1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, War

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1940s, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Political, War

Paisan (1946) / Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Paisa’ / Germania Anno Zero

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

By Roderick Heath

Out of ashes, creation. The Italian neorealist film movement was in large part a pragmatic solution to shortages of film stock, actors, and other paraphernalia of a movie industry that had been gutted by war, invasion, and the collapse of a regime. This unlikely renaissance was propelled purely by the urgent, guttering need to describe, record, understand, communicate, and grapple with the immediate reality shared by artists and public alike. Presaged by Luchino Visconti as he dared counter Fascist rectitude with a portrait of insidious transgressions in Ossessione (1943) and even by Mussolini’s preeminent director Alessandro Blasetti, neorealism gained its true clarion with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a bleak wartime thriller that retained conventional elements in its portrayal of partisan resistance and Nazi brutality, but essayed in terms that seemed to blow like a fresh, cold wind dispelling a miasma. Of course, filmmakers had done most of the things the neorealists would do already; others had shot movies on location, utilised non-professional actors, and dealt with pressing realities of the age. As World War II unfolded, filmmakers around the world had begun incorporating the methods of documentary into their movies, as well as adopting a terser, more stoical and spacious dramatic style.
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But neorealism went further in tossing out the polish of studio cinema and hanging entire movies by a framework that would have seemed desperately flimsy just a few years earlier. The new creed was instantly recognised and celebrated as something new, and held up internationally as proof something worthy and honest could emerge even in the midst of calamity. Neorealism’s impact was destined to be deep and permanent: far more movies today than not rely on some blend of its methods. And yet the movement itself was very short-lived, the number of works produced under its specific dogma scant. Neorealism’s anointed directorial heroes would have long and robust careers but most would often be the subject of long sideways glances from some who saw traitors to a cause long since laid to rest. Part of neorealism’s stature certainly had roots in the terrible glamour of World War II and the din of collapsed empire. For a few brief moments in the twilight of war, a sense of enveloping commonality and hard reckoning existed as a shared psychic experience. Neorealism would fade out as prosperity came back and society got back to the regular business of winnowing out losers from winners.
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Of course, neorealism didn’t really die. It changed form, still inflecting the anxious soul of its inheritors both immediate, from the generation of Italian filmmakers who cut their teeth as writers and aides on the neorealist shoots, no matter how delectably formalist they became, to those who would pick up aspects of their method for the New Wave movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and modern independent film. Amongst the major neorealist figures, a cadre that also included Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Rossellini had perhaps the most frustrating career, his life charting the tides of the age. Rossellini gained fame making bitterly realistic works conjured with scant resources amongst the rubble, became a most ironic celebrity doomed to have his tumultuous private life overshadow his works as he romanced movie stars and international artistes and always retaining aspect of the rootless hustler, and finished up making intelligent but little-noticed docudramas for TV, still trying to obey his principles. Attempts to exploit the notoriety of his union with Ingrid Bergman produced a string of films including Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘52 (1951), and Voyage to Italy (1954), all box office failures but belatedly admired. Rossellini was running into trouble with critics and audiences even before he concluded his “War Trilogy,” which counts as easily his most famous work today, kicked off by Rome, Open City and extended by Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
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Paisan might be the most exalted of neorealist works alongside The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Paisan is an episodic film built around descriptive vignettes involving the various acts of the Allied campaign in Italy, each episode depicting a time, a place, a phase of battle, but much more cogently, Rossellini’s vision of the war is as something that may involve countries and ideologies but which happens to people. “These people aren’t fighting for the British Empire,” an OSS agent states in the last episode, referring to the partisans he’s working with, “They’re fighting for their lives.” It’s the essential creed of the film; those for whom war is a steamroller running over their lives, those for whom it’s a distant crackle of gunfire, those who grab the tiger by the tail in chasing the empowerment of combat or those obligated to, all share the experience of plunging into an event that envelopes and reshapes them. Rossellini hired a different writer for each part of the film, but pulled off the task of contouring each, sometimes quite divergent dramatic style into his overall vision, which runs all the way from comedy of manners to heightened tragedy. The actual screenplay was penned by Rossellini, his friends and regular collaborators Federico Fellini and Sergio Amedei, with input for the English-language parts from Bill Geiger.
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The first chapter sees narrative land on the Italian shore along with a unit of American GIs; Italy is going to be reintroduced to itself through the eyes of invader/liberators. A Sicilian-American GI interprets; a local bigwig grasps a thread – he doesn’t know anyone by his name from his family’s home town – to disdain the entire enterprise. The bridge of cultures is immigration, the mutual understanding narrow and shaky, the lingering spell of dictatorship still potent. The GIs surge out of the dark, the Italian townsfolk gathered in scantly lit abodes in fretful anxiety waiting to see how things play out, finding the Americans indistinguishable at first from the Germans. The GIs get a local teenager, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), to guide them through mines the Germans have planted; Carmela leads them to a ruined castle, a fitting defensive position. Whilst the rest of the unit goes off to patrol further, Carmela is compelled to remain behind to be sure she won’t alert the Germans, with Joe (Robert Van Loon) assigned to watch her and hold down the fort. The castle is a ghost of a long-dead Italy where princes gallivanted and empires reigned; now it’s a husk, riddled with vertiginous and labyrinthine passages but still a good place for armies to play “childrens’ games, only the bullets are real,” as one of the German soldiers describes their adventures. Language is a form of geography: Carmela and Joe try to understand each-other in their scant and fragmentary knowledge of each-other’s language and navigate by the few familiar landmarks in their mutual languages speech – Joe counts off the limit of his Italian: “Paisan…spaghetti…bambina…mangiare…”
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War has no time for small epiphanies. Joe is shot by a German who spots him lighting his cigarette through one of the open castle windows. A Wehrmacht unit occupies the castle and discovers Carmela, who has hidden away the bleeding, dying Joe. Sazio and Van Loon’s quality as performers swiftly describe the appeal of the non-actor to the neorealist style. There’s no hint of the theatrical to them, none of the years spent perfecting unnatural stances or ways of interacting. Sazio’s blowsy, slouchy adolescence with just the faintest rigour of adulthood coming on, is all the more affecting because it’s so familiar from life and so rare in movies of the time; Van Loon radiates a sincere, bashful charm. But when the time comes Sazio perfectly registers Carmela’s woozy distress and resolve as she looks upon the dying Joe, marking her determination to take revenge. Rossellini starts his war with the world in miniature, boy and girl, caught between nations, languages, political systems, and sparring armies. Carmela takes up his rifle and, as the Germans throw dice to see who’ll get to rape her first, manages to shoot one. Joe’s unit returns to find their man dead and Carmela missing. They assume she killed him. Rossellini however privileges the audience to her real fate: the Germans have dragged her to a cliff edge and thrown her off. Rossellini’s stark, almost off-hand revelation of this before fading to black and moving must have seemed like a slap in the face to a 1946 audience, and it’s still potent. The little universe of humanity, with all its will, casually exterminated, another great drama lost to all knowing, its actors left lying about like refuse.
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The second episode, unfolding in Naples, might represent a certain caricatured ideal of the neorealist style, as it depicts a similar fractious relationship defined by both understanding and the absence of it. Exactly this theme lies at the heart of Paisan and perhaps all Rossellini’s works – his later, mature movies like Voyage to Italy contemplate the disconnection in personal terms, the difficulty, particularly for intelligent but introverted people, to escape and expose their inner experience sufficiently to be understood by those close to them. Here, the material is more worldly and immediate, and urgent as a pungent and palpable need. The protagonists here are another Joe, this one an African-American MP (Dots Johnson), and Pasquale, one of a gang of homeless children who haunt the streets and plazas of Naples. Some of the kids pick up the odd tip helping GIs between bars and night spots, and rob them if they get half a chance. Pasquale attaches himself to Joe and leads him about town. After Joe passes out in spite of Pasquale’s warnings, the kid steals the MP’s boots. A few days later, Joe spots Pasquale trying to rob from the back of a truck. He nabs the waif and forces him to take him to his home and return his boots. But upon catching a glimpse of the subterranean world where he and hundreds of other penniless, dispossessed people live, Joe leaves the boots to Pasquale and drives away.
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As in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, the emphasis here is on the children left in desperate poverty in the war’s aftermath, and the plot revolves around the possession of desirable, useful, even life-saving objects – the boots, akin to the bicycle in the De Sica film. The climactic moment of moral confrontation establishes common empathy and the abandonment of a selfish sense of justice, but also skirts the edge of triteness. Rossellini however complicates this sketch in witty and biting ways. GI Joe here is a black man, one who murmurs bitter recollections of his home being a shack, all too aware that his relative elevation as a player of the war project will probably only be temporary before returning to life as a second-class citizen. Perched on a rubbish heap with a bewildered Pasquale at his side, Joe sings “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in a ragged but impressive voice, near-blind with booze but still all too aware of his marooning between worlds. The fulcrum of the episode is a scene in which Pasquale takes Joe to a puppet theatre. The rapt audience watches a scene from Orlando Furioso being played out, in which the great Christian knight slays a Moorish foe. Joe, groping through the fog of booze to comprehend the essential drama, starts cheering like the others in the theatre as if they’re watching a boxing match, but for the nominal villain. Rather than let Orlando win, Joe leaps onto the stage and starts trying to box the puppet. Rossellini draws together many ideas here – the delightful absurdity of Joe’s assault on the puppets turns him to a Quixote-ish hero with comic zest, but Rossellini also notes the deep racist tradition locked into the Euro-American self-concept in the ritualised defeat and suppression of the African.
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RR09
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There might even have been a quality of mea culpa to this. Although a leftist, Rossellini had been close friends with Mussolini’s son Vittorio, and owed his start in the film industry to this, not long after the Fascist regime had been warring in Libya and Ethiopia. Joe’s surrender of his boots at the end comes not with the guilty look of the conscience-appeasing bourgeois but the slow and considered abandonment of a poor man’s fierce and persona ethic in the face of another, overriding demand, a glimpse into a bottomless pit of need that refuses even to honour Joe’s nursed grievance. If Rossellini diagnoses rotten aspects of society that can be left to safely decay amongst the rubble here, the third chapter, which takes place in post-liberation Rome, asks what will replace them, and sees with glum certainty a kind of slick, alienating capitalist-consumerist cosmopolitanism descending. The nightclubs are filled with American soldiers on leave with money and luxury items to be had, and young women eager for both. Francesca (Maria Michi) is one of them, a hardened, bravura urban adventurer and prostitute who finds her eye caught by a young soldier, Fred (Gar Moore). When another chippie objects to her occasional sideways glances, the two women brawl, attracting MPs who clear the joint.
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RR10
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Francesca comes across Fred on the street and lures the tired and tipsy soldier back to a rented room. Fred seems disgusted with the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, reminiscing instead as he drifts off to sleep about the fresh-faced and pure girl he met on the day the Allies rolled into the city to the cheers of the Romans. Francesca is that girl, of course. She leaves her real address on a note with Fred as he sleeps, but the next day dismisses it as a note from a whore, screws it up, and tosses it away before heading off with his fellows. This episode has a concise, plaintive, short story-like obviousness to its arc, one that partly conceals the insidious sense of humour Rossellini employs, particularly in the deadpan dissolve from the joyous optimism of the city’s release to a shot with a title over it reading “Six Months Later,” the open and eternal city now a den of rude and raucous behaviour, a transition that would feel quite at home in a modern satire like The Simpsons. The beatitude of liberation, a moment of idyllic promises, gives way to slick operators and resentful misogyny: “You wouldn’t last a day if these guys went home,” Francesca yells at her rivals, but it’s certainly just as true for her. Fred’s wistful reminiscences of the recent past are Francesca’s too as she’s able to fill out his anecdote with her own memories of a very recent but long-lost arcadia.
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RR11
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Rossellini’s tart sociology sees the desire of the soldiers for cheap booze and quick sex as a market in a land where humanity is the cheapest commodity, trampling the tenuous human connections of the age, whilst hypocritically demanding everything and everyone retain the unsoiled lustre of great days. Innocence, if you believe in that sort of thing, has been defiled; certainly everyone is changed, the by-product of the age’s upheaval and collapsed structures, leaving everyone an instant and irreparable nostalgic. Although perhaps the most conventional episode in the film with the faintly poetical and sentimental quality to Francesca’s monologue and the obvious central conceit, this vignette feels in some ways like the most influential in the evanescent emotions and concepts it brings up, in the way it moots concerns the neorealists and their inheritors in Italian film would take up. In the absence of great projects of conflict and revision, individuals drift on different currents, lost to themselves and each-other. The pathetically broken rendezvous at the end, as Francesca waits for the man who won’t come, feels like a quick preparatory sketch for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “alienation” films, particularly the conclusion of L’Eclisse (1962) as well as the forlorn romanticism of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti’s ‘50s films. Long before he arrived at the pensive interior evocations of works like Voyage to Italy and Antonioni’s works, Rossellini was already wrestling with people wrenched out of alignment with their true selves, lost behind worldly glazes and masks adopted for survival purposes.
