1960s, Action-Adventure, War

Zulu (1964)

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Director: Cy Endfield
Screenwriters: Cy Endfield, John Prebble

By Roderick Heath

The Anglo-Zulu War was, for the most part, an inglorious episode amidst the colonial enterprise carving up Africa in the 1800s, but it included two closely linked incidents that gained the lustre of legend. Britain had been accruing control over what is now South Africa since the early 1800s, in competition with enclaves of Dutch-descended Boer settlers, and native peoples. Assigned as High Commissioner to knit the patchwork quilt of small states and regions into a federation, Henry Bartle-Frere worked by hook and by crook to that end, but faced two strong and fractious opponents, the Boers’ South African Republic and the Zulu Kingdom of Cetshwayo. Bartle-Frere tried to bully Cetshwayo into surrendering his kingdom’s sovereignty, on pain of war justified by scattered violent incidents and disputed borders. Cetshwayo chose to fight. Early in 1879 a large military expedition under the command of Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. One of Chelmsford’s columns, numbering about 1,800 soldiers plus civilian followers, camped under the mountain of Isandhlwana. A huge Zulu force assaulted the camp on January 22, slaying the bulk of the column in one of the most startling upsets in military history and temporarily foiling the invasion. The Zulu reserve forces decided to venture on and wipe out the small contingent of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, a mission outpost by a river ford about six miles away.
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By the late 1950s, around the time the last veteran of the battle died, the events of Rorke’s Drift might well have seemed a colourful anecdote of a lost age, the kind Angry Young Men liked to mock, and which would eventually gain an emblem in the character of the dotty old Pvt Jones in the TV series Dad’s Army, eternally recounting his colonial ventures. Cy Endfield read an article written by historical writer John Prebble about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and became so excited he shared it with his actor pal Stanley Baker, who was equally enthused, partly because it roused patriotic feeling for his native Wales, where many of the soldiers in the battle came from; this aspect also attracted the input of Richard Burton. Endfield worked on a script with Prebble and Baker used it to attract the interest of producer Joseph Levine. The film was shot in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime for a budget that belied the film’s epic look and feel, about a hundred kilometres from the real battle site. Baker took the role of Lt. John Chard, the military engineer who found himself ranking officer during the defence. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a descendent of Cetshwayo and soon to be one of the leading figures of agitation against apartheid, played his ancestor. A 31-year-old Cockney Korean War veteran turned actor who had taken the stage name of Michael Caine, and who had been playing small movie roles since 1956’s A Hill in Korea, was initially tested for the role of private soldier Henry Hook, a role that went to James Booth instead. Caine instead landed the second lead, as the company’s upper-crust commander Lt Gonville Bromhead, in part, Endfield told him later, because they didn’t have time to cast anyone else.
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Zulu today stands as a perennial, if not an entirely uncontroversial one. It’s in no way to be taken as a documentary, and despite the title it neglects the actual Zulu perspective on events. From a contemporary standpoint it’s easy to look askance at a movie where the African warriors are largely presented as a great, undifferentiated mass whose only aims are to exterminate heroic white men. The film avoids the political backdrop noted above, except in fleeting references. Endfield would write a prequel about the events leading to Isandhlwana, Zulu Dawn (1979), balancing out the story in that regard, unsparingly depicting the mixture of arrogance and cynicism that led to such a disaster for the British and the simple defensive will of the Zulus. But Zulu is also much more complex than the above description allows. Endfield was a creative figure who in addition to being a writer and director also had a reputation as a magician and inventor: his magic skills made him friends with Orson Welles, who gave him a job at the Mercury Theatre. Endfield began making short films that quickly earned him a reputation both as a talent and as a troublesome figure politically. His educational short film Inflation was rejected for government use for being too sharply critical of capitalist institutions. After arriving as a feature filmmaker with an impressive early run of noir films like The Underworld Story (1950) and The Sound of Fury (1950), Endfield found himself on the wrong side of the blacklist and decamped to Britain, making films under a pseudonym at first before forging a good working partnership with Baker on punchy working-man melodramas like Hell Drivers (1957) and Sea Fury (1958). Endfield concluded his resurgence helming the Ray Harryhausen special effects vehicle Mysterious Island (1961), before embarking on Zulu.
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Endfield opens with Burton’s inimitable strains, reading the official dispatch reporting Isandhlwana. A shock cut to the midst of that battlefield, surveying blazing carts and sprawled, red-clad soldiers, through which the Zulus calmly march and take up the fallen rifles of the soldiers, one posing with a potent attitude of declarative revolt, the title Zulu sweeping out at the audience in flaming letters. The mood is utterly present-tense, attuned to the ructions going on in Africa in the early 1960s, one of post-colonial turmoil. Endfield shifts the scene to find the nominal master of Rorke’s Drift, the Swedish missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), visiting Cetshwayo at his kraal and watching a mass wedding rite between warriors and maidens, along with Witt’s daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Endfield offers the surreal oppositions apparent in this time and place, effete European piety and tribal earthiness each making a great play of honouring and respecting each-other, as the virginal, white-clad Margareta senses the metaphorical sexuality in the Zulu wedding rite, Endfield cutting between her eyes in colossal close-up and the stamping legs and phallic spears of the Zulu girls. News arrives of the victory at Isandhlwana, a moment of celebration for the Zulus but a moment of utter shock to Witt, who exclaims, “While I stood here talking peace a war has started.” Father and daughter flee.
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At Rorke’s Drift, Bromhead’s detachment of about a hundred and fifty men, mostly consisting of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, has been left defending the mission, whilst Chard has been assigned to build a bridge over the river. Chard’s repeated summation, “I came here to build a bridge,” has almost spiritual connotations as well as practical immediacy: although a soldier he sees himself more as a builder, a knitter-together of worlds, who soon finds himself obligated to wreak tremendous violence and destruction. Bromhead meanwhile is out hunting, gunning down antelope and failing to take out a dashing cheetah before mildly chastising Chard with facetious bonhomie for using his men without asking permission, before leaving him to it. The men of Bromhead’s command are bored, tense, and overheated, particularly the men in the mission hospital, including Hook, described by Bromhead as “a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer.” Hook’s bête noir is the feverish and very sick Sgt Maxfield (Paul Daneman), still determined to make a soldier out of Hook when he’s not raving out of his head. Also in the hospital are the Swiss-born Natal policeman Corporal Schiess (Dickie Owen), laid up with a bandaged foot and limping about on a crutch, and the sarcastic Welsh privates William Jones (Richard Davies) and Robert Jones (Denys Graham), who must explain to Schiess the general practice in the regiment of calling each-other by their service numbers rather than by the all-too-common Welsh surnames.
