1970s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Waterloo (1970)

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

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1930s, Action-Adventure, Historical, Romance

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

Cabiria (1914)

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Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Screenwriter: Gabriele D’Annunzio

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabiria can be viewed here on YouTube.

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1950s, Drama, Historical, War

Alexander The Great (1956)

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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or download the podcast

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

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

The Birth of Japan (1959)

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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 from 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.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema, Historical

Dragon Inn (1967)

Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn; aka Dragon Gate Inn

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Director/Screenwriter: King Hu

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Screenwriter: David Scarpa

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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