquisitive instincts, noting with ironic alacrity that the energy crisis of ’74 was another kind of hostage drama set in motion by Getty’s fortune. Meanwhile Paul, much like the human shells and twisted homunculi of Alien: Covenant (2017), finds himself canvas for cubist alterations to the human form, as he’s held down and has his ear sliced off by his new captors whose idea of business is just as formidable and unyielding as Getty’s.

Scott stages this scene, one anyone who knows anything about these events will be waiting for with cringing unease, with a gruelling but concise and unflinching detail where others might have cut away or rendered it a kind of horror movie blackout. Throughout his career Scott has let slip a side to his cinema that betrays his British TV roots with their strong traditions of documentaries and realistic and factual dramas, in his fascination for pointillist detail and carefully observed processes that sometimes take on an imperative over and above nominal narrative through-line. This facet usually comes out most crucially in his thrillers like American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. Here small details like Cinquanta trying to get Paul drunk before surgery and the “doctor” insisting the ‘Ndràngheta heavies hold his patient still and then setting to work for a piece of ragged work that just won’t end, serve to focus Scott’s exacting sense of this torture as another business transaction but also one that involves real people who feel obliged to do obscene things for some reason. It’s rhymed, not so subtly but with the sourly totemic kick of an old-school noir director, with the sight elsewhere of a butcher slicing off a hunk of meat. Paul’s cruel curtailing follows a gutsy and cleverly managed escape attempt achieved with the unspeaking collusion of Cinquanta as he improvises a method of setting fire to dry grass neighbouring the building where he’s held, only to be immediately surrendered back into the ‘Ndràngheta’s hands, a sequence of casually expert suspense-mongering that builds up to a Fritz Lang-esque punch-line where the conspiracy of evil proves entirely enveloping.

Like Blade Runner, American Gangster, and The Counselor, however, All the Money in the World isn’t really a thriller in the generic sense as a series of compulsive set-pieces. It’s more a heightened dramatic study in familial perversity and obstinacy of character as well as a holistic attempt to encompass the workings of peculiar niche of society, and the methods of various forms of capitalism. Just as The Counselor reduced the drug war to the image of a body in a barrel being endlessly shipped back and forth, here high capitalism means its street-level equivalent and speaks a peculiar language in flesh and blood, building to a sequence that depicts a small army of women working to tabulate the ransom money for the mob bosses and handing over the added total on a slip of paper, echo to the strings of ticker tape Getty adores studying. Rival moral systems are invoked, of course, particularly family, as Cinquanta notes with bemusement the lack of family feeling evinced by the Getty patriarch. I get the feeling Scott, who’s long been the preeminent member of a creative family and who’s been buffeted by loss over the years, feel this point closely. Other forms of fellowship also provide unexpected islands, particularly Cinquanta’s growing empathy for Paul and attempts to help him.

Given that Alien looked a lot like a remix of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it seems more than coincidental that Paul’s kidnappers strongly resemble refugees out of Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), that most pungent of paranoid Italian self-diagnoses from the same era, probably even inspired by the very events Scott is analysing. Scott complicates and amplifies Bava’s games of perception and appearance: people are rogue elements within all systems, a point codified in visual terms in the finale as heroes and villains and people in between dodge and weave in the shadowy aisles of an Italian city that turns vertiginous faces to the street, bespeaking a history of self-interest within fortresses turned to the world’s maelstroms. Family proves to be the initially unacknowledged battlefield of wills between Gail and Getty, as the tycoon feels robbed of his grandchildren, whilst Gail was determined to remove them entirely from the sphere of careless and destructive alternations of starvation and plenty that had defined her former husband’s experience of the Getty fortune. Getty is more determined to drive Gail to the wall than he is to pay or punish the kidnappers, insisting on her surrendering custody of her children and signing Paul aboard for stringent turns of repayable loans before he does finally agree to pony up ransom dough up to the maximum that’s tax deductible.

Getty finally bends that far after Gail strikes up another deal with newspapers, in another scene of carefully diagrammed intersection of commerce and violence, to publish a ransom photo of the maimed Paul, so she can then mail a stack of papers emblazoned with the image to Getty. The old man receives them, only for a strong wind to scatter the pages harum-scarum about his driveway, a great little touch that turns biting moral gesture into an active physical force setting a carefully ordered universe in anarchy. Williams as an actress has worked very hard in recent years but I’d also learnt a certain Pavlovian recoiling from her presence in movies as too often it spelt a certain laborious excursion in suffering was in the offering. That’s true of this movie too, to a certain extent, but what’s rare about Williams’ performance here lies precisely how well she inhabits a character who resolutely refuses to be pinned down by hostile forces until driven to insufferable extremes, always retaining a hard edge and a quality of sardonic amazement even as she being driven to the wall by ruthless bargainers on both sides in regarding both the ugly detachment of other human beings and her own capacity to engage in active self-defeat in the process of trying to gain a more vital victory. When Gail does break down, it takes a lot to do it. The Minotaur statue, which seems like a Chekovian gun that offers the chance for a painless solution to Gail’s trap, proves to really be just a trinket, and the mother buckles with crestfallen realisation not simply that Getty bullshitted his own grandson but he also invested illusory value on an object, thus giving it that value until it was tested—which proves true of Getty’s entire enterprise.

Chase, for his part, seems every inch the well-made man of action; taking up a shotgun when invited by Getty to join in trap shooting with other guests, he easily swats clay pigeons from the air. But even he begins to quickly lose his bearings in the maze of motive and potential he wades into, and Chase repeatedly defines his experience as a CIA agent and operator for Getty as more the life of a businessman, a professional deal-maker and mollifier. His ultimate function however is less save-the-day swashbuckler than as intelligent witness and consul to Gail’s war, a war he hinders as often as he aids. Appalled by Chase’s high-handed technique when he intercedes during a conversation, Gail swats him in the brow with the phone receiver, but Chase tries to make her understand his approach, speaking in perfect calm with bleeding forehead all the while. There are a few moments when Wahlberg’s diction in playing a worldly and confident protagonist where he irresistibly reminded me of the actor’s role within a role as international man of mystery Brock Landers in Boogie Nights (1997), and the part has a similar subtext as Chase lets slip he’s still brushing up on his culture under Getty’s tutelage, suggesting he’s a man who quietly hopes to be evolve into warrior-poet serving the emperor.