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Other figures of note around the camp are Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green), the epitome of the soldiering creed, and the equally competent Sgt Windridge (Joe Powell) and Corporal Allen (Glyn Edwards), who must guide unseasoned fighters like Pvts Cole (Gary Bond) and Hitch (David Kernan). Pvt Owen (Ivor Emmanuel), leader of the regimental choir, is anxious about one of his best singers, shanghaied for Chard’s service. Pvt Thomas (Neil McCarthy) is a gentle farmer whose instincts are stirred to worry about an ailing calf in the corral. Store keeper and camp cook Louis Byrne (Kerry Jordan) is upset when Chard orders him to pour out his soup on his fires to stop the Zulus getting it. Surgeon-Major Reynolds (Patrick Magee) lances a boil on Hook’s back with vengeful pleasure in whiling away a tedious detail. News of the calamity at Isandhlwana is brought by a survivor, the Boer Lt Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), alerting the stunned Chard and Bromhead and necessitating swift decisions. First of these is who should take command – Chard has seniority despite not being a combat soldier, to which Bromhead comments, “Oh well, I suppose there are such things as gifted amateurs.” Facing clear orders not to abandon the post, Chard decides to fortify it. When the Witts arrive, they appoint themselves saviours of the men in the hospital although Chard believes it far safer to keep everyone in one defensive position. The two missionaries soon infuriate him so much by openly criticising his decisions and inspiring desertions that both are locked up.
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Endfield emphasises isolation and tension throughout these scenes through a measured sense of space about his actors, almost entirely avoiding musical scoring except for very scattered chords from composer John Barry and the intense rhythms of the ritual songs in Cetshwayo’s kraal, sensitising the viewer to the immersion of the men in an environment that seems at once placid and alien. Thomas grasps a handful of parched soil and sadly notes there’s “nothing to hold a man in his grave.” All the soldiers are eddying in their fetid private spaces, mentally and physically, even as they’re supposed to be units of a coherent whole. Bromhead, the born-to-command scion, confesses to feelings of inadequacy before his noble heritage as the moment of truth comes and finds the weight of history and expectation almost unbearable compared to the less ethereal worries of his enlisted men. The enlisted men aren’t necessarily the salt of the earth however. The air seems glutinous with the promise of violence. Margareta’s venture into the hospital to tend to the casualties sees her hungrily appraised and molested by a delirious man. The sound of the advancing Zulus bashing their assegai spears on their shields makes for an eerie forewarning that sounds like a steam train chugging, echoing about the surrounding hills. Past and future do not exist; all is in a sunstruck eternal present, waiting for death to fall like a hammer. As the threat of action slowly comes closer, Endfield’s camera becomes more dramatically mobile, surveying the defenders and their environs in long, swaying camera dollies that gain in speed and intensity.
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The appeal of the Rorke’s Drift story is, despite its roots in unromantic history, essentially existential, a story where courage and discipline are answers to the terror of overwhelming odds and seemingly universal indifference. Endfield and Prebble’s script emphasises this aspect, particularly with the totemic exchange of Cole and Bourne: “Why us?” Cole asks, when confronted by the imminent prospect of being steamrollered in the sorry adjunct to a disastrous venture. The Sergeant replies, “Because we’re ‘ere lad – and nobody else.” It’s also a story that bespeaks the most cherished self-image of the British: brave, resolute, unflinchingly professional, unfazed by furore, eternally individualist but capable of extraordinary collective action. Small wonder Zulu is held in much fonder regard than Zulu Dawn, which deals quite a few of the worst national traits. The grinding gears of private concern, official requirement, and guiding paradigm shoot sparks everywhere, for no-one more terribly than Witt, who becomes increasingly desperate to make his voice and moral authority heard in a situation that has become subordinated to an entirely different philosophy with dizzying speed. After trying to reach some of the soldiers like Bourne, who he gets to dredge up some biblical phrases of relevance – “He breaketh the bow and snappeth the spear in sunder” – Witt takes refuge in a bottle of brandy and gets pie-eyed, spiralling into despair and bellowing out admonitions to the soldiers, begging them to abandon their posts. The most pathetic and exposed vignette comes when Chard has wagons Witt wants to use to ferry away the sick turned on their sides for barricades, and Witt tries to pull back over, begging for righteous strength that doesn’t come, a moment of great testing that leaves the great and the insignificant alike alone on a barren hill, baking in the sun.
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Endfield was unabashed in seeing the film as a transposed Western, and it has strong affinities in sensibility with the likes of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, particularly Fort Apache (1948), which in turn took inspiration from the Battle of Little Big Horn, a military debacle with many similarities to Isandhlwana. Endfield’s cool compunction and sense of intensifying rhythm were however radically different to Ford’s style, as well as his scepticism about the sorts of social projects Ford celebrated. Endfield’s portrayal of his soldiers, mostly plebeian and entirely uninterested in dying for ideals, is something very different. He sees them as spiritual kin of the variously exalted and exploited working men of his earlier melodramas, as he notes them in all their inglorious attitudes, some bordering on antisocial, stuck with the ultimate shit job this time around. Zulu however also represents an evolution of the theme, as Endfield struggled to encompass the ugly as well as noble side of the human character, always struggling for pre-eminence within all people. In this regard Endfield was a highly prognosticative filmmaker, as precisely this conflict would be taken up by many major filmmakers in the next decade or so, as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah. The driving irony of Zulu, crystallised at the very end, is that the two sides in the battle represent both facets at the same time, united in martial honour and in the happy dealing of death. His next film after Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari (1965), would repeat the same basic theme in an even more remote and existentially blighted situation, with various he-men battling the desert and apes, a woman caught between them over whom they try to establish rights to conquest.
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Characters like Witt and Hook are then presented not according to any historical record – the real Witt for instance was 30 and Margareta was a child, whilst Hook was regarded as a quality soldier – but as avatars for Endfield’s concerns, his favoured variations of troubled and exiled protagonists, defined by violent extremes of self-loathing and temptations to passion that cannot be contained by their apparent roles and stations. Endfield notes maternal qualities in some of the men, including Thomas and Bourne, in the way they foster and nurture in a situation otherwise without femininity. Such men, artists like Owen, and builders like Chard prove astoundingly accomplished as killers when push comes to shove. Endfield strays awfully close to anticlericism in considering the Witts, denying the relevance of a transcendental system in a situation where immediate reality has a powerful stink, and Chard dismisses the use of the word “miracle” to describe their survival with his own correction: “It’s a short-chamber boxer Henry point-four-five calibre miracle.” Witt collapses in upon himself as he faces the ruination of his self-image as well as the foiling of his credos, whilst others suddenly find themselves elevated to titan status by qualities that have hitherto rendered them black sheep. The stiff, pristine whiteness of Margareta’s jacket demands ripping, and her dark-eyed gaze as she listens to the bawdy remarks of the soldiers signals the struggle of official piety with boding sexuality within.
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Chard is celebrated at the ideal persona at the axis of such events, workmanlike in the best sense, his ideals and his pragmatism bound together in his mind’s approach to things, although there are spurts of class tension between him and Bromhead. Endfield avoids didacticism, however, as he gives Bromhead as much empathy as all the other characters: “I rather fancy he’s no-one’s son and heir now,” Bromhead snaps at Chard when he’s sarcastic about an order given by some probably slain high-ranker. The attack becomes the essential levelling event, ransacking each defender’s reflexes of character and muscle to determine who will live and who will die. With further ironic cunning, Endfield makes the tough and canny Adendorff, the only major Boer character in the film, not just a voice to make explicable the Zulu battle tactics and culture, but also the voice of awareness in both racial and political dimensions. “Just who do you think’s coming to wipe out your little command, the Grenadier Guards?” he asks when Bromhead makes a bitter comment about “cowardly blacks,” and notes that the price the British will demand for putting down “the enemy of my blood” (as he calls the Zulus) might be a steep one for his people too. Adendorff is a character completely without illusions about the nature of the larger struggle of the age but committed nonetheless to the fight at hand, where nearly everyone else is essentially an interloper (Van den Bergh would go on to appear as a wrath-stirring bigot in Cornel Wilde’s discomforting exploration of Darwinian race clashes out on the veldt, The Naked Prey, 1963). Another man defending home turf is Schiess, although he’s a Swiss émigré, who notably saves Chard after he’s knocked down by some foes and creaming the Zulus with his crutch.