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The fourth chapter, by contrast, is a tale charged with daring adventure and high romanticism, if still processed by Rossellini’s cool-tempered, methodical cinema. This one sees young American army nurse Harriet (Harriet White) attending to injured partisans as the Allies advance on Florence. Harriet is familiar with the city, having been there before the war. Asking about one of her old boyfriends, a painter named Guido Lombardi, Harriet learns he’s now a respected partisan leader nicknamed Lupo – the Wolf – by his fellows, and is battling the retreating the Germans and their Fascist allies in the city. Harriet becomes so desperate to find Lupo after hearing he’s been wounded, she links up with another injured partisan, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who wants to get back to his family who lives in the same part of the city Lupo is fighting in. The duo exploit the Vasari Corridor, a passage that runs over the Ponte Vecchio into the Uffizi Gallery and forgotten by the Germans, to infiltrate the city. Eventually, when they reach the precincts where the partisans are still fighting, Harriet is devastated to learn from a wounded man that Lupo has died, whilst Massimo dashes away, bullets dogging his path.
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This chapter is the most traditionally thrilling in the film, proving Rossellini if he wanted to could have easily become a great action filmmaker. That’s not to say it’s conventional. Rossellini’s eye is at its keenest here in noting the stark contrast between Florence’s artistic wonders and the smears of blood and bullets pocking its streets – the seed of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) is here as well as Stanley Kubrick’s war films. White, with her high, strong cheekbones and blend of strong emotion and venturesome resolve, could easily have passed for a movie star of the day, and embodies a still-guttering romantic spirit amidst the carnage. Rossellini recreates the same on-the-fly, danger-charged sensation of authentic war being filmed evinced in Rome, Open City. His tightly controlled sense of perspective avoids the regulation scene grammar for war sequence – no cutaways to the enemy or the like, simply concentrated, often laterally flowing tracking shots following his characters as they progress. Rossellini sensitises the viewer to the exposure in wide, well-lit streets that could make anyone a sniper’s target, and open piazzas as arenas of action. A bedraggled collaborator is marched out before resistance columns, a moment Visconti would recreate in his The Leopard (1963) in taking up the theme of a cycle of rule, revolt, downfall, and new orders bound to ossify.
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Rossellini and DP Otello Martelli pull off one particularly brilliant shot as his camera pivots from the corridors of the looted, deserted Uffizi along with his characters to peer down onto the city streets. There they glimpse the last few Germans massing for retreat. The sequence is an odyssey as Harriet and Massimo, each drawn on through a ridiculously dangerous exercise for the sake of people they care for, encounter partisans whose everyday aspect, fighting in street clothes and idly lunching with food pulled across fields of fire in carts, blurs the line between deadly struggle and holiday jaunt. Other Florentines mass in stairwells and corridors, keeping away from the fighting, a riot of rumour and complaint. Harriet and Massimo encounter people ranging from a retired military officer who surveys the struggle from the rooftop, recalls fighting in “the real war,” and claims to be able to dodge bullets, to a pair of British soldiers who are too awed by the cultural treasures laid out before them to quite notice the life-and-death struggles going on down in those sunstruck routes.
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The fifth chapter is a breath of calm in this storm, depicting a trio of US Army chaplains: Catholic Capt. Bill Martin (William Tubbs), Protestant Capt. Jones (Newell Jones), and Jewish Capt. Feldman, Jewish (Elmer Feldman). The trio visit an old hilltop monastery where the monks are fascinated and bewildered by their visitors. They’re glad to receive the Americans’ gifts of food, particularly their Hershey’s chocolate. But when the monks learn that two of the chaplains are heretics, they anxiously prod Martin over his failure to proselytise to them, to which Martin calmly replies that he feels he has no right to, particularly as they believe themselves to be just as faithful and correct. The monks decide to fast in praying for the souls of the Protestant and Jew, giving up their first good meal in months. The gentle comedy in this sequence, which starts off like a bar room joke, presages Rossellini’s deeper, longer look at the side of religion he appreciated in The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), the noble absurdity glimpsed in people trying to obey both human need and divine obedience. Many another artist would have expressed frustration at the sectarian reflexes of the monks, and one of the chaplains raises in concerted seriousness about just how much use the instruction of people used to hiding from the world is at such a juncture in history. But in the end Rossellini sees value in that detachment. He wants a place left in the world for men of simple faith, holy fools, and people with the ability to go without so that others might gain something, no matter how much those others don’t want it.
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For all Rossellini’s evolving faith in the stripped-down and spontaneous, there was nothing artless about his moviemaking. The first, third, and fifth chapters are carefully fashioned in their lighting and subtle, quietly mobile camerawork, flickers of poetic and spiritual depth allowed to subsist in the lighting caressing the faces of Joe and Carmela and Fred and Francesca, or pooling in the monastery’s corners, and the chiaroscuro battles of light and dark that confirm the influence of the pre-war poetic realists on Rossellini. The harsher style utilised in the second, fourth, and sixth episodes befits tales rooted in more immediate actions and consequences. Fellini’s specific humour occasionally glimmers throughout, with the fairground performers glimpsed at the start of the second chapter providing an islet of bristling medieval colour in an otherwise raw-boned city, the two English soldiers playing aesthete tourists, and the vignettes in the monastery, where the monks offer their blessing in return for a candy bar. The last chapter, which takes place in the Po River valley in 1945, has been called the ultimate iteration of the neorealist creed, as it depicts an episode amidst the war’s end-game.
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The first shot in the episode sees a man’s corpse floating down the river, executed by the Nazis with a sign branding him as a partisan, moving with languorous pathos like something from a dream. The world here has been reduced to a relentlessly horizontal zone of flat earth, rippling water, and wavering reeds, at once desolate but deceptive in its capacity to conceal and trick the eye. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, and some fellow American soldiers are operating with partisans in the reed-clogged river delta. A recent halt in the Allied advance has left these warriors stranded in enemy-held territory without hope of quick recourse. A brief stop at a tavern set up in a shack sees the wearied fighters take stock and recover a little, but it brings down vicious punishment from the Germans, who shoot anyone found in the vicinity of the tavern. A pair of British airmen are shot down in the water and rescued by the partisans, but seen they’re all cornered by Germans, who gun down the partisans as rebels and some of the Allied soldiers when they leap up in protest. That Rossellini and his writers decided to end the film with this chapter suggests a desire not to set the seal on the conflict but to suggest the way it was still a raw, bleeding wound both physically and mentally; the wailing child left amidst splayed corpses by the tavern is totem of the entire experience, a generation of orphans left in the wake of acts of colossal bravery and cruelty.
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This episode reduces the war to appropriately barren essentials to match the landscape, stripping out the dramatic familiarities and ironies of the earlier chapters and instead presenting a grim spectacle of struggle and death. Out there in the man-killing surveys of the Po delta lies the futurist anxiety Antonioni works through in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970) and the mood of incipient earth-swallowing uncertainty he’d approach in L’Avventura (1960), as well as anticipating the post-apocalyptic fantasias of four generations. Dread of the future appropriate for science fiction is hinted at as the Allied captives are forced to listen to their Nazi officer captor’s calm and still-confident belief in the new civilisation that will last a thousand years. A few minutes later the master race are shoving bound men off a boat, the warriors of the Po finding comradely rest at the bottom of the river. Paisan was a big hit both in Italy and on the world cinema scene, and when Rossellini returned with Germany, Year Zero in 1948, it was at the high-water mark of neorealism, as The Bicycle Thieves, Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and De Santis’ Bitter Rice were all released to general acclaim. Germany, Year Zero was however overshadowed, whilst Rossellini’s personal situation had undergone violent upheavals through his affair with Anna Magnani and the death of one of his sons, Romano, from his first marriage, aged only 9. Germany, Year Zero takes up the raw and stricken mood of Paisan’s last episode in a movie dedicated to Romano’s memory, as well as rounding out the war trilogy with a survey of the ruined Nazi homeland and the people left to subsist in the rubble.
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Young Edmund Kohler (Edmund Meschke) is Rossellini’s inheritor of the national ash-heap, living with his elderly father (Ernst Pittschau), a former academic, his older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger). Hunger is a gnawing and constant reality; the elder Kohler’s poor health is exacerbated by starvation, and the family is trying to subsist on only three ration cards because Karl-Heinz, who fought until the end and belonged to an unspecified regiment suspected of war crimes, is afraid he’ll be thrown in a detention camp, so he remains in hiding. Edmund is so anxious to help out his family at the outset he’s glimpsed trying to get a job as a gravedigger, perhaps the only growth industry in Berlin at this point. He also engages in petty theft and con artistry. He encounters one of his former teachers, Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who employs Edmund as an agent to sell an LP recording of Hitler’s speeches to the reliable battery of gullible Allied soldiers who hang about the old Chancellery in search of souvenirs. Henning places him in the company of Jo (Jo Herbst) and Christl (Christl Merker), two of the many homeless kids around the city who are growing up very fast, becoming experts in robbery and operating, and Edmund joins them in stealing a bag of potatoes from a train shipment.
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It would be tempting to regard Germany, Year Zero as merely an extra-long last instalment of Paisan, continuing the northward and chronological march to its logical end amidst the shattered husk of the Nazi homeland. But Germany, Year Zero is a different kind of movie to Paisan in terms of Rossellini’s focus and method; the individual portraiture that informed a general sociological viewpoint in the earlier film is here inverted. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Germany, Year Zero met with strident criticism from many quarters. Rossellini had readopted aspects of studio filmmaking, making use of some sets and other moviemaking tricks. One gets the feeling, however, that another aspect of its rejection lay in its pungent and gruelling evocation of a world that lies at the very outermost fringe of redemption. Whereas De Sica’s films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (1953), however grim in depicting poverty, retained a sentimental faith in certain evanescent bonds of amity, shifting to a German setting allowed Rossellini to leave behind all trace of his own romanticism. Germany, Year Zero depicts fascism as having leached into the soil, gripping at the roots at whatever new world might grow from the tainted earth.
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RR21
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Everyone has become a walking stomach and a register tallying buying power. Henning, who has a clear paedophile’s interest in Edmund and who it’s suggested keeps Jo and Christl close for sexual favours, still preaches fascist essentials to the boy, advising him that the weak have to be cut loose and not allowed to impede the strong from surviving. The owner of the house where the Kohlers live, Mr Rademaker (Hans Sangen), who was forced to take in tenants by the civil authority in the face of the housing crisis, bullies and complains constantly even as he steal power, eventually resulting in the building’s supply being cut off entirely. Eva brings in some extra income, like Paisan’s Francesca, as a nightspot denizen just a step short of outright prostitution, filching cigarettes which a the most reliable currency, only to be disdained by the Rademakers and Edmund. Young Christl, with whom Edmund seems to feel the first glimmerings of attraction, is described by her fellows as a “mattress that gives out cigarettes.” It’s easy to imagine Karl-Heinz as one of the steel-jawed young Nazi angels shooting down Rossellini’s flailing resistance warriors in his previous two films. “Once we were men, National Socialists,” a rubble clearance worker quips at one point, “Now we’re just Nazis.”
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RR22
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This quip at last gets to the very heart of an issue Rossellini traces the outer edge of again and again in both films, in noting people’s desire to belong to feel part of some great project, a movement, a corpus of humanity blessed with shining import, rather than admit the reality of their circumstance. The Flowers of St. Francis would, eventually, offer a reconciliation of the schism, as Francis and his followers learn to rejoice in the mud. Part of neorealism’s almost religious appeal in some quarters might well have been rooted in the mode’s ability to imbue that kind of identity and overarching narrative upon life, the brotherhood of debris and scarcity and perseverance. Germany, Year Zero offers no such ennobling on a socio-political level, but does dare to suggest family is a substitute, another world in small from which larger structures grow. Edmund’s initial, scampish selflessness as a kid dedicated to his family unit seems to contrasts Karl-Heinz’s fretful and fuming inability to let go of his defeated cause. By the end Rossellini inverts their roles, as Karl-Heinz awakens to a new reality and rids his system of the fascist poison, whilst Edmund is fatefully, and fatally, infected through Henning’s frame for reality, Nazi ideals carried by children who know nothing better. Rossellini’s great anxiety, perhaps a common one at the time, is that all these brutal lessons have blighted an entire generation. So Edmund steals a bottle of poison from a dispensary and uses it to kill his father in the belief it’s the best thing for everyone.
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RR23
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As contrary to swift-formed neorealist dogma as it was, Rossellini’s use of sets allowed him greater, more unaffected intimacy in his lighting and shooting, particularly apparent in the scenes in the Rademakers’ building and the Kohlers’ rooms, where the camera often hovers with actors moving about it like another member of the family, tracking all movements with simple pivots. Rossellini’s evolving aesthetic, which would increasingly attempt to use carefully manipulated settings to describe psychological landscapes (in a subtler manner than the waned expressionist film movement), was becoming more definite here. Berlin’s wreckage is recorded with a documentary maker’s rigorous eyes but also reflects the utter desolation of private universes and illusions. Edmund’s murder of his father leaves him entirely alienated from even the salutary processes of mourning, and he eddies for a long and dreadful day as his confession of his final solution to Henning gains only the pervert pedagogue’s hysterical fury and anxious implorations that Edmund not implicate him in the deed.
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RR24
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Here is Rossellini’s miniature analysis of the life and death of the fascist creed–big-sounding ideals, real murders, and whimpering, pathetic denials of involvement when judgement day looms. In a less crass (if not more subtle) way than the use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City to depict the perverting appeal of the Nazi ideology, Henning’s paedophilia visually describes that deep and invidious process of colonisation of the mind and soul by hateful thinking. Ultimately Germany, Year Zero feels like a statement of intense grief and even exhaustion in the face of a universe of suffering, and Rossellini’s personal loss must have informed the final, despairing image of a young boy’s broken body. And yet it’s not a nihilistic statement. Rossellini intended it as a confirmation that a moral spark would still create shame even in the children of this devastation. Edmund is an avatar for Rossellini’s evolving preoccupation with the gap between the internal and external ways of being, a strange relative to his Saint Francis as like the saint he finds the real monster to battle is not in the world but within, the world only made monstrous by that inner beast. Rossellini grants his boy-man the same stature as he gave to his resistance heroes, as he makes his stand and slays the beast. At the same time he’s just another dead kid in a land filled with them.