The spectacle of the kidnapping however imbues new self-knowledge upon Chase, knowledge he finally turns on Getty in the film’s climax of its moral drama if not the physical one. He loses his temper with the old coot and gives him a serving of truth, confessing he’s another pampered rich white boy and that neither of them knows what real struggle or risk actually means. Chase also illustrates with ruthless clarity the fact that Getty might consider money his fortress but in fact that only represents the sum total of the work Chase has put into building his cordons and bastions of muscle and attention. His security is ensured by actual labour and not magic powers. It’s also, of course, a form of prison, one that must be maintained with perfect vigilance without risking one’s life in the same way that Paul did simply by enjoying an evening stroll. When the ransom is finally paid and Paul is abandoned in the woods, he soon finds himself hunted by his vengeful former captors as they realise Chase and Gail alerted the police.

Scott builds to a climax that cross-cuts between young Paul’s efforts to find safe harbour and Getty’s succumbing to a stroke, likening them in flailing entrapment, wandering labyrinthine spaces that offer no safe harbour from fear of death, a metaphor that bears out the dramatic patience lurking in that Minotaur motif. The sequence echoes moments of lost and haunted characters trapped in the belly of the beast in many a Scott film, from Alien’s spaceship innards to the animate and terrorising streets of Black Hawk Down (2001). It’s also an echo and partial inversion of the finale of The Third Man (1949), a film that insisted on Christlike parables regardless of its subject’s utter moral nullity. For Scott it’s close to an existential vision of flailing humanity, one that sees the real flesh and blood boy delivered into arms of mother and dogged helpmate whilst Getty expires pawing his painted Renaissance boy in longing for the real thing. The ultimate irony comes when Getty’s lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) slides a contract across the table to Gail that will enable her to take in hand the Getty fortune: the same flukes that placed her at the mercy of the same fortune make her master of it. “I think of you as one of the family,” Gail tells Chase at the end as she begins the Citizen Kane-esque deconstruction of the great man’s acquisitions. “It’s nice of you to say that,” Chase replies in complete disbelief, and perhaps a certain relief too. Everyone has their reasons, as the cliché has it. That doesn’t let them off the hook, Scott retorts.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War, Western

The Alamo (1960)

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Director/Actor: John Wayne

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years, the standing set erected for John Wayne’s debut film as director, The Alamo, was a tourist draw outside San Antonio until decay, changing owners and times closed it. Wayne’s paean to patriotic example had a longer life for many as a literal monument than as a movie, which long ago faded into cinematic background radiation, the sort of movie that makes for a Saturday afternoon perennial on television without garnering much interest or respect, to the extent where the original negative is in dire need of restoration. For Wayne, The Alamo had been a labour of love and great expense, one he went into deep personal debt to realise on the scale he desired, and which would, in spite of initial box office success and Oscar nominations, take over a decade to finally recoup costs, and he was consistently irked for the rest of his life when anyone spoke of it as a flop. Wayne’s hopes for the film were both artistically ambitious and bound up deeply with his image of the stalwart all-American hero, both in the public eye and in his own self-estimation, and his desire to try and translate that heft into something lasting, to have an impact as a star on life beyond the movie theatre.

By the time Wayne got his own production off the ground, a craze for all things related to the Alamo and Davy Crockett had swelled and waned in the previous few years thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker, later edited into a movie, with its naggingly catchy theme song. Wayne however had been hoping to make a film about the event since the mid-1940s. He first tried to make such a film at Republic Pictures, the studio well-known for its cheap horse operas and serials for kids. Wayne had been Republic’s biggest asset for many years, but he cut ties with the studio after executives flinched at the proposed cost for his pet project. The script written for it was eventually produced as The Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden to capitalise on the Crockett craze, and Wayne retained several aspects of that version for his own, to be reiterated on a much grander scale. Much more recently John Lee Hancock’s more historically exacting and dramatically shaded take from 2004 was a calamitous box office failure. If Wayne was a little late to the Americana party by 1960, epic movies were all the rage at least, as studios were competing with big-scale productions to maintain their edge over television, and The Alamo was at least well-timed to join those ranks. Wayne wanted to avoid starring in his own project, hoping initially to play Sam Houston, but supposedly found himself obliged to play Crockett to leverage financing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore just how well the part as written was moulded to fit its star and provide a vehicle of self-revelation as well as personal statement.

Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille had all helped to forge Wayne’s screen persona and then mine it for dramatic riches, but Wayne’s stature had developed over three decades in all sorts of movies. Discovered for Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) as a lanky ingénue and seemingly set for the big time, Wayne had been forced after that film’s failure to slog his way up a harder route to stardom through dozens of low-budget westerns and war films in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of his on-screen appeal seemed sourced in that apprenticeship, arriving as the biggest star of the age not through mercurial success but through dogged application and hard-won gravitas. Wayne long styled himself as a leading proponent of conservative, pro-Cold War politics and voice of fierce anti-Communism in Hollywood, a topic he had tackled in self-produced starring vehicles like Big Jim McLain (1952) and Blood Alley (1955). Wayne had made his first directing foray filling in for William Wellman on the latter film. Everything about his screen persona suited this self-appointed role, his great frame and aura of indulgent but unswerving authority that could seem alternately reassuring and incredibly pompous. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented on the jarring dichotomy of reactions Wayne could stir in him, forced to cry at the end of The Searchers (1956) for his capacity to portray the ferocity and emotional neediness of igneous masculinity even whilst conscious of hating the man’s politics. Eventually, Wayne’s second effort as director, The Green Berets (1968), a would-be epic depicting the Vietnam War, was all but laughed off the screen for attempting to portray a pro-intervention argument in the guise of a painfully clichéd and slipshod production.