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Zulu plays out almost in real time for much of its length: the first hundred minutes are essentially one, long, concerted sequence. The first appearance of the Zulu impis on the hills above the mission, surveyed in one, long, seemingly endless camera pivot, is a high-point of the use of widescreen cinema in the use of presenting to the audience a vision of awe and fear. But Endfield immediately contrasts it with the claustrophobic hysteria of Witt, glaring out from his cage as he hisses desperate appeals to heed the word of the Lord: the twinning of opposites that drives his world view realised on the most immediate level. Stephen Dade’s great photography aids Endfield’s igneous sense of composition, constantly catching the actors against the arena-like mountains or the mission buildings in stark framings as if the humans are insects picking over the colossal bones of an enormous monster. Endfield drops in some expert touches of comic relief: Owen’s quip, “That’s very nice of him,” after Bromhead allows free fire, has a special zing as it captures the way the commencement of battle counts as something of a relief after the excruciating anticipation. Adendorff helps the commanders see the way the Zulus, far from randomly provoking them, are carefully probing their defences. The crashing tides of Zulu warriors test Chard’s quickly assembled but cunningly laid defences, spilling over at points and demanding the defenders battle hand-to-hand. Chard is lightly injured in the first battle, and others like Hitch and Allen are badly wounded but still keep trying to help out, crawling around with bullet wounds handing out ammunition. Reynolds works with sweating industry, pausing only to berate Chard as representative of the entire soldiering profession.
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Caine would remark years later that he felt he owed his casting here, and through it his career, to the fact Endfield as an American looked past his background, and Baker, just as working-class in roots as Caine, had similarly benefited from working with visiting Hollywood directors. Baker had been the ideal lead in Endfield’s melodramas as he wielded both quotidian grit and also the stature of a star. The two actors make a great contrast in looks and screen energies, Baker with his square jaw, strong build, and tight grin, suggesting both intensity of personality and width of vision, Caine gangly, blonde-thatched, sleepy-eyed, investing Bromhead, who seems initially to be a right arse, with qualities of both guts and sensitivity. They’re surrounded here by a grand company of actors, from the towering Greene, who cleverly conveys Bourne’s authority and prowess not by acting like the traditionally bellowing sergeant but through the impression of consciously restrained strength, to Booth, who never quite gained the level of attention his performance here might have warranted, playing Hitch as a man who covers up a war with the entire world with a glaze of smarmy humour and whatever the opposite of noblesse oblige is. Hook is finally obliged to work for a living as the Zulus target the hospital, as he predicted, as a blind spot, he and other men furiously battling the invading warriors in a dizzying scene of intimate combat. Spears and bayonets clash, the thatched roof catches fire and walls are dug through frantically, whilst Bromhead battles on the roof. Finally an unsecured gate latch unleashes a stampede of cattle that halts a Zulu charge and ends the great assault of the first day.
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Endfield plainly offers the British and Zulus as well-matched foes, both meeting with the sharp edge of their martial culture, as the soft edge of politesse and religion fall by the wayside early on. “I think they have more guts than we have, boyo,” Owen allows as they fend off yet another charge. Endfield signals cultural clash in the early scenes of the Witts confronted by a very different approach to life, but also the presence of affinities, the vitality of ritual and universality of certain gestures, giving shape and procedure to communal expressions. Violations of that order are the by-product of individual flaws that also testify to the reason behind such order: Endfield makes a point of having both a Zulu warrior and a British soldier rudely grab Margareta in plays of erotic possessiveness. The former is immediately punished by Cetshwayo who has another warrior execute him summarily; the latter transgression isn’t officially noticed. Language is an unsurmountable barrier but gestures so often speak for themselves, as Endfield parallels Chard and Bromhead trying to figure out their enemies to shots of the Zulu commanders doing the same thing. The attacking Zulus are always warlike and determined, but in Chard’s battle with some Endfield privileges him with seeing, in close proximity, fear and uncertainty in their faces, facing like him the same ultimate truth of life and death decided by reflexes of mind and muscle virtually beyond sense.
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Endfield’s emphasis on such oppositions and equivalencies reaches apogee in the film’s two most emotive moments before and after the climactic bout of bloodletting. In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, the British soldiers, facing a new charge by the Zulus at dawn of the second day of the siege, sing a version of the Welsh marching song “Men of Harlech” in riposte to the Zulus chanting one of their war songs. Endfield borrowed this flourish directly from the Val Lewton-produced, Hugo Fregonese-directed Apache Drums (1951), although he offers it with more canny showmanship and a greater suggestion of peculiar accord: Endfield turns the clash of the two songs into a bizarrely harmonic experience, the challenge of aggression and pride apparent in both camps mirrored and transformed into poetic exaltation. Endfield’s sharpest irony lies in his observation that given warfare is a most human phenomenon, even when bracketed under the heading of inhumanity, it is a form of communication, replete with agreed cues, signs, and converse values. When the time for singing ends, the Zulus charge, the British retreat to one of Chard’s prepared redoubts and wield the massed power of their rifles.
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When the guns fall silent, Endfield surveys a bloodcurdling mass of black bodies, spread across the ground right up to the defenders. Suddenly outmatched defence has become a scene of carnage declaring the birth of the modern world where mass destruction is a basic fact and raw courage a mere expeditious way of getting killed. No wonder Bromhead soon confesses, “I’m ashamed.” The second gesture of unexpected affinity comes as the Zulus suddenly reappear to regale the defenders, initially scaring the hell out of the remaining defenders before Adendorff realises they’re being saluted as “fellow braves.” Of course, reality was nowhere near so romantic or ethically stirring: after the departure of the besiegers and the arrival of Chelmsford’s relief, the soldiers brutally killed many of the wounded and captured Zulus in payback for the mutilations many of their own had received at Isandhlwana. This is instead Endfield’s attempt to knit the story into a contemporary context, forces at a standstill of mutual respect pointing the way forward to modernity. One reason the battle was remembered to posterity was the astounding tally of eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to the defenders, often seen as an official attempt to save face in the midst of the campaign’s general disaster. Endfield brings back Burton’s narration for a coda that succinctly unifies Endfield’s mission, message, and aesthetic, his camera moving in long, gliding reveries through the mission in the wake of the battle, noting the men who received the Victoria Cross in the midst of their comrades, caught in attitudes of boredom, pain, exhaustion, business, even indifference, still trying to work out if what just happened to them had meaning or was just a nightmare that left with the rising of the sun.