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

The Alamo (1960)

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Director/Actor: John Wayne

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years, the standing set erected for John Wayne’s debut film as director, The Alamo, was a tourist draw outside San Antonio until decay, changing owners and times closed it. Wayne’s paean to patriotic example had a longer life for many as a literal monument than as a movie, which long ago faded into cinematic background radiation, the sort of movie that makes for a Saturday afternoon perennial on television without garnering much interest or respect, to the extent where the original negative is in dire need of restoration. For Wayne, The Alamo had been a labour of love and great expense, one he went into deep personal debt to realise on the scale he desired, and which would, in spite of initial box office success and Oscar nominations, take over a decade to finally recoup costs, and he was consistently irked for the rest of his life when anyone spoke of it as a flop. Wayne’s hopes for the film were both artistically ambitious and bound up deeply with his image of the stalwart all-American hero, both in the public eye and in his own self-estimation, and his desire to try and translate that heft into something lasting, to have an impact as a star on life beyond the movie theatre.
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By the time Wayne got his own production off the ground, a craze for all things related to the Alamo and Davy Crockett had swelled and waned in the previous few years thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker, later edited into a movie, with its naggingly catchy theme song. Wayne however had been hoping to make a film about the event since the mid-1940s. He first tried to make such a film at Republic Pictures, the studio well-known for its cheap horse operas and serials for kids. Wayne had been Republic’s biggest asset for many years, but he cut ties with the studio after executives flinched at the proposed cost for his pet project. The script written for it was eventually produced as The Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden to capitalise on the Crockett craze, and Wayne retained several aspects of that version for his own, to be reiterated on a much grander scale. Much more recently John Lee Hancock’s more historically exacting and dramatically shaded take from 2004 was a calamitous box office failure. If Wayne was a little late to the Americana party by 1960, epic movies were all the rage at least, as studios were competing with big-scale productions to maintain their edge over television, and The Alamo was at least well-timed to join those ranks. Wayne wanted to avoid starring in his own project, hoping initially to play Sam Houston, but supposedly found himself obliged to play Crockett to leverage financing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore just how well the part as written was moulded to fit its star and provide a vehicle of self-revelation as well as personal statement.
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Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille had all helped to forge Wayne’s screen persona and then mine it for dramatic riches, but Wayne’s stature had developed over three decades in all sorts of movies. Discovered for Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) as a lanky ingénue and seemingly set for the big time, Wayne had been forced after that film’s failure to slog his way up a harder route to stardom through dozens of low-budget westerns and war films in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of his on-screen appeal seemed sourced in that apprenticeship, arriving as the biggest star of the age not through mercurial success but through dogged application and hard-won gravitas. Wayne long styled himself as a leading proponent of conservative, pro-Cold War politics and voice of fierce anti-Communism in Hollywood, a topic he had tackled in self-produced starring vehicles like Big Jim McLain (1952) and Blood Alley (1955). Wayne had made his first directing foray filling in for William Wellman on the latter film. Everything about his screen persona suited this self-appointed role, his great frame and aura of indulgent but unswerving authority that could seem alternately reassuring and incredibly pompous. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented on the jarring dichotomy of reactions Wayne could stir in him, forced to cry at the end of The Searchers (1956) for his capacity to portray the ferocity and emotional neediness of igneous masculinity even whilst conscious of hating the man’s politics. Eventually, Wayne’s second effort as director, The Green Berets (1968), a would-be epic depicting the Vietnam War, was all but laughed off the screen for attempting to portray a pro-intervention argument in the guise of a painfully clichéd and slipshod production.
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When he eventually came to direct himself, Wayne remained deeply under the sway of the masters he had worked with. Most inevitably Ford was the filmmaker he owed most to and remains linked inextricably with, locked in a frieze in quarrelling productivity – high-strung Ford with his unstable blend of flinty machismo and sensitivity, Wayne with his hearty but ponderous persona niggled at by personal anxieties like his failure to fight in World War 2, a moment for which he might well have been overcompensating for the rest of his days, a weak point for aggravated liberals to take aim at. By some accounts Ford did actually turn up to the set and try to throw his weight around, shooting some second unit footage Wayne quietly discarded. What an Oedipal moment it must have been. The Battle of the Alamo in Wayne’s eyes became not merely a colourful and dramatically representative vignette from American history, but a paradigm for the entire national enterprise, particularly in the face of Cold War’s tests of moral and military muscle and the threatened change of zeitgeist looming in the 1960 Presidential election. Wayne had been vocal during the campaign in his faith in Richard Nixon and contempt for John F. Kennedy, whom he wrote off as a phony rich kid, and hoped the film might count in Nixon’s favour. He inserted a moment in the movie in which some characters regret not voting for Crockett’s return to Congress because the “other fellow gave him four bits.”
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Wayne’s version of history commences well after the start of the Texian revolt against Mexico and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Antonio de Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla). Houston (Richard Boone), the appointed commander of the fledgling Texan army still being assembled and outfitted even as Santa Anna leads a strong professional army north to stamp out rebellion, appoints prickly Southern gentleman and exile Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Laurence Harvey) to take command of a ruined mission chapel turned semi-fortified military post called the Alamo located just outside San Antonio, or Béxar as it was more usually called at the time, and work in partnership with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), a former adventurer turned would-be landowning gentleman. Travis and Bowie clash constantly as completely diverse temperaments with radically different notions of war. Bowie favours a frontier guerilla approach. Travis insists on traditional military disciplines in his hopes of holding out against potential siege long enough to let Houston complete assembling his army and to gain relief from a nearby force at Goliad. Their fractious joint command is soon enlarged by a new force of volunteers under former Congressman and frontier war hero Crockett. Crockett, having lured his friends and followers from the Tennessee backwoods to come to Texas nominally for the cause of hunting and partying, convinces them to lend their muscle to the coming fight with Santa Anna’s army.
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The Alamo’s failings as history are both readily catalogued and sometimes knotty. Some commentators have noted that scarcely any scene in it can be called verifiable. Some distortions are relatively minor, like the portrayal of the climactic battle as taking place in solid daylight rather than in very early dawn for the sake of visual clarity. Others are crammed into that very thin nook between documented fact and heroic fantasy, like portraying Bowie as going down fighting and bedridden from battle wounds rather than disease at the battle’s climax. Other aspects Wayne chose to emphasise or excise or whitewash were both fairly typical still at the time but also go some way to explaining why it’s still rather hard to talk about aspects of American history honestly today. Wayne never goes into the causes behind the Texian revolt or the Mexican reaction, preferring instead to offer it simply as a grand clash between free living and authoritarianism, an idea he constantly, and effectively, reiterates on an essential visual level in the contrast between his wildly attired, rowdily communal yet defiantly individual rebels, and the perfectly drilled and depersonalised Mexican army. Of course, history is never that simple. The Texian revolt was undoubtedly sparked by unfair and repressive moves made by Santa Anna as the head of a newly authoritarian government, but one irritant that helped bring down tough measures on the American population in Texas had been the refusal by many to abide Mexico’s antislavery laws.
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One telling aspect of The Alamo lies in Wayne’s affection and admiration for Mexico, perhaps even his tendency to idealise the resilient pith and courtly values of the national character he saw subsisting there, retaining the lustre of certain classical, old-world tenets somewhat lost to the America Wayne otherwise celebrated so enthusiastically. Ford and Hawks were rarely above tossing in a little hackneyed stereotyping with comic relief Mexican characters, but Wayne avoids them completely, even refusing to portray Santa Anna as any kind of creep or fiend (something Hancock’s version, for all its greater adherence to the historical record, felt the need to indulge). Two of Wayne’s three wives were Mexican, and The Alamo noticeably treads close to portraying this aspect of himself as Crockett engages in chivalrous attentions towards a local lady, Graciela ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal). Crockett follows Bowie as gringo interloper who finds himself seduced by the local climes and senoritas: one scene depicts the two men reclining in the evening, Crockett listening as Bowie tries to grasp the essence of the Latino way of life and its appeal to him.
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Shortly after his arrival in Béxar, Crockett encounters an American businessman, Emil Sande (Wesley Lau), who is trying to leverage a forced marriage to a local propertied lady amidst the lawless chaos of the revolt, and is also hoarding ammunition from the rebels. Crockett appoints himself watchdog to Flaca’s interests, fending off Sande not through aggressive display but comic irritation. Sande still sends out a gang of thugs to pound him the street, bringing Bowie and others to the rescue in a street brawl. Soon after, Flaca alerts them to Sande’s stockpiles, and they set out to steal it. Sande stands in for a less reputable side of the interloping American influence, crass, exploitative, and relentlessly patronising to the local mores and people. Obliged to depict a drama that involves throwing off the yoke of Mexican rule, Wayne mediated the tension by bending over backwards not only to avoid any old partisan quarrels, but to offer up unbridled praise for the gutsiness of the Mexican soldiers and the Tejano members of the revolt, like Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), whom Travis is ashamed to treat brusquely in the name of maintaining calm amongst his soldiers after Seguin brings bad news. “‘S’funny, I was proud of ‘em,” one of Crockett’s backwoodsmen comments after one ill-fated attack by the Mexican soldiers. Wayne gives the Generalissimo the last, memorable gesture of the film to him as he doffs his hat in salute to the ragged, tiny band of survivors leaving the captured fort.
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Wayne initially portrays Crockett as a kind of feudal lord riding out of prairies at the head of his band of merry men. One vignette offered to illustrate Crockett’s unflinching potency as such reproduces a scene out of DeMille’s The Crusades (1936) in which the hero-king and an uppity subject slug each-other in a test of manhood, one the leader must and does triumph in to retain status as top dog. Early scenes depicting Crockett’s Tennessean cohort emphasise their rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boys in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s love for similarly boisterous gangs. Wayne indulges a broad and corny brand of Americana, perhaps best inhabited by Chill Wills as Crockett’s pal Beekeeper, who performs a musical number and seems as much like an emcee at a hootenanny as an actor in the film. The Alamo’s screenwriter, James Edward Grant, had been writing Wayne vehicles since the early 1940s, including The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which had gained him his first Oscar nomination. Grant’s ready mastery of the familiar dialogue and plot patterns of the star’s vehicles undoubtedly felt reassuring to Wayne. But it also explains why a little too much of the film is given over to familiar horse opera motifs – fisticuffs and a cattle stampede and displays of unruly masculine energy – and not enough into meaningful portrayals of some of the authentic players in the actual historical drama at hand. Like Sue Dickinson (Joan O’Brien), Travis’ cousin and wife to his second-in-command Almeron (Ken Curtis), who was one of the few survivors of the siege: although vital to the final images, she’s scarcely glimpsed until half-way through the film.
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With Wayne’s Crockett serving as heavy centre of moral gravitas and the chances for thematic conflict and ambivalence stymied by his determined messaging, the drama has to be chiefly driven by character tension. That comes in the schism between Harvey’s snooty, determined, astringent Travis and Widmark’s truculent, defiant, anti-authoritarian Bowie. The conflict between the pair becomes so heated at one point the two men arrange to fight a duel once their duty to the revolt is dispensed with. Crockett plays mediator, getting Bowie too drunk at one point to act on a threat to withdraw his men, and Bowie and Travis reach a tentative peace when Travis apologises to Bowie after grilling him about receiving a message from outside that proves to have been news reporting the death of Bowie’s wife. The Alamo posits the three men as a troika of American types, Travis the old-world inheritance, Bowie the free but ornery man of the frontier, and Crockett as an ironic union of the two, the more complete version. The totally different acting traditions the three men belong to informs their clashes. Widmark’s trademark edge of rasp-tongued, urban cynicism, which he sustained even as he made a leap from playing villains to heroes, makes Bowie a galvanising presence, particularly when his hard crust shatters when he loses his wife, segueing from quivering rage (“Travis, you might die tonight.”) to desperate exposure before Crockett. This scene is carefully mindful of the fear of machismo in being found wanting and friendship being defined in such circumstances by who you can trust to be around at such a moment. It’s an aspect to the film that feels true to Wayne’s sensibility, as it’s the sort of moment he was a past-master at capturing in his performances.