When he eventually came to direct himself, Wayne remained deeply under the sway of the masters he had worked with. Most inevitably Ford was the filmmaker he owed most to and remains linked inextricably with, locked in a frieze in quarrelling productivity – high-strung Ford with his unstable blend of flinty machismo and sensitivity, Wayne with his hearty but ponderous persona niggled at by personal anxieties like his failure to fight in World War 2, a moment for which he might well have been overcompensating for the rest of his days, a weak point for aggravated liberals to take aim at. By some accounts Ford did actually turn up to the set and try to throw his weight around, shooting some second unit footage Wayne quietly discarded. What an Oedipal moment it must have been. The Battle of the Alamo in Wayne’s eyes became not merely a colourful and dramatically representative vignette from American history, but a paradigm for the entire national enterprise, particularly in the face of Cold War’s tests of moral and military muscle and the threatened change of zeitgeist looming in the 1960 Presidential election. Wayne had been vocal during the campaign in his faith in Richard Nixon and contempt for John F. Kennedy, whom he wrote off as a phony rich kid, and hoped the film might count in Nixon’s favour. He inserted a moment in the movie in which some characters regret not voting for Crockett’s return to Congress because the “other fellow gave him four bits.”

Wayne’s version of history commences well after the start of the Texian revolt against Mexico and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Antonio de Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla). Houston (Richard Boone), the appointed commander of the fledgling Texan army still being assembled and outfitted even as Santa Anna leads a strong professional army north to stamp out rebellion, appoints prickly Southern gentleman and exile Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Laurence Harvey) to take command of a ruined mission chapel turned semi-fortified military post called the Alamo located just outside San Antonio, or Béxar as it was more usually called at the time, and work in partnership with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), a former adventurer turned would-be landowning gentleman. Travis and Bowie clash constantly as completely diverse temperaments with radically different notions of war. Bowie favours a frontier guerilla approach. Travis insists on traditional military disciplines in his hopes of holding out against potential siege long enough to let Houston complete assembling his army and to gain relief from a nearby force at Goliad. Their fractious joint command is soon enlarged by a new force of volunteers under former Congressman and frontier war hero Crockett. Crockett, having lured his friends and followers from the Tennessee backwoods to come to Texas nominally for the cause of hunting and partying, convinces them to lend their muscle to the coming fight with Santa Anna’s army.

The Alamo’s failings as history are both readily catalogued and sometimes knotty. Some commentators have noted that scarcely any scene in it can be called verifiable. Some distortions are relatively minor, like the portrayal of the climactic battle as taking place in solid daylight rather than in very early dawn for the sake of visual clarity. Others are crammed into that very thin nook between documented fact and heroic fantasy, like portraying Bowie as going down fighting and bedridden from battle wounds rather than disease at the battle’s climax. Other aspects Wayne chose to emphasise or excise or whitewash were both fairly typical still at the time but also go some way to explaining why it’s still rather hard to talk about aspects of American history honestly today. Wayne never goes into the causes behind the Texian revolt or the Mexican reaction, preferring instead to offer it simply as a grand clash between free living and authoritarianism, an idea he constantly, and effectively, reiterates on an essential visual level in the contrast between his wildly attired, rowdily communal yet defiantly individual rebels, and the perfectly drilled and depersonalised Mexican army. Of course, history is never that simple. The Texian revolt was undoubtedly sparked by unfair and repressive moves made by Santa Anna as the head of a newly authoritarian government, but one irritant that helped bring down tough measures on the American population in Texas had been the refusal by many to abide Mexico’s antislavery laws.

One telling aspect of The Alamo lies in Wayne’s affection and admiration for Mexico, perhaps even his tendency to idealise the resilient pith and courtly values of the national character he saw subsisting there, retaining the lustre of certain classical, old-world tenets somewhat lost to the America Wayne otherwise celebrated so enthusiastically. Ford and Hawks were rarely above tossing in a little hackneyed stereotyping with comic relief Mexican characters, but Wayne avoids them completely, even refusing to portray Santa Anna as any kind of creep or fiend (something Hancock’s version, for all its greater adherence to the historical record, felt the need to indulge). Two of Wayne’s three wives were Mexican, and The Alamo noticeably treads close to portraying this aspect of himself as Crockett engages in chivalrous attentions towards a local lady, Graciela ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal). Crockett follows Bowie as gringo interloper who finds himself seduced by the local climes and senoritas: one scene depicts the two men reclining in the evening, Crockett listening as Bowie tries to grasp the essence of the Latino way of life and its appeal to him.

Shortly after his arrival in Béxar, Crockett encounters an American businessman, Emil Sande (Wesley Lau), who is trying to leverage a forced marriage to a local propertied lady amidst the lawless chaos of the revolt, and is also hoarding ammunition from the rebels. Crockett appoints himself watchdog to Flaca’s interests, fending off Sande not through aggressive display but comic irritation. Sande still sends out a gang of thugs to pound him the street, bringing Bowie and others to the rescue in a street brawl. Soon after, Flaca alerts them to Sande’s stockpiles, and they set out to steal it. Sande stands in for a less reputable side of the interloping American influence, crass, exploitative, and relentlessly patronising to the local mores and people. Obliged to depict a drama that involves throwing off the yoke of Mexican rule, Wayne mediated the tension by bending over backwards not only to avoid any old partisan quarrels, but to offer up unbridled praise for the gutsiness of the Mexican soldiers and the Tejano members of the revolt, like Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), whom Travis is ashamed to treat brusquely in the name of maintaining calm amongst his soldiers after Seguin brings bad news. “‘S’funny, I was proud of ‘em,” one of Crockett’s backwoodsmen comments after one ill-fated attack by the Mexican soldiers. Wayne gives the Generalissimo the last, memorable gesture of the film to him as he doffs his hat in salute to the ragged, tiny band of survivors leaving the captured fort.