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1960s, Action-Adventure

Lord Jim (1965)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Richard Brooks

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By Roderick Heath

Amongst his achievements as an author, Joseph Conrad intellectualised the adventure story. In his tales of high seas drama, derring-do, conquest, and exploration, he concentrated consistently on the psychological makeup of his heroes, and the problems inherent in their attempts to find inner peace with external action. Even if this did, in the reckoning of some colonial voices like Chinua Achebe, who died this year, essentially turn the rest of the world into a playground for unravelling white men, Conrad diagnosed something vitally important in the state of the modern world as it entered the 20th century: that its demons were not at held at bay by official perspectives, that its roots were its present and future, and that its securities and reassuring institutions were about to collapse due to processes already in motion but unexamined—evolutionary theory, industrialisation, scientific advancement, Marxist economics—all phenomena that questioned the truisms that had governed so much human activity. Lord Jim, a blend of heroic myth-making and an interior experience dismantling that same myth, was one of Conrad’s best-regarded works. Richard Brooks’ film version, by contrast, is still desperately underrated as attempt to transfer Conrad’s vision to the big screen. Lord Jim is one of the great adventure films, but I know I’m lonely in this opinion. Indeed, I suspect the reasons I love it and others dismiss it are the same. The film gives us the adventure, but much more: the psychology, even philosophy, the forceful and committed exploration of its hero and his friends and enemies in terms of how they see and react to the world. Jim is presented as a proto-existentialist desperately trying to recreate the fabric of not only his own sense of self-worth but all of humankind’s sense of security in its own works and capacities.

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Richard Brooks is also today not as well-recognised as he might be, but he was, at the height of his career, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors, included in at least one serious survey made of the most important directors of the 1960s at the time. Brooks, like John Huston, for whom he worked on Key Largo (1948), first gained repute as a screenwriter, and specialised in literate but muscular cinema. One quality of his that was distinct from Huston was a sharper concern for immediate issues: Brooks, whose birth name was Reuben Sax, had made his name chronicling the anti-Semitism he grew up with in the novel Cross-Fire, filmed in 1948. His early films saw him working in thematic territory close to the new breed of New York blow-ins like Elia Kazan et al, but in a manner closer to genre blacksmiths like Phil Karlson, combining forceful aesthetics and hot-button topics in sweltering interplays of ethics, social concern, morality, and character, from his debut Crisis (1950), through Trial (1955), to his most famous early film, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). After the latter film’s huge success, he became a prominent studio helmsman. His neurotically romantic Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) confirmed he had a way of sustaining emotion and substance through layers of studio gloss and compromise, and that he could get good performances out of Elizabeth Taylor, which he proved again with the first of his two Tennessee Williams films, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Many of his subsequent films were adaptations of notable literary works, like his solid version of The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and his Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry (1960). Later, he combined his social scientist and littérateur sides in films like In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978), gritty true-crime tales that tried to shine light into the darkest pits riddling modern society. At the same time, he also made several high-riding action films just for the hell of it, starting with Lord Jim and continuing with his superlative, hip western The Professionals (1966), the caper flick $ (1972), and Bite the Bullet (1975).

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Lord Jim stands in the shadow of another elevated adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Certainly there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two, if only to the extent that Brooks’ adaptation of Conrad gave O’Toole a chance to explore a similarly charismatic but mentally fraying antihero, and Lawrence’s hit status made it seem for a very short while as if audiences might now have a taste for grown-up, substantial epics. Although hardly exclusive, it can be said broadly that where David Lean’s film was an exercise in cinematic poetics built upon the framework of an historical character study and adventure tale, Brooks offers rigorous and textured filmic prose. Where his versions of Dostoyevsky, Williams, and Fitzgerald were hampered by Hollywood niceties, Lord Jim came in a window when Brooks could make the film he wanted without bogus happy endings imposed, but he still revised Conrad’s tale to a degree that irked many. Brooks’ approach had some felicities, however, particularly in the way he changes the warlord that Jim battles in the remote South East Asian nation of Patusan from an Indian bandit to a French militarist, exacerbating the sense of Jim battling doppelgangers and the misbegotten by-products of colonialism.

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Stylistically, Lord Jim is a portrait of cinematic technique in transition, poised between the mystique of Hollywood and the intensity and tactile authenticity of a more modern brand. It’s not just the common roots in Conrad that makes Lord Jim feel like a precursor to Apocalypse Now (1979) amongst others, but its yearning to engage more seriously with the percolating themes of race and sexuality, politics and personal character that thrum beneath the surface of such storytelling. Lord Jim also offers the pleasures of big-budget cinema seriously handled and engaged with superior material, a rare combination.

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Conrad’s story was based upon a real person, James Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah of Sarawak”, who founded a ruling dynasty, with the patronage of the Sultan of Brunei, which governed part of Borneo from the early 1800s until after World War II. Whether the real Brooke ever had as much introspection as Jim is unknown, but Conrad’s fantasia on his theme presents Jim as a study in human potential and limitation. Brooks transmutes him into a figure at once titanic and pathetic, troubled by his own nature as he tries to sustain himself between cultures and harboring a complex identity based in a veiled background. The character of Jim was a fittingly abstract vehicle for Brooks to explore his own identity, just as Elmer Gantry had given him scope to explore his status as elevated flim-flam man. Brooks furthers the emblematic quality of Conrad’s narrative by excising many names, like a mixed-race woman (Daliah Lavi) Jim falls in love with, whose name is Jewel in the novel but here is merely “the Girl,” accompanying “the General,” the “French Officer,” and the polar temperaments of “Lord” Jim and “Gentleman” Brown, a faintly Kafkaesque reduction to type of each figure to render them universal.

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Brooks’ take opens with a clipper ship knifing the ocean with majestic grace, matched to Bronislau Kaper’s soaring score, providing the essence of a certain fantasy about an age of sailing and venturing. But this is a dream-vision, both evergreen and about to be dismantled. James “Jim” Burke (O’Toole) is introduced in retrospect by the narrator Marlow (Jack Hawkins), the old salt who also guided the reader into the Heart of Darkness, speaking here of his days training cadets, and the remarkable Jim who stood out as the most enticing and ambitious of his students. Jim’s fantasising cues mocking moments of his imagined rescue of Marlow from pirates, holding off a mob of scurvy villains with a Union Jack flowing behind him. This funny pastiche looks forward to the more intensive lampoons of British Imperial-era heroics in films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Royal Flash (1975). But Jim’s fate is to find what he wants only through the most agonising of trials.

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Serving as an officer on Marlow’s ship in a frustratingly workaday career, Jim breaks his leg and has to be put ashore in Java. Once recovered, he signs on with the first ship he can, a disgraceful rust-bucket called the Patna. The captain (Walter Gotell) is a burly, aggressive drunk; the engineer, Robinson (Jack MacGowran), a scruffy coward; and the ship is jammed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca like so many cattle. On a dark and foggy eve with a storm rolling in, the ship seems to hit an underwater object, and Jim, inspecting the damage, is so rattled by the situation that he imagines the slightly leaky hull is about to give way to sink them all. As the storm buffets the Patna and the crew launch a lifeboat to save themselves, Jim assures the pilgrim’s spokesman (Rafiq Anwar) that he won’t abandon them. Nonetheless, he gives in to the appeals of the crew and jumps ship with them, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. The crew hope the sea will erase their crime, but upon reaching a nearby port they find the Patna already in the harbour, having been found and taken in hand by a French officer (Christian Marquand). Whilst the others scurry off into hiding, Jim hands himself over for judgment.