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Most actors who become directors usually prioritise performance in all its nuances, but The Alamo contradicts this tendency to a certain extent. The dramatic tone is generally that bright, declarative style common in Hollywood filmmaking then rapidly giving way to a new Method acting-influenced realism. Although superficially resembling Ford’s gift for depicting humans in bristling, Hogarthian masses as well as isolated and monumental in the landscape, Wayne doesn’t have his touch for staging comedy or finding truth in that old-fashioned acting style. That’s not to say the film’s empty on that level. Harvey, who had just gained significant attention thanks to Room at the Top (1959), seems awkward at first as he puts on a notably bad Southern accent in his early scenes. Once he wisely softens the accent, he emerges as one of the film’s strongest aspects, anticipating his characterisation of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in playing an unpleasant yet upright American blue-blood, admirable in his willingness to play total insufferableness and eventually unearth curious decency in such a phlegmatic character. Harvey’s gift for treading such a line helps earn real impact for a couple of the film’s best vignettes. The first comes when Travis unflinchingly directs infantry volleys on charging enemy soldiers to protect returning raiders, gaining Crockett and Bowie’s grudging admiration. The second comes in the finale, when he gets a suitably iconic death scene, battling Mexican soldiers spilling over his defences with drawn sabre, providing an unexpected jolt of swashbuckling action until he’s shot in the gut: Travis, grinning with a rueful look of perverse victory, breaks his sword over his knee before collapsing dead, the embodiment of the cavalier ideal falling before the age of regimentation and firepower.
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The laborious aspect of The Alamo lies is a penchant for declarative speechifying in highlighting Wayne’s desired messages. Early in the film, as Travis comes to see him and appeal to him to lend his support to the rebellion, Wayne-as-Crockett readily offers up his personal credos: “Republic – I like the sound of the word.” More often, he drafts lantern-jawed character actor John Dierkes, playing everyman warrior Jocko Robertson, into delivering several significant soliloquies whilst staring into the middle-distance in a vaguely prophetic manner, including a paean to duty as a man of common responsibility to his blind wife Nell (Veda Ann Borg), and later a statement of religious belief (“I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe…but I believe in the lord God Almighty”). Nell unleashes a tirade on Travis in insisting her husband has to stand with the defenders in spite of his obligations precisely because he seems so beaten down. Some of this stuff does get wearisome. To be fair, Wayne and Grant go to reasonable lengths to make a film about political insurrection and communal action that tries to portray individuals thinking through and responding to such circumstances. Characters communicating, attempting to summarise complex and ethereal sensations and ideas, is a constant motif throughout.
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Wayne tries as a result to imbue the Alamo defenders with a chorus-like quality as they fumble their way through such reactions, as in the scene in which they meditate on the bravery of their foes, and in the contemplation of what death entails that provokes Jocko’s statement of faith. Wayne wants to portray democratic thought and action taking root like the great green tree he has Crockett and Flaca admire during a sojourn together. Such a symbol recalls the great oak in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that invites the meditative eye and heart of its protagonists. Trouble with this aspect of the film is, what we get is less Socratic dialogue than more speechifying that’s spread across multiple characters. As is so often the case, Wayne and Grant fare better when they try to dramatize certain social ideas through the actions of their characters, like Sande and Flaca, who represent the ugly and refined sides of their respective societies. The problem with Crockett’s romancing with Flaca is that it’s necessarily abortive: Wayne’s square idealism chokes off any possibility of transgressive passion between the two although Cristal looks extremely inviting as she leans against a shady bower with bosom trembling in suppressed excitement, only to be hurriedly and literally bundled out of Béxar and the film before the real business of manly men killing each-other gets going.
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The only slave portrayed in the film is aged Jethro (Jester Hairston), whom everybody treats deferentially as common paterfamilias, and Wayne depicts him as the kind of man whose voice stirs respect from everyone: his rebuke aimed at Travis (“Colonel sir — you’re wrong.”) is intended to carry all the more moral weight because it’s coming from a man usually obliged to keep quiet. Bowie frees him and Jethro decides to stand manfully with the garrison, and dies hurling himself in front of bayonets aimed at Bowie. Jethro, like Flaca, embodies Wayne’s idealistic hope that individuals transcend the failings of their societies. But Jethro’s part in the tale draws out a problem with this approach. Wayne tries to validate Jethro as a being who makes his own votes of loyalty and duty once free to, and thus in a way he, like Jocko, represents the Alamo cause at its purest. Wayne seems to have been earnest in his insistence expressed in Blood Alley and The Alamo that non-Caucasian populaces be taken seriously in their search for dignity and liberty, but it was also complicated by his awkward framing of the issue, enshrining paternalist clichés. He lets the slaver off the hook and sticks Jethro with an unswervingly loyal arc, as if slavery was only a temporary misunderstanding between gentlemen.
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In spite of its nominal political agitprop, The Alamo feels most urgent as an attempt by Wayne to describe himself and his uneasy if purposeful relationship with his screen persona, and reconcile it with his private imperatives. Travis notes after listening to Crockett’s early speech to him that he’s not exactly what he appears. Wayne would tell Michael Caine a few years later that the secret to his acting success was talking slowly and little, and it’s hard not to read personal meaning into Wayne’s portrayal of the frontier hero as a covertly intelligent and articulate gentleman who can shift personas according to his company but finds himself all too often caricatured as a hick with cracker-barrel ideas. Arthur Hunnicutt had played Crockett as a canny rustic in The Last Command; to Wayne he’s a man who inhabits a role to please less well-educated but worthy fellows, for the sake of influencing them. He doesn’t don his coonskin cap until half-way through the film, assumed as a sort of costume, stepping into the role he was born and fated to play. Crockett lures his men into joining the Rebellion by having Flaca write out a letter in Spanish which he then has her read to them, a letter supposedly from Santa Anna warning them to clear out lest they be violently chastised, a threat that sets his companions to foaming anger and eagerness to resist. Crockett then warns them that the letter is a fake, designed to illustrate the nature of the enemy and essence of the fight to his men, but he’s already succeeded in rousing their blood to such a degree that they don’t care: it’s enough that his representation of the matter depicted the essence in a way they could understand. Wayne tries here to articulate a statement of faith in his own ability to persuade through art, drawing attention to the very device he’s trying to leverage in becoming a filmmaker.
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Wayne shows a surprising confidence and muscular ability in the film’s visuals, created in concert with DP William H. Clothier. Ford’s influence is clearest in the way Wayne arranges actors in vistas and frames them in sweeping diagonals, spurning ostentatious viewpoints even when surveying the advancing Mexican army. There’s a lovely little visual etude early in the film when two of Crockett’s followers, young mascot Smitty (Frankie Avalon) and old Parson (Hank Worden), happen upon Béxar and signal for the rest to come to them, and the Tennessean party advances into view like a tide, titans thrusting their way out of the ground to enact a legend. He returns several times to a shot of the Alamo’s battered old façade framed and silhouetted against dawn skies with wisps of cloud lit like gold in river sand, a shot that sees the Alamo enterprise as perched at the cusp of advent but also charged with the lamenting quality of a dawn vigil for the fallen.
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The way Wayne offers a constant flow of shots that look as precisely crafted in arrangement of actors and set and colour elements as Victorian art is more individual, as he chases a certain adamantine grandeur more reminiscent of DeMille than Ford. The tendency of widescreen movies of this ilk from the time to be overlit and shot in flat, rectilinear perspectives works for Wayne in this regard, as it’s precisely that frieze-like quality he chases in his arrangements of actors and elements. At least one shot is directly modelled on such a painting, as Wayne painstakingly recreates John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” in the sight of a flamenco dancer performing for Santa Anna’s soldiers whilst the Alamo defenders make a night foray. This shot summarises Wayne’s oddly affecting blend of tony pretence and artistic yearning, evoking a classic tradition of American art and Latin culture as viewed through that prism. The then-massive $12 million price tag attached to the film, which would take so long to recoup, at least seems to have all ended up on screen: The Alamo is one of those grandiose pieces of epic filmmaking so common in the era that compelled purely by dint of the enormous human labour placed before the camera, in the scale of the sets and milling armies of extras.
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The Alamo stands in the shadow of two superior epics depicting besiegement from the same period, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963): Endfield’s movie would prove an equally grand yet more convincingly terse and stoic celebration of the warrior ethic, whilst Ray’s was a more fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and uneasy hello to the modern world’s complexities. The 1950s had seen the advent of what was often called the “adult western” filled with mature themes in analysing frontier social values and individual characters. The Alamo both fulfils that style as it delves into the violently contrasting heroes, but also feels in part like a repudiation of it – there’s none of the anxious probing of The Searchers or The Naked Spur (1953) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) to it; indeed, the latter film could well have been Ford’s commentary on his star’s mythmaking hyperbole. But The Alamo also feels like it might have influenced some films still to come on. Where many ‘50s westerns looked rather clean-cut, Wayne’s emphasis on his motley Tennesseans and their attire and the protean cultural blending of the frontier suggests the harsher, woollier textures of ‘60s and ‘70s genre movies. Touches like arming Bowie with a large multi-barrelled gun have a quality of historical piquancy that anticipates Sergio Leone’s fine feel for such ephemera. Sam Peckinpah would mimic aspects of Wayne’s film in offering up a crew of jostling grotesques who seem to have stepped out of myth who venture into Mexican territory on a death trip, with Major Dundee (1965), if in serving a radically different vision.
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Certainly, for all the lumpiness of what leads up to it, Wayne’s staging of the climactic battle is a brilliant episode of cinema spectacle, as the Mexican army pours over the battlements and the defending heroes all die in precisely illustrated vignettes. These culminate in Crockett’s demise, where he manages to retain sufficient strength after receiving a lance in the chest to hurl a torch into the magazine and detonate it, literally going out with a bang. Wayne sees the patriotic gore suddenly stymied as the tide of Mexican warriors discover Sue Dickinson and two children – one white, one black, an embryo for modern America – cowering under a blanket, the whole enterprise of slaughter and ferocity of duty brought to a grim and trembling pause by a lingering ghost of chivalry. Wayne offers the sight of them riding out of the captured fort in silent dignity to Santa Anna’s salute as a moment of understanding and apotheosis, point the way forward to an amicable future. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score, particularly his composition “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which pervades the film’s official rectitude with a counterpoint of wistful and transitory evocations. The Alamo certainly isn’t the eclipsing masterwork or powerful totem of republican (and Republican) faith Wayne might have hoped. It’s too patent, too broad and familiar in its specifics, too verbose and dubiously reassuring in its annexation of history. And yet some of its flaws are also wound in with its pleasures, for it’s also an entertaining, outsized relic of a brand of moviemaking rendered in a style now seemingly long gone. The final frustration of The Alamo is that it encompasses many moments where Wayne betrays the touch of an artist, and not a frustrated politician.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Dunkirk (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.
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Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.
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By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).
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The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’
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Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.
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I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.
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A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.
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Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.
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In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.
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Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.
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Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.
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The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.
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It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.
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Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.