Wayne initially portrays Crockett as a kind of feudal lord riding out of prairies at the head of his band of merry men. One vignette offered to illustrate Crockett’s unflinching potency as such reproduces a scene out of DeMille’s The Crusades (1936) in which the hero-king and an uppity subject slug each-other in a test of manhood, one the leader must and does triumph in to retain status as top dog. Early scenes depicting Crockett’s Tennessean cohort emphasise their rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boys in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s love for similarly boisterous gangs. Wayne indulges a broad and corny brand of Americana, perhaps best inhabited by Chill Wills as Crockett’s pal Beekeeper, who performs a musical number and seems as much like an emcee at a hootenanny as an actor in the film. The Alamo’s screenwriter, James Edward Grant, had been writing Wayne vehicles since the early 1940s, including The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which had gained him his first Oscar nomination. Grant’s ready mastery of the familiar dialogue and plot patterns of the star’s vehicles undoubtedly felt reassuring to Wayne. But it also explains why a little too much of the film is given over to familiar horse opera motifs – fisticuffs and a cattle stampede and displays of unruly masculine energy – and not enough into meaningful portrayals of some of the authentic players in the actual historical drama at hand. Like Sue Dickinson (Joan O’Brien), Travis’ cousin and wife to his second-in-command Almeron (Ken Curtis), who was one of the few survivors of the siege: although vital to the final images, she’s scarcely glimpsed until half-way through the film.

With Wayne’s Crockett serving as heavy centre of moral gravitas and the chances for thematic conflict and ambivalence stymied by his determined messaging, the drama has to be chiefly driven by character tension. That comes in the schism between Harvey’s snooty, determined, astringent Travis and Widmark’s truculent, defiant, anti-authoritarian Bowie. The conflict between the pair becomes so heated at one point the two men arrange to fight a duel once their duty to the revolt is dispensed with. Crockett plays mediator, getting Bowie too drunk at one point to act on a threat to withdraw his men, and Bowie and Travis reach a tentative peace when Travis apologises to Bowie after grilling him about receiving a message from outside that proves to have been news reporting the death of Bowie’s wife. The Alamo posits the three men as a troika of American types, Travis the old-world inheritance, Bowie the free but ornery man of the frontier, and Crockett as an ironic union of the two, the more complete version. The totally different acting traditions the three men belong to informs their clashes. Widmark’s trademark edge of rasp-tongued, urban cynicism, which he sustained even as he made a leap from playing villains to heroes, makes Bowie a galvanising presence, particularly when his hard crust shatters when he loses his wife, segueing from quivering rage (“Travis, you might die tonight.”) to desperate exposure before Crockett. This scene is carefully mindful of the fear of machismo in being found wanting and friendship being defined in such circumstances by who you can trust to be around at such a moment. It’s an aspect to the film that feels true to Wayne’s sensibility, as it’s the sort of moment he was a past-master at capturing in his performances.

Most actors who become directors usually prioritise performance in all its nuances, but The Alamo contradicts this tendency to a certain extent. The dramatic tone is generally that bright, declarative style common in Hollywood filmmaking then rapidly giving way to a new Method acting-influenced realism. Although superficially resembling Ford’s gift for depicting humans in bristling, Hogarthian masses as well as isolated and monumental in the landscape, Wayne doesn’t have his touch for staging comedy or finding truth in that old-fashioned acting style. That’s not to say the film’s empty on that level. Harvey, who had just gained significant attention thanks to Room at the Top (1959), seems awkward at first as he puts on a notably bad Southern accent in his early scenes. Once he wisely softens the accent, he emerges as one of the film’s strongest aspects, anticipating his characterisation of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in playing an unpleasant yet upright American blue-blood, admirable in his willingness to play total insufferableness and eventually unearth curious decency in such a phlegmatic character. Harvey’s gift for treading such a line helps earn real impact for a couple of the film’s best vignettes. The first comes when Travis unflinchingly directs infantry volleys on charging enemy soldiers to protect returning raiders, gaining Crockett and Bowie’s grudging admiration. The second comes in the finale, when he gets a suitably iconic death scene, battling Mexican soldiers spilling over his defences with drawn sabre, providing an unexpected jolt of swashbuckling action until he’s shot in the gut: Travis, grinning with a rueful look of perverse victory, breaks his sword over his knee before collapsing dead, the embodiment of the cavalier ideal falling before the age of regimentation and firepower.

The laborious aspect of The Alamo lies is a penchant for declarative speechifying in highlighting Wayne’s desired messages. Early in the film, as Travis comes to see him and appeal to him to lend his support to the rebellion, Wayne-as-Crockett readily offers up his personal credos: “Republic – I like the sound of the word.” More often, he drafts lantern-jawed character actor John Dierkes, playing everyman warrior Jocko Robertson, into delivering several significant soliloquies whilst staring into the middle-distance in a vaguely prophetic manner, including a paean to duty as a man of common responsibility to his blind wife Nell (Veda Ann Borg), and later a statement of religious belief (“I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe…but I believe in the lord God Almighty”). Nell unleashes a tirade on Travis in insisting her husband has to stand with the defenders in spite of his obligations precisely because he seems so beaten down. Some of this stuff does get wearisome. To be fair, Wayne and Grant go to reasonable lengths to make a film about political insurrection and communal action that tries to portray individuals thinking through and responding to such circumstances. Characters communicating, attempting to summarise complex and ethereal sensations and ideas, is a constant motif throughout.

Wayne tries as a result to imbue the Alamo defenders with a chorus-like quality as they fumble their way through such reactions, as in the scene in which they meditate on the bravery of their foes, and in the contemplation of what death entails that provokes Jocko’s statement of faith. Wayne wants to portray democratic thought and action taking root like the great green tree he has Crockett and Flaca admire during a sojourn together. Such a symbol recalls the great oak in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that invites the meditative eye and heart of its protagonists. Trouble with this aspect of the film is, what we get is less Socratic dialogue than more speechifying that’s spread across multiple characters. As is so often the case, Wayne and Grant fare better when they try to dramatize certain social ideas through the actions of their characters, like Sande and Flaca, who represent the ugly and refined sides of their respective societies. The problem with Crockett’s romancing with Flaca is that it’s necessarily abortive: Wayne’s square idealism chokes off any possibility of transgressive passion between the two although Cristal looks extremely inviting as she leans against a shady bower with bosom trembling in suppressed excitement, only to be hurriedly and literally bundled out of Béxar and the film before the real business of manly men killing each-other gets going.