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In a degrading public hearing, the French officer dubiously regards the moral certainties of the spokesman for traditional sailing virtues, Brierly (Andrew Keir), but this does not prevent Jim having his ticket cancelled and official disgrace hung about his shoulders. Jim buries himself for years as a common labourer about the Far East, still pursued by infamy as he learns of Brierly’s suicide, seemingly caused by the gnawing uncertainty about any man’s reliability and nerve. But fate gives Jim the second chance he wishes for, when, working in an unnamed South East Asian port, he saves a launch loaded with cargo, including a shipment of repeating rifles and gunpowder, from sabotage. The weapons have been imported by an aging trading company representative, Stein (Paul Lukas), for the citizens of Patusan, who are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited by tin mine owner, The General (Eli Wallach). Stein commissions Jim to take the weapons to Patusan for the day of resistance, and an encounter with Robinson, who needles him for money, inspires Jim to accept Stein’s offer. Stein’s plan is stalled when the steam launch he was counting on hiring becomes unavailable because its sleazy owner, Schomberg (Akim Tamaroff), has been bought off by The General. But Jim is now determined, and he and some coolies laboriously row and sail a boat upriver to Patusan. One of the coolies is an agent of The General (Ric Young), and he escapes to warn his boss. Jim manages to get the weapons into the hands of the Patusan rebels before being captured.

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Enter Wallach as a more intellectual, imperious version of his malicious Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven (1960): The General, equipped with great intelligence and a vividly strategic mind, is a strutting sadist who makes a show out of his ability to find men’s weak points and hurt them. He’s turned Stein’s trading agent in the area, Cornelius (Curd Jürgens), an alcoholic and craven failure, into a pet. Whereas The General is merely wary of Jim as an enemy, Cornelius develops a real hate for him, as a man of moral fibre and endurance. When Jim is delivered into his hands, The General tortures him to discover the hiding place of the weapons. In a scene laced with discomforting undercurrents, The General’s delight in his own psychological insight and desire to find the quickest way to the best result meets an equal and opposite force, in Jim’s distinctly masochistic hunger to redeem himself by way of intense suffering. This means that in spite of his talents in terror, The General finds himself only satisfying Jim’s desires. Only when he comprehends that Jim must only fear death does he know how to break him. The erotic dimension of all torture and especially between the two uncommon men is given a mediator when The General grabs the first girl on hand, one giving water to the captives of The General’s regime: he rips open her shirt and proffers her as a last sensual indulgence to Jim before his next round of questioning, a taunt to his sensual enjoyment of life before that life is extinguished. That Girl, however, is one of the rebel leaders, daughter of a local woman and another European interloper, and she helps Jim escape. Once free, Jim’s moulded officer’s mind gives him an edge in planning how to use Stein’s weapons gainst The General’s fortified compound, but his ever-threatening instability in the face of horror still lies in wait.

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The insurrection that follows is a superb, intricately detailed action sequence that pays off in a terrific feat of arms that provides Jim with his greatest repudiation of his past. The General tries to fend off the attack he knows is coming by shielding his men with captives, including Buddhist monks, cueing a scene of sacrifice and slaughter that sends Jim into another dissociative fit, whilst his fellows charge the enemy. A whirlwind of slaughter ensues, from The Girl hacking men to death with glowering fervour, to the monks beating at their captors with their chains. An attempt to knock out The General’s ammo dump with an antique cannon fails when the artillery cracks and explodes. But Jim conceives of a way to break open the fortress by filling dozens of spears with gunpowder and throwing them against the doors. Jim and Waris (Jûzô Itami), the son of local elder Du-Ramin (Tatsuo Saitô), work in concert, with Jim making a devil-may-care dash with a barrel of gunpowder on a wheelbarrow that blows up The General, the remnant of his men, and the ammo in a thunderous crescendo. Only Cornelius escapes, ironically through a secret passage The General intended to use himself, and, still desirous of the large amount of loot and treasure The General possessed, he contacts Schomberg, who puts him on to Gentleman Brown, another malignant Western profiteer.

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Brooks and his cinematographer Freddie Young paint Jim’s story in lush, incisive colours and tones and a wash of intricate mise-en-scène that stands with the best-looking films of the ’60s. The film shifts steadily from the wide open seas of Jim’s training days, flush with tones of sea blue and white, to earthy, organic tones that bring out the electric distress of O’Toole’s eyes, the jewelled perspiration on Wallach’s skin, the damp and filth of Jürgens’ jacket that signals Cornelius’ rotten soul, the smouldering, nocturnal mysticism of the Patusan temples, before reaching the expressionistic, intensely psychologised fog and dark, whittling reality down to the starkest human contentions, and haunting, smoky interiors, of his reckoning in Patusan with Brown. These stylised later scenes deliberately echo early scenes on the Patna, where the small world Jim appoints himself responsible for and then deserts is painted in deep contrasts and slivers of light and colour, as encroaching psychological terror gives way to erupting chaos as the storm rises and Jim disintegrates, clinging to the ship’s steering wheel like his personal crucifix and then giving in to the temptation to flee precisely because of the crushing terror of the lofty status for which he had longed. New Wave-inspired film tricks were just starting to infiltrate large-budget cinema at this time, and Brooks adapts them sparingly, in an opening montage that offers up a sprawl of human life, teeming and strange all at once, amongst whom Jim is to be sighted, and flash-cuts to the memories and associations that torture Jim. Jim’s intense torture sequence anticipates several variations on the same technique, intercutting The General searing Jim’s flesh with battling martial artists, the swirling music and vigorous action counterpointing and transmitting the impression of Jim’s livid agony.

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Jim’s status as a philosophical figure and exemplar of a powerful modern question emerges intact, a singular achievement for an adaptation so top-heavy with distractions and blockbuster elements. Conrad’s story seems predicated around questioning the simplistic assumptions behind the bravery in a story like A. E. W. Mason’s much-filmed The Four Feathers, where the hero exculpates his guilt over wimping out from battle by performing feats of bravery. Conrad dug into the issue of what such feats really meant for the state of the hero/coward’s soul and psyche, and moreover what they meant to the social ideals they served, an aspect that particularly interests Brooks. But Conrad’s story was a story of an enigmatic man through the eyes of other temperaments—closer to what Lean and Robert Bolt did with T. E. Lawrence—whereas Brooks places Jim’s perspective at the centre after Marlow’s narration concludes. Brooks’ heroes often tend to wrestle deeply with their own natures in the context of their immediate worlds. Jim’s great failure on the Patna for Brooks is not his fear, but his abandonment of his post, a failure both of his own heroic self-image but also of the only real element of that image, which was his duty of care to passengers. The French officer’s cautious replies to Brierly’s questions knock away old canards like going down with the ship, which the officer describes in return as a myth propagated by insurance companies to ensure a stricken vessel can’t be claimed as salvage.