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1990s, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, War

Dead Presidents (1995)

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Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes

By Roderick Heath

In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
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Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
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The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
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The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
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The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
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Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
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The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
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A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
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The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
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The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
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Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
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Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
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In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.

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1920s, Silent, War

Wings (1927)

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Director: William A. Wellman

By Roderick Heath

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
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As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
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During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
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Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
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Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
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The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
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Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
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Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
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Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
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High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
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The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
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Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
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Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
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This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
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A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
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Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
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Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
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Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.

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1940s, British cinema, Mystery, War

Green for Danger (1946)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sidney Gilliat

By Roderick Heath

Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the country by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern England. These flying weapons are a jarring blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.

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The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover narrates the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead. When he arrives at a post for rescue party volunteers where he serves, Higgins reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s radio continues to operate amidst the infernal scene, the voice of an infamous, Lord Haw Haw-like female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”

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Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically good-natured and decent English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers where, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, they created their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.

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Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more sustained directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self.

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The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic. This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed.

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Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the less polished anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated by Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s initally listed as an unknown person, pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.

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Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.

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Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy explains. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. Barnes joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.

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The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, and bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma. But the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue, as well as the intelligence of the filmmaking, quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency and make it something rather more delectable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.

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The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.

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This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent.

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As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body. Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. The aptly named Cockrill is a right strutting rooster, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows.

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Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller, a gripping pressure-cooker character study, and a period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made. Sim enters the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears.

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“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves.

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When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the verse from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes, and wish him a goodnight. Glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found at one point lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong. Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.

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The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation. This gives the murderer the opportunity to repeat their modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives.

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And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins. Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere.

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But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).

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The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943).

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As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?” The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored.

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Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice. The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”