The only slave portrayed in the film is aged Jethro (Jester Hairston), whom everybody treats deferentially as common paterfamilias, and Wayne depicts him as the kind of man whose voice stirs respect from everyone: his rebuke aimed at Travis (“Colonel sir — you’re wrong.”) is intended to carry all the more moral weight because it’s coming from a man usually obliged to keep quiet. Bowie frees him and Jethro decides to stand manfully with the garrison, and dies hurling himself in front of bayonets aimed at Bowie. Jethro, like Flaca, embodies Wayne’s idealistic hope that individuals transcend the failings of their societies. But Jethro’s part in the tale draws out a problem with this approach. Wayne tries to validate Jethro as a being who makes his own votes of loyalty and duty once free to, and thus in a way he, like Jocko, represents the Alamo cause at its purest. Wayne seems to have been earnest in his insistence expressed in Blood Alley and The Alamo that non-Caucasian populaces be taken seriously in their search for dignity and liberty, but it was also complicated by his awkward framing of the issue, enshrining paternalist clichés. He lets the slaver off the hook and sticks Jethro with an unswervingly loyal arc, as if slavery was only a temporary misunderstanding between gentlemen.

In spite of its nominal political agitprop, The Alamo feels most urgent as an attempt by Wayne to describe himself and his uneasy if purposeful relationship with his screen persona, and reconcile it with his private imperatives. Travis notes after listening to Crockett’s early speech to him that he’s not exactly what he appears. Wayne would tell Michael Caine a few years later that the secret to his acting success was talking slowly and little, and it’s hard not to read personal meaning into Wayne’s portrayal of the frontier hero as a covertly intelligent and articulate gentleman who can shift personas according to his company but finds himself all too often caricatured as a hick with cracker-barrel ideas. Arthur Hunnicutt had played Crockett as a canny rustic in The Last Command; to Wayne he’s a man who inhabits a role to please less well-educated but worthy fellows, for the sake of influencing them. He doesn’t don his coonskin cap until half-way through the film, assumed as a sort of costume, stepping into the role he was born and fated to play. Crockett lures his men into joining the Rebellion by having Flaca write out a letter in Spanish which he then has her read to them, a letter supposedly from Santa Anna warning them to clear out lest they be violently chastised, a threat that sets his companions to foaming anger and eagerness to resist. Crockett then warns them that the letter is a fake, designed to illustrate the nature of the enemy and essence of the fight to his men, but he’s already succeeded in rousing their blood to such a degree that they don’t care: it’s enough that his representation of the matter depicted the essence in a way they could understand. Wayne tries here to articulate a statement of faith in his own ability to persuade through art, drawing attention to the very device he’s trying to leverage in becoming a filmmaker.

Wayne shows a surprising confidence and muscular ability in the film’s visuals, created in concert with DP William H. Clothier. Ford’s influence is clearest in the way Wayne arranges actors in vistas and frames them in sweeping diagonals, spurning ostentatious viewpoints even when surveying the advancing Mexican army. There’s a lovely little visual etude early in the film when two of Crockett’s followers, young mascot Smitty (Frankie Avalon) and old Parson (Hank Worden), happen upon Béxar and signal for the rest to come to them, and the Tennessean party advances into view like a tide, titans thrusting their way out of the ground to enact a legend. He returns several times to a shot of the Alamo’s battered old façade framed and silhouetted against dawn skies with wisps of cloud lit like gold in river sand, a shot that sees the Alamo enterprise as perched at the cusp of advent but also charged with the lamenting quality of a dawn vigil for the fallen.

The way Wayne offers a constant flow of shots that look as precisely crafted in arrangement of actors and set and colour elements as Victorian art is more individual, as he chases a certain adamantine grandeur more reminiscent of DeMille than Ford. The tendency of widescreen movies of this ilk from the time to be overlit and shot in flat, rectilinear perspectives works for Wayne in this regard, as it’s precisely that frieze-like quality he chases in his arrangements of actors and elements. At least one shot is directly modelled on such a painting, as Wayne painstakingly recreates John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” in the sight of a flamenco dancer performing for Santa Anna’s soldiers whilst the Alamo defenders make a night foray. This shot summarises Wayne’s oddly affecting blend of tony pretence and artistic yearning, evoking a classic tradition of American art and Latin culture as viewed through that prism. The then-massive $12 million price tag attached to the film, which would take so long to recoup, at least seems to have all ended up on screen: The Alamo is one of those grandiose pieces of epic filmmaking so common in the era that compelled purely by dint of the enormous human labour placed before the camera, in the scale of the sets and milling armies of extras.

The Alamo stands in the shadow of two superior epics depicting besiegement from the same period, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963): Endfield’s movie would prove an equally grand yet more convincingly terse and stoic celebration of the warrior ethic, whilst Ray’s was a more fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and uneasy hello to the modern world’s complexities. The 1950s had seen the advent of what was often called the “adult western” filled with mature themes in analysing frontier social values and individual characters. The Alamo both fulfils that style as it delves into the violently contrasting heroes, but also feels in part like a repudiation of it – there’s none of the anxious probing of The Searchers or The Naked Spur (1953) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) to it; indeed, the latter film could well have been Ford’s commentary on his star’s mythmaking hyperbole. But The Alamo also feels like it might have influenced some films still to come on. Where many ‘50s westerns looked rather clean-cut, Wayne’s emphasis on his motley Tennesseans and their attire and the protean cultural blending of the frontier suggests the harsher, woollier textures of ‘60s and ‘70s genre movies. Touches like arming Bowie with a large multi-barrelled gun have a quality of historical piquancy that anticipates Sergio Leone’s fine feel for such ephemera. Sam Peckinpah would mimic aspects of Wayne’s film in offering up a crew of jostling grotesques who seem to have stepped out of myth who venture into Mexican territory on a death trip, with Major Dundee (1965), if in serving a radically different vision.