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The true substance of the problem, which opens up chasms of existential angst, is whether men are equal to a role whose robust self-security must remain unquestioned, one of upright conduct and self-sacrificial worthiness: the entire presumption of Victorianism is called into question. Jim’s failure, as Brierly says with tinges of hysteria, casts doubt on every other professional sailor, a terrifying notion if one has accepted such things as god-given securities. Jim therefore hunts not only to restore his self-respect and worth, but to reprove the ethic he failed, without recourse to abstract principles but in himself, overcoming the worst lapses with acts of bravery only to realise how close in nature they are: “I’ve been a so-called coward and a so-called hero and there’s not the thickness of a sheet of paper between them.” Thrown into sharp relief by Jim’s romantic masochism are the degrees of quality and frailty others display: Jim’s heaviest burden is in his very human self-awareness, where others scarcely care, and therefore scarcely can be called human. The psychopathic General and Brown are spared such tortures because for them life is a bartering of force and ego, so they can’t be consumed by the id like Jim. When Cornelius asks Brown what Jim has done when Brown comprehends his guilt complex, Brown replies that it doesn’t matter what he’s done, only that it will operate like a button to be pushed to their own advantage. Cornelius seeks to destroy whatever is stronger than himself, or attach himself to it. When Jim asks The Girl if she would have had sex with him if he’d wanted it when The General “gave her” to him, and she replies yes, because it would’ve been necessary, an opposite extreme of subordination of self to a general cause that is beyond degradation, a sagacious note struck by a proto-revolutionary entering an age of upheaval.

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Lavi, an Israeli actress who first found success as a singer and actress in Europe, including a stint as a replacement for Barbara Steele in the eye of Mario Bava in The Body and the Whip (1963), had a brief moment of wider stardom in the mid-’60s, but this was certainly her most major role. Her strikingly vivid eyes and intensely sensual looks give her the aspect of an embodied fetish, and she inhabits her role here with poles of spiritual serenity and Amazonian fury. She is as defined by her place between cultures as Jim: when he asks her if she wants him to stay, she replies, no, “only because I do not wish to die crying like my mother,” whose “golden god” of a European lover went back home. It’s peculiar then that Jim’s eventual journey toward self-destruction is evidently happier for her than such an abandonment.

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Brown, when he arrives with Cornelius and Schomberg, forces another crisis for Jim, one that involves his new authority in Patusan. While trying to raid the treasure kept in a Buddhist temple in a heavy night fog, Brown kills a boy. The locals manage to drive off the raiders and capture their boat, and Brown, figuring he can manipulate Jim from what he knows of him, calls to parlay. Brown’s nickname is both accurate—he maintains the appearance of a dapper Londoner complete with bowler hat—and ironic, as he’s really a vicious pirate. Schomberg describes him: “This ‘Gentleman’ Captain Brown has given more business to Death than the bubonic plague. From Java to Fiji, he’s wanted for piracy, slavery, mutiny, rape, murder, and some things that aren’t even mentioned in the Bible.” He’s the incarnation and image of the evil underbelly of European colonialism, and his suppositions about Jim are correct, as he twists Jim’s conscientiousness and horror of bloodshed into a double-bind that forces Jim in spite of the entreaties of his friends and his own doubts to give Brown and company safe conduct.

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Mason’s late appearance in the film, although brief, is nonetheless superbly succinct, contrasting the epic, neurotic power of O’Toole’s performance with his own serpentine skill with words, as Brown easily turns the damaged man’s mind inside out. “Perhaps your justice is tempered by the colour of your skin,” one of the Patusan elders (Marne Maitland) says sharply. Whilst the elder’s statement fails to appreciate the specifics of Jim’s dilemma, it does potently summarise the contradictions of his larger position. Both Jim’s battles, with The General and Brown, are as much about intelligent men fighting with psychology as with guns, and for competitive ascendancy as much as worldly gain. Brooks’ attentiveness to the narrative form transforms Conrad’s saga into a kind of passion play, but one with Buddhist inflections: each phase of Jim’s life pits him against forces inner and outer that eventually prepare him for death as the consummation of his journey, and the wheel that is the constant refrain of his fears is revealed not as crucifix but as the wheel of life. Not for nothing does his final conquest of Brown, and his own defeat, converge in a Buddhist shrine, rendering coherent the flickering spirituality throughout the whole film. Brown, Cornelius, and others raiders sneak off under the cover of the fog after Jim has released them, and they attack and mortally injure Waris, who dies in Jim’s arms.

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Jim has already declared that his life is forfeit if one person dies for his decision. Jim exterminates Brown and company by discharging two of The General’s cannons, kept as prizes loaded with gold sovereigns in the temple, but Du-Ramin, grief-stricken by his son’s death, promises Stein that he’ll extract Jim’s life if he’s still in town in the morning. Just as his obedience to his moral compass forced him to deal with Brown, now Jim cannot leave, and in spite of Stein’s arguments (“There’s too much pride in your humility!”) he nonetheless presents himself for Du-Ramin’s judgment in the morning in his full uniform. The gunshot that ends Jim’s life segues into the pyre of rebirth that consumes him, Waris, and the rest of Browns victims. Jim’s end, whilst tragic on one level, is nonetheless heroic not merely in his sublimation to a creed, but also in the completion of his journey of reproving the individual in the face of awesome forces. As Stein sails away in salutary contemplation on a river transformed into a flow of dappled light, The Girl weeps not in pain but in joy.

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2010s, Drama, Portuguese cinema

Tabu (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Miguel Gomes

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By Roderick Heath

Tabu commences with a peculiar, droll vignette that refers to the days of Europe’s exploratory excursions into Africa. An adventurer in compulsory pith helmet treads forth into the wilds with native guides and porters, beating paths through the grass and leading columns through jungle and savannah as the image of the valiant penetrator of the unknown, armed with the nominal presence of the King, in the form of an empowering letter of proxy authority, as well as God, in his Bible. The explorer is, in spite of his noble mission, depressed and listless, driven on less by imperial ambition than by heartache. He’s pursued by the wraith, or fond hallucination, of his deceased wife, who blankly hovers over him when he rests and describes him as “poor and lost soul” when he decides to die if he can’t escape his heart’s pain. So the explorer walks into a river and is devoured by a crocodile, whilst his bearers dance in celebratory fashion; later, the legend of a ghostly woman with a crocodile at her feet haunting the region arises. This anecdote seems to have nothing to do with what follows except that it shares all its common themes: the troubled relationship between Europe and Africa, the sense of lovelorn melancholy, the immediacy of life and death and the strange way these phenomena commingle in the human soul, and the symbol of the crocodile, the glowering, toothy beast that becomes emblem for the latent animal passion in humankind, constantly at odds with its self-imposed attempts to cage it.

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Tabu’s second movement leaps to contemporary Portugal, a fatigued, dully modern place where life is literally compartmentalised, squared off in safe bubbles of vacuously comfortable  apartment living. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a 50ish woman who works with activist groups and occasionally provides lodgings for backpackers. She goes to the airport to meet a new lodger, a Polish girl named Maya who’s been travelling in South America. But a young traveller, who has a stilted conversation with Pilar in English, their common language, tells her that Maya decided to change her itinerary and hasn’t come. The young woman, of course, is actually Maya, a fact revealed with ruthless mirth as her companions shout her name to make her hurry up even as she’s still smiling politely at Pilar, who has decided to stick with younger friends. Pilar is devoutly religious and conscientious, taking refuge in providing solace and aid to others, but also excruciatingly lonely and frustrated. She sees movies and goes on adventures sometimes with a portly artist, who has a crush on her and makes an aborted attempt at a declaration of love, but Pilar secretly dislikes his abstract paintings and only hangs up the ones he’s given to her when he comes to her place.