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1970s, War

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino

By Roderick Heath

Michael Cimino made a name for himself as a bright young thing working in New York advertising before turning to screenwriting in the early 1970s, joining the ranks of fresh and eager talents the “New Hollywood” was embracing in an effort to rejuvenate the industry. After working on the science fiction film Silent Running (1971) and the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1974), Cimino broke into directing with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a modest but beautifully made movie about a pair of buddy criminals on the road, straddling several of the early decade’s popular genres and thematic terrains. Cimino seemed like a perfectly evolved organism for New Hollywood, fresh, smart, driven, volatile, and a hopeless fabulist. In particular, he had that trait most prized by the age’s cinema scene: vision, that overwhelming sense of aesthetic aim that could conquer the cynical senses of an audience burned out by Old Hollywood’s tricks.
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For his second film, Cimino aimed much higher, envisaging an epic film about the most controversial subject of his age: the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Funding for such a project was all-but-impossible to come by in the climate of mid-’70s Hollywood, so he braved the L.A. office of British record company EMI instead and spent two hours pitching executives his vision for the film. He must have done something right, because even with no script, actors, or production elements ready, he was still ordered to start shooting in five months. With the aid of Deric Washburn, who converted Cimino’s concept into a workable script, and Robert De Niro, a hot property after The Godfather Part II (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), Cimino’s unlikely project came to fruition.
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The resulting film, The Deer Hunter, stoked hyperbolic responses from viewers. Greeted by some as the cinematic equivalent of Tolstoy and embraced by the industry and mainstream audiences alike to become a big hit, Cimino’s film went on to capture the 1978 Best Picture Oscar. The Deer Hunter bothered others with its viewpoint on the conflict, told entirely through American eyes, where Vietnam becomes an alien and stygian zone filled with sadists and wretches and random horrors. Seemingly uninterested in the political dimensions of the war, Cimino preferred to portray its young protagonists as people to whom war happens as a cruel and random imposition, rather than making them agents of a wider, conceptual approach to war, like the following year’s Apocalypse Now, or as radicalised avatars of shifting tides of social identity, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which was one of its big rivals at that year’s Oscars. Actually, The Deer Hunter does have a bleak and accusatory political side, portraying as it does the war as an event that invited the best from citizens who are then dumped back into the world variously mangled or bereft. Cimino had endeavoured to make a film purely about the experience of young men doing their bit according to their communal ideals, sense of patriotism, and personal ethics, and being deeply wounded in many forms and unable to make any sense of what they have experienced beyond the whirlpool of carnage. Some objected to Cimino’s signature flight of fancy, the central scene of forced Russian roulette-playing, as not just a symbolic invention and effective horror sequence, but as pernicious falsity; Cimino was awkwardly caught up in trying to defend its legitimacy. Yet, in the context of the late ’70s, the film represented a ballsy project all the same. Films of epic length were conspicuously out of favour. The situation of many Vietnam veterans socially and personally wasn’t good, and in spite of a small spate of Vietnam films released around this time, official catharsis wasn’t reached until around the time of Platoon (1986) and the opening of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project The Deer Hunter helped inspire.
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Cimino’s ambitious scale belied to a certain extent the intimate and simple focus of his film, depicting the entwined fates of three pals, steel mill workers from the Pennsylvania town of Clairton drafted to fight in Vietnam sometime around 1970. Cimino employed a narrative approach here that he would revisit in his follow-up Heaven’s Gate, packing multiple strands of story set-up and asides that compile into a detailed portraiture of place as well as people. The film’s first third details how a trio of young heroes engage in a series of ritual events that comprise their farewell to the life they know. The trio, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Cevatolavic (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), along with their other pals and coworkers Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), complete their last shift at the steel mill, and emerge to a rare solar phenomenon, “sundogs”, which Mike, referring to Native-American folklore, declares a good omen for his favourite pursuit of deer hunting. They retreat for a farewell chill-out session in their local bar, run by pal John (George Dzundza). Steven is about to marry his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) over his mother’s (Shirley Stoller) objections, which she is glimpsed weepily confessing to her priest (Father Stephen Kopestonsky), before coming to drag Steven out of the bar to prepare for the wedding.
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Both a source of power and a difficulty for the film lay in Cimino’s blend of filmic techniques, coalescing into a style difficult to pin down, at once uniquely earthy, authentic, and realistic in a way anyone could grasp, and yet also floridly artistic and deeply stylised, even mythic in reach and resonance. What it definitely wasn’t, however, was documentary. How Cimino illustrated his stark, cumulatively gruelling tale was what made it so arresting. His technique, notably confident for a second film, represented a rich polyglot of influences that seemed for a moment to represent a new paradigm for popular art, equal to what Francis Coppola had managed with The Godfather a few years earlier. Cimino borrowed technique from classical Hollywood epics: the vistas of John Ford and David Lean enfold and lend background to the drama, dwarfing the humans and their concerns and yet offering elusive promises of transcendence and communion, too. The fascination for behavioural minutiae recalls the eccentric genre cinema of Howard Hawks and Phil Karlson, crossbred with the new wave filmmaking of guys like Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jerry Schatzberg, emphasising improvisation in his performances and careful attentiveness to the rhythms of actors. Cimino also added into the mix the dramatic approach of Italian post-neorealism, particularly the work of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and their spacious, allusive approach to narrative and characterisation, where characters seem to float through the landscapes they inhabit on a deceptively open and yet carefully choreographed fashion. Cimino’s credo was that films came alive because of their “shadows and spaces,” like classic Dutch art.
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Another quality of The Deer Hunter that makes it relatively rare among major American films, even in the milieu of the 1970s, is the dignity it gives to working-class lives, the feel for the environs they live in: only a handful of Warner Bros. blue-collar melodramas from the 1930s and ’40s, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), had a similar acuity. One close relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless depicted the same milieu with similarly gamy insight. The Deer Hunter hit a vein Bruce Springsteen was starting to mine profitably in rock music, casting the denim-clad worker as the essence of Americana, providing the national backbone, but also acting as the canary in the coalmine for its economic, social, and political upheavals. The evocation of Clairton is one of the best portraits of a small industrial town ever, speaking as a person who grew up in one. Clairton is a town hunkered under mist and melting snow, subsisting beneath the gothic mass of the steel mill, blotches of light and colour hovering amidst drenching blues and greens. It’s inhabited by callow, energetic, shallowly naughty young men and thwarted elders, a place of deep amity and pockets of abuse. Clairton interestingly is also portrayed as a specific ethnic enclave, with the Russian Orthodox Church at the centre of the local culture. Several of Cimino’s recurring notions are immediately in evidence here; the immigrant’s place in American life, blue-collar heroes with chips on their shoulders, violence as plague and crucible, and rituals social and private that define individuals in relation to the whole.
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The Deer Hunter‘s early scenes are defined by the ebb and flow of detail, offering oblique characterisation and context, often underscoring the tale’s evolving themes. Bridesmaids trying to keep their dresses from getting soiled whilst dashing to the wedding. The boys drinking beer, playing pool, and singing along to Frankie Valli. The special technique for opening the boot on Mike’s Chevy. Linda (Meryl Streep) trying to help her drunken father (Richard Kuss) into bed and getting a black eye for her pains. Steven and and Angela’s wedding scene is close to an ideal litmus test for the different ways people experience movies; pointless and rambling to some, enriching and endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of celebration that’s more than a mere party, but a communal rite. Nick’s life-of-the-party joie de vivre counterbalances Mike’s social awkwardness, as both make a play for Linda’s affections; Mike misses his chance downing too much liquid courage, and Nick gets in a marriage proposal that Linda accepts. The supermarket manager doubles as wedding singer, crooning ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and cuts in to dance with Stan’s girlfriend. Stan’s buffoonish antics are plied with a mix of obliviousness and try-hard desperation, apparent in his posturing as ladies man and pistol-packing tough guy, and he provides slapstick humour with an appalling edge as he gets angry, stamps into the cotillion, and throws a punch that knocks his girlfriend out. Amid the humour and working social observation thread hints of fate. The ominous presence of a returned Green Beret sergeant with the proverbial thousand-yard stare who threads his way through the wedding party to throw back shots with declarations of “Fuck it!” has the quality of fateful visitation, the Red Death arriving at the ball, eventually riling Mike with his reserve.
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Underlying the frivolity of the wedding is the intensity of fear: the young men are being feted for their honourable commitment to duty and because maybe they won’t come back. The blown-up pictures of them festooned on the wall of the reception hall have turned them into icons as sacrificial venerated. Mike performs a hysterical nude run through the streets of Clairton. His subsequent bleary chat with Nick resolves with Nick’s confession of a love for the primal grandeur of the trees during the hunt: where Mike sees the unifying crux of the single shot, Nick sees the enveloping glory of nature, “the colours in the trees,” something to sink into and fade among. Leaving Steven to his honeymoon, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John go on a last hunting expedition: Cimino sarcastically plays off a grand David Lean landscape with the humour and bickering of the young men, as John finds himself abandoned by the roadside and clueless Stan gazes about him at mountains that haven’t changed in millennia and swears that somehow they have. Mike declares the shift from one phase of life to another has begun when he refuses to furnish Stan with his spare pair of boots, and berates Stan for his complete lack of preparation, and his habit of constantly carrying a pistol “like John Wayne,” the archetypal macho posturer without the expertise or concision of habit to back it up. Nick intervenes as the confrontation becomes heated, and Mike heads off into the hills to track in a moment staged like a holy rite, complete with Russian church chorus chanting on the soundtrack. There he bring downs a monarch of the glen with single-minded precision, a sense of craft and purity of intent that prove to have prepared him, semi-consciously, for war.