Certainly, for all the lumpiness of what leads up to it, Wayne’s staging of the climactic battle is a brilliant episode of cinema spectacle, as the Mexican army pours over the battlements and the defending heroes all die in precisely illustrated vignettes. These culminate in Crockett’s demise, where he manages to retain sufficient strength after receiving a lance in the chest to hurl a torch into the magazine and detonate it, literally going out with a bang. Wayne sees the patriotic gore suddenly stymied as the tide of Mexican warriors discover Sue Dickinson and two children – one white, one black, an embryo for modern America – cowering under a blanket, the whole enterprise of slaughter and ferocity of duty brought to a grim and trembling pause by a lingering ghost of chivalry. Wayne offers the sight of them riding out of the captured fort in silent dignity to Santa Anna’s salute as a moment of understanding and apotheosis, point the way forward to an amicable future. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score, particularly his composition “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which pervades the film’s official rectitude with a counterpoint of wistful and transitory evocations. The Alamo certainly isn’t the eclipsing masterwork or powerful totem of republican (and Republican) faith Wayne might have hoped. It’s too patent, too broad and familiar in its specifics, too verbose and dubiously reassuring in its annexation of history. And yet some of its flaws are also wound in with its pleasures, for it’s also an entertaining, outsized relic of a brand of moviemaking rendered in a style now seemingly long gone. The final frustration of The Alamo is that it encompasses many moments where Wayne betrays the touch of an artist, and not a frustrated politician.

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2010s, Crime/Detective, Historical

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Director/Actor: Kenneth Branagh

By Roderick Heath

Kenneth Branagh, damn his eyes. Few figures in contemporary film remain as eclectically gifted and perpetually vexing. The energetic-to-a-fault Irish-born thespian-turned-filmmaker’s directorial career has provoked acclaim and irritation since his electrifying debut in 1989 with Henry V transformed a 28-year-old best known for his stage work into a major cinematic talent. Branagh confirmed with the success of his second Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), that he had a unique way with popularising the Bard on film. But his output in this period, as he seemed determined to stretch and express his talents at a breakneck pace, proved hit and miss, and his promise never quite translated into the sort of career his debut signalled, even as he continued to go from strength to strength as an actor. His movies in the prolific decade following his gambit included the flop of his capital-R Romantic film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the swift submergence of his radically odd extrapolation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), as well as the violently uneven yet truly epic-scale Hamlet (1996), interspersed with smaller, more personal, spasmodically effective works like Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Branagh’s directorial style, his adoration of oversized gestures and scarce-restrained theatrical energy, simply doesn’t fit into the current pop cultural paradigm any more than his love for Shakespeare: it’s the antithesis of cool. The attempt to crossbreed Shakespeare with old Hollywood musical idealisation with Love’s Labour’s Lost did, for the six people who saw it including me, help bring all Branagh’s works into focus as covert musicals – the swooping camerawork, the dialogue delivered in quick, dexterous, recitative-like refrains, the actors perpetually propelled about his frame-stages in giddy motion.

Two surprisingly excellent films in the mid-2000s, a TV-debuting version of As You Like It and a dazzling take on The Magic Flute (both 2006) seemed to revive Branagh’s fortunes, but the dismissal of his pointless remake of Sleuth (2007) proved he was still a frustratingly patchy creative force. Then, suddenly and unexpected ease, Branagh reinvented himself as an A-list director in Hollywood with 2011’s successful yet underrated Wagnerian power ballad of a superhero flick, Thor. He followed it with two profitable pieces of studio hackwork, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and Cinderella (2015), that nonetheless bore weird flickers throughout of Branagh’s cavalier romanticism and melodramatic bravura. What other director could find the same traces of bruised humanity and noble instinct in Tom Clancy’s dullard CIA hero as he finds in a Shakespearean king? Murder on the Orient Express is the latest of Branagh’s career-long efforts to invest a hoary property with a new lustre, and it feels like a homecoming, and a restatement of personal delight in film, within the apparently cosy confines of familiar material. Along with Ten Little Indians, the novel is surely Agatha Christie’s most famous, distinguished by one of her most cunningly crafted and ingenious plots and a great setting, one that shares in common with Ten Little Indians and her legendary play The Mousetrap the quality of claustrophobic isolation.

The plot, as you probably already know: sometime in the early 1930s, Belgian-born, UK-residing private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, inevitably) departs Jerusalem after performing a swift and nifty piece of deduction that defuses a nascent religious riot. Travelling by boat to Constantinople (or Istanbul; either way it’s a Turkish delight on a moonlit night), Poirot meets the keen and lovely governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the stoic, upright soldier-turned physician Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr) on the same boat: although affecting to be strangers, Poirot notes their peculiar intimacy. Once arriving in the great city, Poirot encounters a friend, the cheerfully dissolute Bouc (Tom Bateman), nephew of the Orient Express’s owner. When the onerous call of duty summons Poirot back to London, Bouc promises to gain him a berth on the very next Express to London, a promise that proves difficult to fulfil as the train’s first class compartment proves to be booked solid, a bizarre event in the winter season. Nonetheless Poirot gains a berth, and finds himself thrust in with a motley collective including Mary, Arbuthnot, talkative husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), White Russian exile Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her paid companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), hot-tempered Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addict ballerina wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton), cheery automobile magnate Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), sternly moralistic missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and flinty, racist Austrian academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe).

The greyest of these eminences is snake-eyed American art broker Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), travelling with a manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and business manager, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Poirot’s presence is unnoticed by some of the passengers who exist in their own little bubbles of angst, like Pilar and the Andrenyis, but catches the eye of others, including Hubbard, who seems to zero in on Poirot as an eligible bachelor, and Ratchett, who offers Poirot a lucrative stint guarding him from threats, as he keeps receiving threatening letters, and is worried about the possible repercussions of selling some suspect wares to a group of colourful Italian gentlemen. Soon, the train is trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, and after a night of strange occurrences, Ratchett is discovered in his compartment riddled with stab wounds after an apparently frenzied attack, and Poirot finds himself obliged to identify the killer. Soon the problem Poirot uncovers involves less the question of who would have the motive to kill Ratchett than which one of the plentiful potential assassins did not have a very good reason to kill the man, who was actually an infamous gangster named Cassetti. Cassetti was known to Poirot through underworld whisperings that he staged the kidnap for ransom and subsequent murder of the child of a famous aviator, John Armstrong, and caused the ensuing destruction of many lives connected to the crime and the benighted Armstrong family.