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On New Year’s Eve, Pilar watches fireworks from her balcony and listens to the sounds of distant parties. She is friends with a neighbour in her apartment block, the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s looked after by a nurse, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), an African immigrant actually employed by Aurora’s absent daughter, a marine biologist working in Canada. Pilar rescues Aurora from a casino where she’s lost all her money, and not for the first time: in spite of a promise not to return to the casino, Aurora had ventured again because of a premonition she had in a dream. Aurora, at the outset retaining hints of charisma and autonomy, begins to spiral toward decrepitude and senility, accusing Santa of trying to impose voodoo curses on her. As Aurora worsens and is hospitalised, she rambles on about an escaped crocodile, imploring her companions to search for it in the houses of apparently imaginary neighbours, and makes a request to Pilar to find one of them, named Gian Luca Ventura. Pilar finds Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) in a nursing home and brings him to Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, when they have lunch in a shopping mall, Gian Luca begins to explain his and Aurora’s shared history.

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Tabu maintains a deceptively pokerfaced style, exacerbated in the second half as it shifts to historical drama rendered as a virtual silent movie, with only the older Ventura’s voiceover and the omnipresent trill of insects to disturb the passage of dumb-show theatrics. Under the film’s quiet surface is a synergistic flow of seemingly offhand ideas that coalesce into an ever-deepening, fascinating drama of time, not merely as a personal experience, but also a cultural one. Tabu seems to belong to a distinctive strand of Portuguese narrative art, recently exemplified by Raul Ruiz’s film of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon, in its preoccupation with exploring, rather than merely employing, history and storytelling as ambivalent zones of knowing and repositories of truth, sometimes imperceptibly and yet always vitally entwined with the present reality.

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Much of the beauty of the film’s first half comes from the exactness of writer-director Miguel Gomes’ feel for character types, and the film’s initial mood is defined by the omnipresent pall of frustration and solitude that afflicts the main characters, particularly Pilar, depicted in casual, but exacting detail as a study of an everyday tragic. Pilar inhabits a zone of ready empathy and pathos in her typicality, as an increasingly invisible middle-aged woman who exists on the fringe of many contemporary scenes without ever holding the centre. She’s brushed off at the start by a young person who wants to hang out with other young people. Her male friend/admirer is an entertaining companion who suppresses romantic affection for her, but he is nonetheless a problematic personality too different for her to respond to with immediate inclination. He falls asleep during a movie, leaving her mired in weeping solitude, and then later makes a clumsy overture of affection that he then quickly retreats from, leaving Pilar more confused than ever. Pilar’s selflessness is admired by all: even the recalcitrant Maya, whom Pilar later trudges past when she’s canoodling with a boyfriend, enthuses over Pilar’s generosity.

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Pilar’s saintly solicitude counters Santa’s nearly taciturn demeanour, as Santa bears the racist-tinted suspicion of the increasingly paranoid Aurora and the nosey concern of Pilar with businesslike cool, as she holds to the course dictated by the status of her job. Santa’s unease with language is depicted, as she’s learning Portuguese and bounding to the top of the class thanks, ironically, to reading that prototypical imperialist text Robinson Crusoe at bedtime. The racial tension and role awareness extant between Aurora and Santa introduces a theme that pays off as the film’s perspective shifts to the past, as Aurora’s ease at bossing around her black nurse like a maidservant hints at a past spent in lordly command. But the degree to which the worm has actually turned is apparent, as Santa enforces the regime imposed on Aurora by her absentee daughter to keep her on a tighter leash after her last casino venture, the former colonised now the coloniser, serving/imprisoning the waning remnant of a departed raj. Pilar, whilst dipping toes in activism, internationalism, and artistic bohemia, seems deeply and definably unhip as a steady pillar of stolid faith and square, unfashionable values. She replaces her would-be lover’s painting with a cosy landscape and prays each night before going to sleep in her lonely bed. Yet there’s something about Pilar that refuses reduction to a twee bystander in her own life, in part indicated by her selflessness and the regard others have for her and confirmed by the rapturous, luminously poetic prayer that she recites at bedtime. When Pilar attends a protest rally against the UN, she recites her prayer during a silence that baldly and hilariously contrasts the witless chant the crowd recites.

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This scene, rendered in one, slow zoom closing in on Pilar’s stoic visage, is brilliant, illuminating with enriching wryness the way humanitarianism has supplanted and become a religion for many, whilst perceiving how it offers stolid pieties and studied outrage in place of the rhapsodic power and poetic fullness still apparent in Pilar’s worldview. There’s a hint of irony here, as Gomes actively contends with the losses and gains of any historical moment, contrasting the smallness of much of modern life with the lost grandeur, poeticism, and romanticism of the past; but the past is rendered not necessarily as a lost golden age either. Similarly, present here is a hovering awareness of the way age reduces people from creatures of fecund sense to wearied circumspection, and the crossing point between the two can come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be regained. Aurora is the avatar for this notion, as the film examines her final weeks and then loops back to explore her past in an unexpected pirouette of focus and meaning. Like Aurora, Ventura proves to have been supplanted by a descendant. His house is occupied by a young spiv with key chain and sweatshirt, who theorises that his great-uncle now no longer occupies his house because “he went bonkers.” Pilar goes to the nursing home where the old man has been deposited, sitting in a waiting room whose sterile cul-de-sac quality is all the better communicated for being unexaggerated in its blank modern emptiness. When she extracts Ventura, she’s confronted with a snowy-haired gentleman who wears a weathered old hat that rests like a totem on his head, redolent of a fascinating past. After Aurora’s funeral, Pilar and Santa go to eat with Ventura in a shopping mall cafeteria, and Gomes’ drifting camera almost casually transforms the place, through the potted plants of the mall’s indoor garden, into an anticipatory simulacrum of jungle, the humdrum suddenly taking on a charge of the authentically exotic.

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Aurora’s and Ventura’s shared past, as he explains it, goes back to colonial Africa of the early 1960s, whereupon the second part of Tabu commences, shocking as it reaches a climax, even as certain aspects are inevitable. The person Aurora once was is now revealed in sometimes unflattering detail: a strident planter’s daughter who was world-famous as a hunter, a mischievous, imperious, and occasionally cruel personality under the surface of her cool beauty, redolent of a coddled upbringing. Gian Luca was a playboy who washed up in Africa after meeting Mario (Manuel Mesquita), an adventurous jack of all trades who had once trained to be a priest; after getting a job with a mining company, Gian Luca became a fixture in the colonial community. In this fashion, Gian Luca was eventually introduced to Aurora, who had recently been married to a pleasant young member (Ivo Müller) of the local pseudo-aristocracy. The real incident behind the older Aurora’s rambling about an escaped crocodile proves rooted in the crucial incident that brought her and Gian Luca together: the crocodile was a baby, a present given to her by her husband, and its occasional escapes usually saw it ending up in a pool at Gian Luca’s house, where their mutual attraction soon erupted in a clandestine affair. The affair flourished in spite of, and in fact partly fuelled by, her pregnancy by her husband and the oncoming plunge into the immobility of motherhood that rendered Aurora even more reactive than usual: when one of her family’s cooks, a reputed juju man, predicted the pregnancy and that Aurora would eventually die alone and bitter, she sacked him.