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Cimino executes a smash cut from the victorious, elated, exhausted hunters listening to John play his barroom piano with startling art to napalm blasts erupting in the jungle, swinging from the edge of the sublime to the infernal precincts—it’s one of the great scene changes of cinema history. Mike is depicted awakening on the battlefield, the drowsy reverie of the previous scene giving way to the immediacy of the first hour as though it is only remembered dreaming, a state of grace before damning. Mike is quickly stirred to action as a stray NVA solider kills civilians, and righteously roasts his enemy with a flame-thrower. Helicopters spirit in reinforcements, including Nick and Steven, who are amazed to encounter their pal in the grip of berserker fixation, only for a sudden VC attack to lead to their capture and imprisonment in a remote and makeshift lock-up. The guards apparently can’t hold their captives long in such a place and so have hit upon the novel idea of letting chance kill them off slowly by forcing them to play Russian roulette until they’re all dead. Steven narrowly survives and is tossed into a cage in the river where he’ll quickly lose strength and drown. Forced to take a great chance for even the slightest hope of escape, Mike, under the guise of trying to belittle their captors, cajoles them into putting three bullets into the gun for the game. He and Nick pass the gun between them for two agonising plays to make the VC lower their guard before Mike sparks a stunningly fast and successful insurrection.
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This scene was surely the reason for The Deer Hunter’s success at the time and its continuing reputation as a classic of violent intensity. Mike’s heroic retention of nerve holds the situation together, and the scene builds with incredible force to the moment of punitive exactness when Mike gives the Vietnamese ringleader (Somsak Sengvilai) a third eye. This is thriller stuff as much as it is representation of war’s randomness, but this sequence undoubtedly conveys a powerful extra dimension, the spectacle of ordinary men passing through the outer limits of human trial in some septic circle of hell, where gnawing rats and other men’s life blood dripping on you are the least unpleasant aspects, and the confrontation with mortality becomes a state without past or future, only perfect being and non-being. The superlative acting, particularly from De Niro, captures the spectacle of men being stripped down to their rawest nerve, with wild swings from bowel-emptying fear to hysterical jollity and howls of vengeful abuse. Importantly, apart from the flash cuts depicting the climactic crucible of violence, Cimino generally films in the same way he shot the same men dancing and carousing—in long, intent sequences where behaviour unfolds frantic, flailing, relentless, until the viewer is all but wrapped in their clammy terror and fight-for-life imperative.
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Mike’s plan works against the odds, or rather according to the fifty-fifty odds his three-bullet plan entails. He, Nick, and Steven, though battered and bloodied and near-unhinged, make their escape down river. But Steven falls from a helicopter during the rescue and shatters his legs, forcing Mike to fall after him and carry him across country. In the midst of a convoy of refugees, he’s able to get a South Vietnamese officer to drive Steven to help. In Saigon, traumatised Nick heads off into the Saigon night to dedicate his life to reliving his moment of existential crisis under the gun when a remnant French colonial, Julien (Pierre Segui), introduces him to the underground craze for betting on Russian roulette. South Vietnam is a corrupt fleshpot where everyone has essentially become an organism, living and dying without moral limits: Nick has a sleazy encounter with a prostitute with a kid in her room, but he’s enticed away by a street vendor selling statues of elephants. Mike returns home alone and haunted.
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The third part of the film depicts Mike’s return and his efforts to take up his life, but finding that impossible not only because of his physical and mental injuries, but also because the social contract between him and his friends is still standing. Here, The Deer Hunter shifts into another storytelling mode, perhaps the more familiar, as its evident structural debt is to generations of panoramic, off-to-war-and-back tales like The Big Parade (1926) and Wings (1927), and more specific dramas about damaged veterans like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). But Cimino is exacting in specific details as he contemplates the odd lot of the modern soldier, hooked out of the midst of turmoil and dumped back into the mundane world. Particularly good and real-feeling is Mike’s initial return, his squirming discomfort when, ferried by a taxi toward his old home, he sees a banner of welcome. Rather than face the party waiting for him, Mike instead heads to a motel where he crouches against the wall, wrapped in tension and pain. The next morning, as the last of the party flitters away, leaving only Linda, Mike spies upon friends and the unchanged signifiers of his own life, outside of them and touched with inescapable longing to both run away and reach out.
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Mike, escorted by Linda through town, is hailed as the returned hero, and Linda’s hapless idea of succor is to offer to go to bed with Mike, only for him to fall asleep for the first time since returning. The gentle, toey romance of Mike and Linda is haunted by the awareness that Mike has stepped into Nick’s shoes, and Mike is privileged to learn quickly that the women waiting for the men have been through their own ordeal. He happens upon Linda quietly weeping whilst marking prices on supermarket items, and Angela, reduced to an almost catatonic wreck by Steven’s injury and refusal to come home, can only communicate through hand-written notes. Mike’s attempts to reconnect with his remaining pals eventually sees his anger boil over at Stan, who threatens Axel with his pistol: Mike gives him a coarse lesson in the sort of truth he accosted Stan with earlier by taking his gun, emptying out all but one bullet, and then pressing it to his forehead: lucky for Stan, this time he gets an empty chamber.
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One notable influence hiding within The Deer Hunter is the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who similarly dealt in virtually mythic stories told through accumulations of realist detail, and many of whose themes and images percolate through the film, and also Hemingway’s influences, James Fenimore Cooper and A.E.W. Mason. But Cimino reconfigures some of their essential notions. Whereas Hemingway often depicted survivors of conflict who found themselves recreating the tragedy of life and death on the small and controllable scale of man versus animal and finding existential surety there, Cimino depicts Nick as doomed to keep experiencing the moment of his own death/life—the click of the firing pin in Russian roulette—enacted on his own self. Nick descends into anti-personhood, his past erased with drugs and only able to survive like a goldfish between contests.
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Meanwhile Mike’s reawakening sees him resist killing a deer when he returns to the mountains: his scream of “Okay!” to the mountains smacks of a mysterious and personal surrender that also brings relief. Although the hunt gave him the skills to survive the battle, Mike can no longer rely on such gifts and ethics to keep him sustained: in such a fashion, Cimino evokes a classical ideal of heroism only to undercut it and show up its greatest weakness. The American frontier hero has failed to survive Vietnam. Mike instead begins to turn into a different man, coupling with Linda and taking charge, at first half-madly when he subjects Stan to the ordeal, and then with more focus as he locates Steven, who’s hiding away in a veteran’s hospital, and drags him back to Angela, before heading back to Vietnam to find Nick. The climactic rite of the wedding sees Steven and Angela drinking from a twinned cup, invoking corny superstition: “If you don’t spill a drop, it means good luck for the rest of your life”—except that two red drops fall fatefully on the white lace of Angela’s dress. Such vignettes of mythopoeic flavour hint that for all its surface realism, The Deer Hunter is actually a form of myth-making. Indeed, under the surface, it has more in common with classical tragedy and myth than the precepts of Victorian realist writing. Cimino and Washburn offer a Sophoclean tragedy where earthly, communal lessons and the invocation of fate repeatedly enfold the young heroes. The pure trio of youth, Mike, Nick, and Steven could readily have stumbled out of any point in history for an anthem of doomed youth and gone off to fight in any war.
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Mike’s odd, Zenlike sense as the hunter puts him readily into a legendary mould, whilst Nick gains mastery over death, one of the most hallowed mythic themes, at the cost of his humanity. Mike’s private trip—his obsession with the perfect hunt and the ethic of the “one shot” kill—echoes heroes from Siegfried to Natty Bumppo, right down to his implied celibacy: professional sleaze Stan rebukes Mike over his gruff and strict attitude toward him by bringing up his apparent sexual failures. Mike’s mastery of the hunt gives him a worldly power, as his focus and determination help him keep his head during a scene of Dante-worthy torment. But perhaps more important is the ethereal power it gives him. “This is this!” Mike rants at Stan, holding up a bullet, utterly bemusing Stan but revealing his own sensibility, at once atavistic and materialistic, perceiving the concrete nature of the bullet as the singular essence of reality, the separator of living and dead. Yet when faced with the bullet and the Russian roulette wheel, he tells Nick to put an empty chamber in the gun with the force of his will. Nick emerges from this with a magic power: when Mike returns and locates him, he has become “the famous American” who has survived innumerable tussles with death.
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I’ve often felt that Cimino’s chief misstep with The Deer Hunter was his insistence on giving it a semblance of a plot. Mike’s mission to find Nick in the midst of a collapsing Saigon and the end of the war strains to fulfil the old-fashioned epic credentials of the story, contrary to the “shit happens” art of the movie’s bulk. Nonetheless, the furor of the illicit dens Mike finds Nick in evokes the visions of Bosch, as do the sideways glimpses of a pocket of existence crumbling, a place where small gestures like the pathetic stab by Julien at regaining a gasp of honour by eventually refusing Mike’s money, and Mike’s appeals to Nick’s drug-sodden memory, are doomed, yet ennobled. Notably, Mike only succeeds in breaking the spell that has kept Nick alive: Nick ambiguously seeming to finally recognise Mike, but then puts gun to head and shoots himself, the magic protection gone, perhaps deliberately willed away. Nick is sacrificed innocence, and his funeral marks the end of the film. Cimino’s fascination with ritual as communal conducer comes full circle as Nick is buried and his friends gather for a wake where a ragged, plaintive, rendition of “God Bless America” sets the seal: the duty is done, the cost great, the flow of life about to begin again. Cimino played his cards right. He had proven that a film on a painful subject with an angry streak could be made in a way that communicated to more than ideologues of either side. Cimino was lauded, famous, at the height of his powers as an artist and a force in the American film industry. What could possibly go wrong?