Sidney Lumet of course filmed the book to great effect in 1975, an unexpected swerve into ritzy entertainment for a director more usually associated with raw-nerve realism. Lumet’s film mediated old-fashioned storytelling values with an invested level of New Wave Hollywood grit, and opened with an inimitable prologue, depicting in monochrome visuals staging events then reported in newspaper headlines set to piercingly eerie music, depicting the central crime that drives many of the events in the subsequent story, the kidnapping of the Armstrong child and the event’s evil consequences. Branagh wisely never tries to outdo this scene. More recently, the story had also been adapted as a telemovie showcasing David Suchet’s beloved characterisation in the role of Christie’s sublimely methodical, ever-dapper detective, although the later entries featuring Suchet lacked the lush, easy style of the late ‘80s TV series in which he pioneered the role. So what need, if any, for another take? Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green answer the question by taking an approach similar to the one Branagh took with Henry V and Victor Frankenstein, trying to see if there’s another layer to the drama under what everyone knows about them. Branagh successfully located the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero, usually drowned out by playing up the patriotic fervour in the play, in his moral guilt and anguished reckoning with the distinction between his place as man and role as king and symbol – an investigative mode that Branagh surprisingly returns to here.

Another obvious reason to return to this material is that whodunits are everywhere again at the moment. This mostly true on television, whether in Britain with their many procedurals like Midsomer Murders, Canada, with The Murdoch Mysteries, Australia’s The Miss Fisher Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries, as well as blockbuster Hollywood properties like the CSI and NCIS franchises. For myself, I’m not the biggest fan of them, although I can certainly enjoy them when they’re well done. But it’s a relentlessly mechanical, formulaic fictional mode that often tends to boil the great drama of life and death down to mere puzzles. As critics have noticed long since it was founded by figures including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and codified by the likes of Christie, the whodunit is the most comfortingly structured of subgenres. The world is momentarily thrown into moral chaos by a sudden eruption of festering emotion that pays off in a crime, a killing more often than not, only for a detective with the mind of Aristotle and the purview of a priest-king to step in, identify the guilty party, and ensure the restoration of order follows. Christie’s particular genius at this style rested in her grasp of repression as its key-note, even in foreign and exotic climes rendering the parochial, everyday calm and politeness of the English social landscape on a mythic level, upon which plays of frustration and rage unfold: chafing scions bump off greedy patriarch, outraged wives slaughter faithless scum husbands, tortured good men lose control and choke terrible bitch-queens. Authentic transgressive impulses are identified as an essential aspect of the human condition, and the incapacity to keep them in check is then methodically unveiled and punished.

More recently, so-called Scandi-Noir, a peculiarly Scandinavian variant on the mode with roots in the overtly Socialist-themed Martin Beck novels of the 1960s, has found international popularity and prominence as it found a way to make the whodunit more socially and culturally interrogative whilst retaining that ever-satisfying functionality, a slant that’s inflected much of the style since. Branagh himself had recently played one Scandi-Noir hero, Kurt Wallander, on television. This mode’s popularity on the stage, where The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history, and on television, rather than in film, is telling. Alfred Hitchcock only made a couple of authentic whodunits in his long career as the Master of Suspense, sensing they were inimical to his understanding of film. Cinema, that great oceanic space of design and movement, can so easily encompass the drawing room dramas of the whodunit that it tends to dwarf their little sketches of static decorum and deception. Murder on the Orient Express as a property invites the cinematic eye, with the jazz-age elegance and exclusivity of the train setting, the sweep of the Dinaric Alps where the Express breaks down, the panorama of fascinating types aboard begging to be filled out by famous faces. But it also frustrates that eye as the narrative settles down and plays out like most whodunits, indeed as a perfect reduction of the form to essentials: a series of charged interviews between canny investigator and array of suspects. This comes complete with a punch-line that is at once the ne plus ultra of solutions – the everyonedunit – and a total dramatic bust. And yet how Branagh and Green try to negotiate this problem is a great part of the pleasure of their adaptation.

Lumet managed to make an unusual project work for him because Christie’s tale, however playfully, operated deep within the space of Lumet’s career-long fascination with criminals and law enforcers, how the two often exist in deeply uneasy relationship with each-other, how wretched the avatars of both prove in the crush of pitiless circumstance. Branagh has more an old Shakespearean’s fascination with the figure of the upright and exemplary individual who attempts in spite of their feet of clay to thrust their head into the stars. It’s a thematic fascination he shares in common with a predecessor as a theatre tyro turned movie fiend, Orson Welles, and also like Welles he’s constantly provoked and inspired by the way being totally cinematic also allows him to be, paradoxically, ever more grandiosely theatrical. Branagh’s Poirot comes equipped with a glorious pennant of a moustache, and is imbued with traits that looks awfully like obsessive compulsive disorder, as he’s foiled in his attempts to have breakfast by the inability of the hotel staff to cook two perfectly boiled and arrayed eggs, and constantly annoyed by things like crooked ties. This has a fashionable tilt to it – Sherlock Holmes for instance had often of late been portrayed as inflected with traits redolent of Asperger’s Syndrome – but it’s also part of a more comprehensive attempt by Branagh to both enlarge and engage Poirot as a more defined dramatic player, in a way that links up with an intriguing attempt to critique the whodunit as a whole without betraying Christie’s text.

Holmes was defined by his creator as “the highest court of appeal,” a fantasy of near-deistic insight into the hearts and ways of men, a blueprint for the concept of the great detective which Poirot readily fell into. Branagh takes this to a logical extreme in the film’s opening, in which Poirot is called upon to work out who, amongst a collective including a rabbi, a bishop, an imam, and a police inspector could have stolen a religious treasure from a church shared by the denominations. The detective swiftly reveals the culprit, defusing the eruptive religious tensions and exposing corrupt officialdom in one gesture, even contriving to catch the criminal by thrusting his signature cane into a slot in the Western Wall. It’s quite literally a vision of the detective as god, peacemaker and restorer, fulfilling that role as deistic intervener to a near-absurd degree. It’s an apotheosis Branagh takes as cue to bring Poirot down a few notches before re-enshrining him, shuffling about in the canon for hints of backstory and finding it in Poirot’s wearied glances at the photograph of long-ago love Katherine, representing a ghost of human attachment perhaps stirred by the twinned presence of the young, beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Mary and the age-appropriate and dazzlingly lovely if seemingly daffy Caroline. Meanwhile the great detective frets increasingly about his restless, compulsive role as archaeologist of fetid human motives and misdeeds. The derailing of the engine leaves the train without power for a day and a dark night, a time in which people both freeze and sweat depending on Poirot’s proximity to them, stewing personal traumas and dependencies witnessed and stoked in numinous candlelight that thrusts all the characters back out of the semi-modern world and into a less forgiving, more sepulchral world.