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Tabu, like many works of modern narrative art, is as much about its own telling as it is a story told, but the great final effect of Tabu is in how concisely it dovetails the impulses to both tell and make a show of the telling. The flow of Gian Luca’s speech is rarefied and yet riveting, reproducing the intended effect: the older Ventura’s soft-spoken narration underscores the action, rendered at once remote and ironic by the lack of dialogue, but unfolding with the curious grace and immediacy of personal anecdote. The film’s contrast between the humdrum realism of Pilar’s story and the historical romanticism and melodrama of Aurora’s could have become arch, but Gomes’ strict control and sense of humour are mediated through his stylistic choices. The change in film stock in the shift from contemporary to period setting evokes the past through a rougher prism, albeit one that is often more immediate, communicative of grittier, fleshier textures. The point underlying this is the notion that we in the present—any present—experience the past either through memory or through the remnant self-representation of the period—any period—and the effect of the artifice becomes ingrained with the meaning. An early scene in the Pilar half of the film, in which the artist first appears, depicts the duo as part of a tour group being shown through underground catacombs by a rambling guide who tells them theoretical details about the place—that maybe it was once used by Romans and Moors—but then reminds them that “what I’m telling you is stories, not facts,” provoking the artist to finally rebel and shout out, “Why do you keep talking such crap?” Pilar cracks up in hilarity, the only time she does so, and whilst the artist is himself hardly idealised, his comedic abuse evokes Gomes’ conviction that the past can only be reconceived and brought to life by the complex interplay of evidence and artistry. Gomes recreates the alien strangeness of early ethnographic documentaries in an early scene where the explorer’s porters begin to dance for the camera after the explorer commits suicide, recreating the gaze of the colonial project only to turn it back on itself.

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Tabu’s mastermind has made a film in part about colonialism, though with an infinitely lighter touch than the shrill overtones that subject usually invokes, and suggests the commencement of a cycle playing out its last gasps in depicting the death of the last generation of colonial survivors. The world glimpsed in Tabu’s second-half flashback is engaged in the early processes of epochal shift, as civil war and the end of the direct colonialist project in Africa is commencing. The flashy, internationalist world of modern pop culture is infiltrating even this backwater, as Mario’s band becomes a minor hit with a song prized today by music fans for its simple grittiness. An offhand, recurring detail confirms the wheels of time and the sinuous links of history, in a peppy Spanish-language version of “Be My Baby” to which Pilar listens on the radio at one point, and which later turns out to have been recorded by Mario’s band when working as a backing band for a female singer during a sojourn in Europe. Later, the intertwined nature of personal and social history is elucidated in a more alarming fashion, as a murder that punctuates the story, a purely personal affair, is repurposed in a declaration of war by rebel guerrillas, signalling the start of general bloodshed. Similarly, the firm moral grounding of the old world is giving way, as Gian Luca’s tale depicts a too-early grasp at sexual independence and Aurora is exposed as a peculiar by-product of colonialism in her deadly, strident independence, both proto-feminist victim of repressive social ideals and backdated remnant of a culture created by murderous self-interest and built around a sense of domain and overlordship.

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The film, it is eventually revealed, takes its name from a fabled mountain close to the plantations where most of the period drama unfolds. The mountain is considered sacrosanct by the native Africans and notoriously inimical to explorers, and one of the characters of the historical portion, Mario, had his life saved by the man who became Aurora’s husband when a disaster cost the lives of several of Mario’s friends at the mountain. Later, the more vivid and corrosive meaning of taboo rises to the surface as Aurora and Gian Luca’s adulterous passion cleaves apart the incestuously tight-knit colonial world and its careful balance of opposing forces based on studiously observed rules. The bond of fellowship between Mario, Gian Luca, and Aurora’s husband (who is never actually called by name; only his status counts in the fading memory of Gian Luca) is broken. At the same time that the bonds of colonial nicety are disintegrating, with revolution manifesting as whispers and tales of bloodshed, not yet manifesting and actually taking an act of intra-fraternal murder to give it a push towards fruition. So the arrival of systemic disintegration is, to all intents, the by-product of moral failure, a failure that is both illusory in empirical effect and yet linked by a web of circumstance, a network of cracks in the structure that conjoin.

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The contrasts in character are employed to a fascinating end: just as Aurora is revealed as someone as different to the repressed but conscientious goody-two-shoes Pilar as night to day, so, too, is Gian Luca, who in old age seems like a remnant of a swashbuckling era, finally and vividly contrasted by his pal Mario, whose lust for life, industry, bravery, and egotistical rectitude seem quite humiliatingly greater than his more superficially dashing pal. But Gian Luca’s character emerges in his hapless surrender to fate and judgement, and Mario’s postures of martyrdom are undercut early when the voiceover informs that Mario’s fondness for the company of natives resulted in a son whom he sometimes indulged by taking him for rides in his car along with a half-dozen more village progeny. Gomes’ final point is less moralistic, however, than biological and systemic: good, bad, moral, immoral, everybody dies. But the shape of the hole left by their absence describes oceans of meaning. As melancholic as Tabu’s themes are, Gomes retains a constant supply of dry, faintly absurdist humour percolating throughout much of the drama, the comic often indivisible from the tragic. This is apparent in the slumping shoulders and depressively staring, can’t-give-a-shit visage of the explorer in the first shot, the hoots of laughter Pilar releases when the artist upbraids the tour guide and the windy pathos of the artist’s proposal, and most particular in the élan of Mario and his band’s performances for their pool-party cliques. Shots of Gian Luca tearing about on motorcycle, chasing Marion in his car, depicts a celebration of a reckless youth in pure untrammelled, rule-free space reminiscent of African comedies like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), albeit with that lawless spirit lost in an irretrievable past.

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Gomes’ layers of storytelling engage finally with varieties of mythology. Aurora’s hunting prowess as a virgin, which deserts her not when she marries but when, having taken Gian Luca as a lover, she gives her pet crocodile a romantic name, hints at likeness to figures out mythology like Atalante and Brunhilde, again pointing toward the import of ritual and its partner, taboo, as a fabric that still ties together human relations. Conversely, Gian Luca’s mention of how her hunting had made her internationally famous harkens to an age of glossy magazine articles from the time when traipsing about Africa shooting animals (or saving them) made people quite famous indeed. The climax of Gian Luca’s narrative depicts murder, cover-up, and the loss of life’s fondest loves, fittingly melodramatic culminations that justify patience with the telling. What has been depicted in the first half proves to have been a logical, if no less tragic, end for Aurora, who paid long and bitterly for her transgressions. Gomes’ silent-film refrains pay off in the climax, as Gian Luca cowers in fear of the gun-wielding Aurora, and a point-of-view shot from behind his shielding hands allows a crack through which to watch Aurora as she fires the fun, an equally fatal, though not mortally so, glimpse of transgression. It’s the sort of visual epiphany that could have sprung out of silent cinema, and finally Gomes’ conceits coalesce into a singularly distilled moment made all the sharper by the antihero’s instinctive panic, uncertain as to whether he’s the target or the object of rescue. The light in Aurora’s eye seems hardly tethered to immediate reality, but rather to obey the hunter’s instinct. The narrative finally, acerbically notes, that after ending a man’s life, everything else in her life is an anticlimax. The inner sense of what we’ve seen, including Aurora’s alienation from her daughter, born on the floor of a grass shack and reclaimed by her father and undoubtedly left to be regarded forever thus as the icon of her own debasement, is left tragically illuminated. Few films have ever managed to twin the macrocosmic and the immediately personal with the grace and cleverness of Tabu.

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