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1960s, Thriller, War

The Night of the Generals (1967)

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Director: Anatole Litvak

By Roderick Heath

Peter O’Toole’s death last December was a hard blow. One of a formidable battery of theatre-trained talents who found movie stardom as a minor cultural explosion regenerated British performing and cinematic arts in the early ‘60s, O’Toole had electrifying skill and intelligence as an actor. Of course, tributes to O’Toole’s career zeroed in on inarguable highlights. His name-making lead performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a textbook of what film star acting can be. His second turn as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) combines dramatic largesse and cinematic intimacy with hypnotic finesse. His high-comedy roles in The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and My Favorite Year (1983) readily stir fond memories, and the frail but keen intelligence in his late performances in Troy (2004) and Venus (2006) was stirring all the more for the sense those turns were delivered against the resistance of much-abused flesh. O’Toole made quite a few bad movies in the course of his career, some in which he hammed it up or walked through with his contempt all too obvious. He also made many undervalued films, particularly in his post-Lawrence run when his star was at its height. He was epic in Lord Jim (1965), and funny and charming in How to Steal a Million (1966).
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O’Toole is ferocious in The Night of the Generals, a fascinating and very neglected film, one of the most singular by-products of the era’s tumultuous screen culture. Produced on a lavish scale by Sam Spiegel, who had fostered O’Toole’s stardom in producing Lawrence, it’s a big-budget war movie with scarcely any combat. Rather, it’s essentially military noir, combining an early variation on the serial killer hunt motif with a typically ’60s fascination for antiheroic and antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about WWII from the German side, standing up with a relative handful of such works, like Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008). The film was based loosely on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, a German writer who, although overshadowed by the likes of Gunther Grass and Heinrich Böll, was one of the first postwar writers to articulate disillusionment with and resentment of the Nazi era, portraying little guys and men of conscience struggling with the all-pervading evil of the regime, gaining particular attention for his much-loved Gunner Asche stories. Kirst, however, had legal problems with the book, which was partly drawn from work by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, and both are credited as the source of the film.
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The film kicks off in Warsaw, 1942. As Operation Barbarossa is nearing Moscow and Polish partisans are tormenting occupying forces, a tenement dweller, Wionczek (Charles Millot), hears an ugly scream on a higher floor, and fearfully hides in a toilet as someone descends the stairs. He catches a glimpse of the man’s military trousers, sporting a red stripe: the uniform of a German general. When he ventures out, he finds the body of a prostitute, Maria Kupiecka, savagely murdered in her apartment. Because she was an occasional informant for the Germans, Maj. Grau (Omar Sharif) of Wehrmacht Military Intelligence is sent to investigate whether it was a crime of punishment or passion. It’s immediately obvious to Grau he’s dealing with a sex killer. After extricating the witness’ testimony and believing it, Grau whittles down suspects to three generals whose whereabouts can’t be established. Gen. Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), head of the city’s military garrison, has a penchant for prostitutes. Gen. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), his chief of staff, seems the most suspicious due to his habitual secrecy and lack of personal attachments. Gen. Tanz (O’Toole), in charge of the “Nibelungen” Division of the SS, is newly arrived in the city from the Russian front, personally detailed by Hitler to quell resistance.
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Spiegel threw his weight around a lot during the making of the film, alienating director Anatole Litvak and O’Toole considerably, as he tried to lay claim to ownership of the project. Yet the film represents a coherent culmination for Litvak’s career. The director had fled first from Soviet Ukraine and then from fascist Europe, where he made some notable works, including Mayerling (1936). He then landed in the United States, where he made the long-delayed opening salvo in Hollywood opposition to Nazism, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Litvak wasn’t really a film noir director, but his instincts were sharpest with stories involving ordinary people faced with oppressive violence by tyrants and their own foundering sanity and decency, often with political overtones or an acidic contemplation of marriage. All This, and Heaven Too (1940) offered a lunatic wife who compels a hapless husband to murder. Out of the Fog (1941) shows two elderly men driven to contemplate homicide by a vicious gangster. Litvak remade Le Jour Se Leve (1939), Marcel Carne’s study in fatalism as a man awaits arrest and death after committing a crime of passion, as The Long Night (1947), and transposed Lucille Fletcher’s radio play to film with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), depicting a woman who, through blind chance, finds her husband is planning to have her killed. The Snake Pit (1948) made headlines for highlighting treatment of the mentally ill, as an unstable young woman is cast into an asylum. In the ’50s, Litvak decamped back to Europe but remained a quasi-Hollywood filmmaker. The Deep Blue Sea (1955) studied suicidal impulse and transgressive romance, and Anastasia (1956) offered an amnesiac young woman whose past is rewritten to fill a political void. Five Miles to Midnight (1962) turns a dying marriage into a bleak Sartrean thriller.
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The Night of the Generals was Litvak’s penultimate film, and it treats his major themes on an epic expanse. The film’s chief liabilities are common to a lot of big-budget films of the era, with a production polished to brittleness and corny asides, like scenes in a tourist-board-approved Parisian night spot, complete with warbling Juliette Greco. But the film’s overlooked status is more due to its cool, cerebral approach to garish subject matter, via the script by Joseph Kessel, a collaborator of Litvak’s who dates back to Mayerling, Paul Dehn, and an uncredited Gore Vidal, who perhaps provided the film’s litany of quotable lines. Litvak eschews suspense sequences and action in favour of generating a trembling sense of neurotic repression and tension, less a whodunit than a study in competing pathologies. An individual’s will to kill is contrasted with an epoch that takes mass murder as an everyday reality and even a gallant activity. Grau’s peculiar sense of mission leads him first to confront his three suspects when they’re together at a reception thrown by Gabler’s haughty wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) for Tanz. Eleanore tries matchmaking by introducing Tanz to her daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), a member of the German equivalent of the WAAFs. But this goes awry, as Ulrike is furious because of her mother’s plotting to have her sent back to Germany to work in a religious hospital, more out distaste for her newfound independence than concern for her safety. She questions Tanz about using dead bodies as sandbags at the siege of Leningrad: “The story has been exaggerated,” Tanz replies, but adds with chilling assurance, “Nobody rots with me.”
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The Night of the Generals charts the various social tensions and blocs within Nazi Germany, giving it a sociohistorical richness as it anatomizes the peculiar madness of the time and place. Gabler is described as a “Junker of the old school” and his aristocratic equivocations contrast both the internalized, ideological attitude of Hitlerian golden boy Tanz, and the intelligent, conscientious characters who keep their heads pulled in nervously whilst trying to work out how to resist. Ulrike is one of these, and another is introduced when Kahlenberge’s adjutant Otto (Nigel Stock) presents his cousin Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a newly decorated war hero and an artistic, educated man all too happy to take a staff job under Kahlenberge’s wing. Assigned to program music for Eleanore’s soirée, Hartmann encounters Ulrike and quickly becomes her lover, confessing, to her delight, that he was only decorated because he ran away whilst the rest of his unit were killed in battle. The two lovers neatly fill in for the perspective of the late ’60s audience in their disdain for their elders and betters, and sense of unity in being endangered by the war, as Ulrike’s already lost two boyfriends in Russia. Grau, equally detached from the Nazi cause, makes it his mission within the delineations of his job, to punish hubris: “We live in an age in which dead bodies lie around in the street,” Kahlenberge barks at him, but Grau invokes the legend of the Eumenides and declares his intent: “Some general thought he could play God in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Well, I am going to prove to him that he is not God.”
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Tanz, on the other hand, articulates the mix of idealism and low chauvinism that defined the drug-like appeal for those who were on the “right” side of the Nazi ethos, airily declaring things for Ulrike’s benefit, like, “We’re building a new world order—women should not be exempt from playing their part,” and trying to win hearts and minds with food and sweets for the homeless children of Warsaw. At the same time, his plan to crush Polish resistance is characterised by Kahlenberge as monstrous, as it has a contingency to demolish the entire city if necessary. “What constitutes resistance?” Kahlenberge questions, “A rock thrown at his golden head?” Grau, trying to interview the overlord, becomes privy to the operation, as buildings are swept clear and partisans gunned down in the street, before Tanz casually has tanks pummel buildings to rubble in an orgiastic survey of destruction. There’s anticipation in Tanz (whose name implicitly evokes the tötentanz or death-dance from plague-era religious allegory), as a character and locus of thematic interest, of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Schindler’s List (1993), in the fascination with the almost mystical figure of a mad military leader who commits crimes that seem absurd against the backdrop of generally permitted murder, and whose power takes on hubristic scale. Grau sees Tanz is a megalomaniac, but is also persuaded that Tanz is not his killer: why would someone who can get their rocks off on such a scale need to kill a prostitute? Grau’s gambit at the soirée misfires, as Kahlenberge defensively has him transferred to Paris.
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Two years later, the players are reunited as the Allied landings at Normandy bring Tanz, Gabler, and Kahlenberge to Paris, stirring Grau to reopen his investigation. Tanz is assigned by the Fuhrer to mastermind retaliation, but Gabler and Kahlenberge insist that he take time off, supposedly to give them time to prepare military resources for him. Tanz reluctantly obeys, and Kahlenberge frustrates Hartmann’s impending reunion with Ulrike by insisting that he chauffeur Tanz about the city. As Hartmann is forced into close company with Tanz, he becomes privy to the deep veins of neurosis underlying Tanz’s self-willed image as the iron-willed, water-drinking, obsessive-compulsive übermensch, gets stinking drunk and smoking profusely whilst Hartmann gives him a tour of Paris. Much of the film’s middle third is dedicated to an intensely rhythmic portrait of mental upheaval and dread, building fascinating, troubling little scenes like orchestral movements. One such scene comes when Hartmann is distracted from his guide duties by the sight of Tanz guzzling spirits in the back seat, an intimate play of shots that compartmentalise the two men in separate universes. but unites them in the rearview mirror until the general notices and tells the corporal to keep his eye on the road. Most striking is a scene that’s repeated in ritualistic fashion, when Hartmann takes Tanz to an art gallery filled with paintings requisitioned for Nazi bigwigs.
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Tanz, intrigued by the gallery’s “decadent” modernist works, finds himself stricken with horrified self-recognition as he stares at Van Gogh’s “Vincent in Flames” self-portrait. Matching zooms and cuts between O’Toole’s sweat-swathed face and the portrait’s infernal flames and blue eyes with Maurice Jarre’s nerve-jangling score render an impression of the soldier’s wits turning inside out, in a superlative conflation of cinematic devices. The film also notes with malign humour the nature of the Nazi antipathy to “decadent” art, for its stylised, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath. Tanz asks Hartmann to define “decadent” art, and Hartmann replies that according to his best definition, the potent art is anything but decadent, but then appends his reply with dry political awareness, “But I don’t really know what decadence is—not officially anyway.”
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Hartmann and Tanz’s relationship is unusually charged because Tanz generally has utmost contempt for his underlings, who fear his rages for good reason: he has one orderly confined to barracks for a month for getting polish on his boot laces and abuses another for having dirt under his fingernails. He finds in Hartmann a subordinate as intelligent as himself and more cultured, but still a subordinate, thus all the more pleasurable to destroy. Tanz seems to descend into a fugue state in his first encounter with the Van Gogh, and might have no memory of it the next day after a drinking binge. He nonetheless insists on a return and confronts the painting again, and this time seems to gain control over his stylised doppelgänger. Tanz even seems humanised after this, as he makes conversation with Hartmann and congratulates him on his “good taste” after forcing Hartmann to show his wallet photo of Ulrike. This conceals, however, Tanz forming a plan of attack so he can indulge his intimate homicidal side.
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Litvak, like many old studio dogs, was trying to learn new tricks, and he annexed flourishes of New Wave cinema with more success than many, giving the film a stylish instability as he conjoins theatrical actor blocking and glossily over-lit interiors with islets of modernist punch: dialogue becoming voiceover, jump cuts, and whip-pan transitions pepper the film. One shot takes in the former Polish royal residence as a tourist attraction in the present day, and then cuts to the same angle when depicting the palace’s days as Gabler’s headquarters. The film’s colour palate is intelligently muted, the blood reds of the generals’ uniform insignia isolated in fields of hard greys and browns, with other colours washed out. One of the film’s strongest images is Wionczek’s eye peering out through the fateful gap in the lavatory door, grain in the wood and terror in the eye captured as a precise emblem of the era’s paranoid, seamy, assailed mindset, reminiscent of the similarly surreal shots of the spying eyes in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), but with the innocent spying out on the evil rather than the other way around. The stark and eerie opening credits play out the first murder as a fetishistic dreamscape, picking out details like fishnet stockings on glossy legs and squirming fingers in black leather gloves, flickering in and out of distorting shots, before the fatal knife swing hacks through a light bulb in slow motion, an eerie, technically accomplished touch that was stolen for the TV show Callan a few years later. The film has an uncommon flash-forward structure, as the film leaps between the 1940s and 1965, eschewing introduction via the present tense to emphasise not the past nature of events, but the still-vibrant connection between eras and the people reporting them, where consequences are still being played out.
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Tanz sets up Hartmann to be his patsy as he kills another prostitute (Véronique Vendell) and gives Hartmann the choice of either fleeing for his life or having his brains blown out. When Hartmann asks Tanz why he’s become a killer, Tanz replies, “Oh, the war, I suppose,” whilst espousing his confident belief that Hartmann would inevitably be executed for the murder instead of him because, naturally, he’s a general, and his word is worth more. Grau, however, realises exactly what’s happened when his contact in the Parisian police, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), calls him to the crime scene and then learns Hartmann was assigned to Tanz.
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Whilst O’Toole is dominant in the film, he’s surrounded by a cast of mostly British and French actors of enormous vitality. It’s distinctly possible, for instance, that Grau is Sharif’s best performance. The Egyptian actor has wryly commented on the degree to which producers were willing to cast him in nonethnic roles according to his star status. Reunited here with O’Toole after Lawrence as they were both still contracted to Spiegel for frustratingly little pay, Sharif couldn’t have asked for a more different role to his image as swarthy lover, with Grau as a poised, electrically intelligent savant who has no interest either in hiding his smarts or his delight in making his superiors uncomfortable. Sharif relishes the dialogue thrown his way, from imploring a pathologist at a murder scene, “There’s no need to be vivid,” to charmingly telling Morand he knows his Resistance code name. Grau, like Hartmann, is absurdly out of place in this milieu: cold-shouldered by the German elite for his impolitic zeal, he finds friendship with Morand. The two men dine as gentlemanly enemies, with Grau cutting deals to release some of Morand’s men in exchange for gathering intelligence on the generals, whilst swapping oddball pearls of wisdom like, “Sex and great cuisine do not mix.”
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Indeed, the depth of quality in the cast is another of the film’s major assets, with mostly British actors modishly familiar at the time. Handed the lion’s share of good lines, Pleasence is superlative as Kahlenberge, who approaches a world that disgusts him with dripping cynicism and abuse of the bottle. Particularly good is his early interview with Hartmann, as he surveys his press clippings and notes with the finest edge of mockery, “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero of the Golden Age!” And, later, when assigning Hartmann to drive Tanz, telling him to satisfy the general’s taste with a very Vidal-esque twist: “Let us hope that whatever it is, it is not you, corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you’re serving the Fatherland.” There’s an obvious, but well-handled irony in the suspicious Kahlenberge turning out to be the film’s moral centre: he is involved in the July plot to kill Hitler, whilst Gabler knows what’s going on but wants to remain “usefully alive” sitting on the fence. The Night of the Generals also provides an amusing keepsake of the days when Tom Courtenay was considered a heartthrob, as Hartmann’s incredible appeal to women is spoken of even as his spindly physique is mocked. Courtenay is certainly fine as Hartmann, however, as he brings the right mix of doe-eyed sensitivity and discomforted acumen and angst to the role.
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The sadly neglected Pettet, who hit big in ’67 after her other highest-profile role that same year in Casino Royale, is more uncertain as the icily aristocratic Ulrike. She’s most effective when firing off arch rejoinders to Browne’s patented maternal monster and O’Toole’s marble demigod, aware of the contradiction that wartime has liberated her whilst condemning millions of others to horror, but as she’s slowly humanised by love for Hartmann, she becomes less interesting. Christopher Plummer has a strong cameo as Rommel, whose joining the plot is celebrated by Kahlenberge and the others. The film links Grau’s intent to catch the god-playing general with Rommel’s intent to deny Hitler the glory of a fiery apocalyptic end: both are heroic in motivation, but touched by hubris conjoined with the core problem of the Nazi cause, and thus both men are unable to prevent horror. Rommel’s wounding by a strafing Allied plane hurts their confidence. Four decades before Valkyrie, The Night of the Generals encompasses a brief, but sharp and accurate telling of Von Stauffenberg’s (Gérard Buhr) excruciatingly near miss at killing the Fuhrer. Once the bomb goes off and the plotters assume victory, Kahlenberge dispatches men to arrest Tanz at his division headquarters, but Grau gets there ahead of them to arrest him for murder. Tanz’s response is merely to shoot Grau and claim he was one of the traitors, and he accepts the Nazi salute from his massed soldiers as Hitler’s survival is announced. If the film had ended here, its portrait of an age of moral nullity would be bleak, but, of course, there’s another act to play out in peacetime, as the flashes to 1965 have promised.
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Morand, now an Interpol agent, is trying to piece together the crime to honour his dead friend, and he explores that peacetime landscape with its perspective-imbuing vignettes. Otto has become a fat and satisfied restaurateur, hailing the Marshall Plan. Kahlenberge, who fled ahead of the vicious reprisals for the assassination plot, is now a busy diplomat, recalling with fascination Grau’s obsession in the midst of a collapsing world. Gabler is still sitting on the fence, and he and his wife are alienated from Ulrike, with Eleanore sniping, “Our generation believed in being happy!” Tanz’s pompous adjutant Sandauer (John Gregson) has become a Volkswagen executive, exasperatedly bossing around Spanish and Italian labourers because he “can’t get Germans for real work anymore.” Ulrike has dropped out and become a farmer, married to a man named Luckner, who is, naturally, Hartmann, living under an alias. Tanz has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for war crimes, and now plans to attend a reunion of his division in a politically charged moment of fascist solidarity. Tanz looks like he’s calcified in prison, but he’s already committed another murder, one that has drawn Morand back to the case, and he and Inspector Hauser (Michael Goodliffe), the investigating officer, collaborate to confront Tanz with a greyed, frayed, but coldly intent Hartmann. Few film resolutions are more satisfying than this one, as Morand goads Tanz to shoot himself, his body left sprawled on the banquet table under Nazi paraphernalia under the stunned and silent eyes of his men—one last victim of the war and one delayed, but not denied, serving of justice.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, British cinema, Historical, War

Centurion (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.

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Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.

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Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.

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On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts. The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.

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Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.

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On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.

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Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.

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Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.

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Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.

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More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.

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Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.

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The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).

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The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.

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Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.

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