And what misdeeds he soon starts to uncover, quickly discerning links between many of the passengers and the deceased Cassetti, to the point where everything starts to seem either the product of outrageous coincidence or very purposeful design. Branagh began introducing stage traditions of colourblind casting into film with fresh intransigence on Much Ado About Nothing, a habit that was still raising hackles as recently as Thor when he cast Idris Elba as a Norse god, and he continues this habit, although instead of simply casting a block actor in the role of Arbuthnot and leaving it uncommented upon, he uses it as springboard for digging into the social landscape of the train passengers in a manner that moves beyond Christie’s usual seismic examinations of class pretences to also prod questions about race and sex in manner that more proto-modern. There are intimations of romance between Mary and the good doctor given new hues of period transgression, particularly in the face of Hardman’s apparent subsuming of Nazi ideals in the foment of the age. Bouc prevails upon Poirot to take up the investigation by prodding him with the awareness that leaving it to the local police might see Arbuthnot and Martinez persecuted for their ethnicity. A telling joke that lands early in the film involves Arbuthnot catching himself in the act of reproducing the patronising ways of the white west with some Turkish sailors.

Where Branagh is more mischievous, and ultimately more himself, however, is his subtext based in a sense of theatre lurking behind the proceedings. His Murder on the Orient Express, for all its swooning camera mobility and passages of CGI epicism, is fixed securely in his sense of the tale as one rooted in our liking for actors plying their trade, a liking encoded in the story that demands a cast full of familiar faces to fill out the parts in order to render each and every suspect on a level. Although Lumet also had roots on the stage, such a self-aware lilt was beyond him, as it clashed too profoundly with his realist style. Just as Poirot sees a landscape of people pretending to be what they are not, that’s exactly what Branagh sees and knows the audience sees too. The act of stripping off the guise is played out most outright when Poirot instructs Hardman to drop his Germanic affectations and unveils a Yankee former policeman, who proves to have been in love with a maid of the Armstrongs who committed suicide after being tried for complicity in the kidnapping. Dafoe pulls off the moment in which the dedicated but tiring actor is ever-so-grateful in being freed from the part with a deft glimmer of wit, as the prop glasses and snappy accent are both dropped, and the cop idly mentions the source of the role in a way that recalls Branagh’s acting hero Laurence Olivier and his similar admissions of real-life models for characterisation. Dench and Jacobi have been regular members of Branagh’s band of brothers since Henry V, and indeed Branagh’s casting of Dench in that film almost certainly gave her movie career traction, and their presence lends proceedings the pleasant air of an old stock company reunited. To their number Branagh now adds the likes of Ridley, stretching her legs with impressive poise after her breakthrough in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Cruz, doing not much at all sadly, and Depp, who seems most appropriate in movies playing parts like this now, his formerly quirky male beauty hardening into a mask of ruined disdain.

As well as old Hollywood musicals, Branagh has worked through his admiration for Hitchcock before, engaging the Master’s obsessive tropes in a thoroughly personalised fashion with delirious plunge into fractured identities and sharp objects on Dead Again, and there are glimmers of it here, with The Lady Vanishes (1938) an inevitable touchstone: the very last shot inverts the opening of Hitchcock’s film. The climactic recreation of Ratchett’s actual killing rejects Lumet’s stately, ritualistic portrayal of the moment in favour of portraying a frenzy of rage from the carefully marshalled but finally unleashed avengers that has a more distinctly Hitchcockian feel for the ferocity lurking under the stoic mask of the average person. Branagh’s camerawork, at once ebullient but also perhaps the most controlled it’s been since his debut, turns the train into a series of rolling stages. The camera glides horizontally along the length of the carriage when Poirot first boards the train to analyse the conveyance, its compartments, and the passengers looming out from them. He repeats this shot at the very end with entirely changed meaning, the gazes of the people out at him charged with salutary complicity, Poirot’s status as adjudicator of fates reinforced but also his separation from the almost religiously transfigured passengers communicated with great visual succinctness and beauty. Elsewhere Branagh tries, much like the actors in the Globe Theatre might once have, with restless contrivance to release himself from the linear confines of the stage that he’s nailed himself to in the form of the train, be it in staging a brief pursuit down through the creaking, icy beams of the trestle under the immobilised train or picking out Poirot and Mary seated upon milk pails through the open doors of the luggage van, hovering in space halfway between heaven and hell in the midst of white-flanked, gold-crowned mountains.

There’s only so much Branagh can to do to give such a scuffed property a new lacquer of course, and if you know the story then there are few surprises to be had. But that’s precisely what I found so enjoyable here, the murder mystery staged as a dance, an old tune wielded with a fresh orchestration and choreography. And the critiquing aspect of the film remains as a dogging footfall to the main stride of the drama, as Branagh tweaks Christie’s denouement with just enough consequence to remake it more keenly as a moral crisis for Poirot, a reckoning with forms of justice and moral obligation, victim and criminal, beyond his usual understanding of the terms. It’s a way of approaching the story that gives a level of heft to the whodunit mode it usually pointedly rejects: an attempt to get at the visceral nature of crime, the impacts it has on a personal level, and demanding Poirot play his own part. “I see the world how it should be,” he admits early in the film, linking his obsessive characteristics with his moral viewpoint, but by the end of the film such easy linkages have been disrupted, finding nobility instead precisely in the boiling, neurotic desperation of the offended and broken-hearted, particularly Pfeiffer’s striking incarnation of the seething and righteous avenger under the thin coating of courteous disguise. This makes for a morsel of intelligence in a film that is otherwise a blissful time out from the world.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk01Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.

By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).

The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’

Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.

I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.

A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.

Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.

In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.

Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.

Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.

The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.

It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.

Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Erotic, Fantasy, Historical, Italian cinema

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.

Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.

Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.

Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.

Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.

Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.

The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.

Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.

Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.

Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.

And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.

Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.

One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.

In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.

The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.

Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.

Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.

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