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Star Wars (1977)

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aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)

Director: George Lucas
Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.

That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.

The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which evinces in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as it completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.

The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he framed it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, something designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference as Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts around its story, which is a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into the middle of a story already in motion not only nodded to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.

This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.

At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like his Musketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation  but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.

Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.

The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.

Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.

It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.

Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.

Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.

Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.

But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.

Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.

The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.

The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.

Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.

When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.

Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.

This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.

Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.

The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.

This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.

The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.

After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.

At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.

Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.

Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.

The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth,  the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.

Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.

On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.

The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.

Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.

But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.

Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.

The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.

This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.

No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience itself.

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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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1980s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Predator (1987)

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Director: John McTiernan
Screenwriters: Jim Thomas, John Thomas

By Roderick Heath

The great days of 1980s genre filmmaking produced a clutch of classics that are today readily recalled totems of shared meaning for a couple of generations of movie fans. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s string of action flicks from the decade, kicked off by Conan the Barbarian (1982) and extended by The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Predator, and The Running Man (1987), retain a cherished lustre for fairly good reason. Although probably the most limited actor ever to become an A-list movie star, Schwarzenegger’s presence seemed to galvanise a film style in the way Fred Astaire signified the maturation of the musical in the 1930s or Charlton Heston embodied the epic in the 1960s. Films had action before Schwarzenegger, but they weren’t action films; that genre was born anew in the 1980s, rising like Venus from a sea of cocaine excess, Nautilus-machine-made muscle, and Hollywood’s new predilection for producing B-movie fare with blockbuster budgets. Predator upon first release scarcely earned a second glance from critics and whilst it did great box office, it was on video that it really came into its own. Like many of its beloved generational fellows, Predator was perfect product for the burgeoning age of home viewing, when movie fans could at last latch onto a movie that perfectly suited their sensibility, shove it in the VCR, and get the same high again and again.

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Those halcyon days eventually met their climax and wane, like any great imperial moment. Schwarzenegger and Predator director John McTiernan would reunite for Last Action Hero (1993), an attempt at self-reflexive satire and high-concept ingenuity that would prove a mammoth bomb, signalling the end of an era, leaving filmgoers defenceless before Michael Bay and superhero movies. Whilst Schwarzenegger eventually turned his hand to politics McTiernan, who seemed for a time like the essence of a stylish Hollywood hit maker with his chitinous visual textures and gift for propulsive pacing extended on Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), would falter and decline before meeting legal disgrace. When he made Predator, McTiernan was just another young gun, coming off his little-seen but stylish and eerie supernatural thriller Nomads (1985). Predator’s script, written by brother screenwriters Jim and John Thomas and polished by David Peoples, conjured a classic brand of star vehicle by mashing together successful recent hits into a chimera that became in itself a new design classic to be filched, fusing together aspects of Schwarzenegger’s previous hits with a little of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) thrown in.

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But Predator also had deeper roots. The storyline’s basic motif inverting the role of hunter and prey stands as a sci-fi take on Richard Connell’s legendary short story The Most Dangerous Game, first filmed in 1932 as a precursor to King Kong (1933) by producing team Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper and directed by Irving Pichel. The narrative form however more clearly recalls John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), an essential work of early sound-era adventure filmmaking that, whilst set in the desert and depicting a French Foreign Legion squad’s slow decimation by Berber assassins, similarly turned the shadowy threat into a virtually existential enemy and left a solitary, stalwart hero to outwit his foes. The opening shots, featuring swaggering military hardware and bulbous ultra-masculine bodies filmed against blazing sunsets, push the idealising high-style tendency of recent movies like Top Gun or To Live and Die in LA (both 1986) to a comical extreme, and for a purpose. McTiernan lumps the official paraphernalia of the evolving ‘80s aesthetic into one place and then sets about demolishing it. To watch Predator these days is to be struck by all the over-achievers in the cast: two future state governors and two notable directors emerged from the carnage.

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Schwarzenegger plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, head of a Special Forces unit who specialise in rescue missions, also including Blain Cooper (Jesse Ventura), Mac Eliot (Bill Duke), Jorge ‘Poncho’ Ramírez (Richard Chaves), Billy Sole (Sonny Landham), and Rick Hawkins (Shane Black). One of Dutch’s former comrades in arms, George Dillon (Carl Weathers), now works for the CIA, and he and Maj-Gen. Phillips (R. G. Armstrong) want Dutch to take his men into the jungle, crossing the border of an unnamed country, to extract a cabinet member whose helicopter crashed there and now might be threatened by contras. Dillon joins the team, who are flown into the rough vicinity of their target, but find the lost chopper wrecked and empty. Pushing on into the jungle, they soon come across an incredibly strange and appalling find: three skinned and eviscerated bodies hanging from a tree. Dutch finds dog tags and realises that one of them was a soldier he knew named Hopper, but Dillon denies any knowledge of this unit’s deployment. When the unit comes across a contra base, they attack and wipe out the enemy soldiers, taking only one captive, a female, Anna Gonsalves (Elpidia Carrillo). Dutch realises Dillon used him to wipe out the command of an intended invasion of a neighbouring country with a ruse. Dutch is furious, but the unit resolves to get the hell out of dodge before any reckonings. They soon realise something far stranger and more terrifying than any guerrilla fighter is tracking them, and it begins killing them one by one.

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McTiernan had some claim to being, amongst the relatively small gallery of notable Hollywood directors to debut in the 1980s, the filmmaker best equipped to carry the mantle of rigorous, muscular shot-for-shot style inherited from the likes of Ford, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and all their breed. Indeed, his career’s decline can be tethered to his increasing fondness for a more gimmicky, less visually fluid photography and editing style evinced in the likes of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and The 13th Warrior (1999), as his action became maddeningly hard to track, presaging the cubist aesthetics of Bay and his ilk. McTiernan made initially striking use of zoom lenses to create shots with perspective collapsed to increasingly disorientating degrees, rendering his films flat and pictorial in a glassy and glistening fashion. Predator went one up on The Terminator where the hulking enemy’s viewpoint was a red-drenched field: here the mysterious enemy’s peering vantage comes in fluorescent shades via an infrared camera. Both films owed a little something in this interest in an alien visual syntax to Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), a movie which has never quite gotten its due for deploying many aspects of pop movies future, also including the unstoppable and remorseless killer and deadly cyborg disseminated through the horror and sci-fi films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

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Predator might be regarded as the squarer companion piece to Paul Verhoeven’s more overtly satirical RoboCop of the same year, with its excoriating portrait of corporatism and urgent theme of loss of identity demanding self-reclamation from social brainwashing. By comparison Predator ultimately might seem to affirm a chauvinist creed after testing and teasing it, and its political sideswipes reflect a confusion of impulses. Initial visions of sleazy Latino cadres beating and shooting prisoners fit perfectly into a Reaganite vision of what political and military conflict in South America looked like, ready to be cleaned up by this idealised set of emissaries for America, fuck yeah. Yet this is accompanied by a condemnation of covert operative skulduggery reflecting the last, lingering hangover of ‘70s cynicism, a mood that also affirms the conviction the little guy will always get screwed by the Man even as he tries to clean up his messes. Stephen Hopkins’ hilariously hyperbolic sequel, Predator 2 (1990), would greatly inflate the satirical aspect in a manner closer to RoboCop, encompassing a vision of a near-future America cast entirely in the mould of an ‘80s thriller and dominated by trash-TV aesthetics.

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And yet Predator essentially pulls off the same joke of self-deconstruction as Last Action Hero would make a big show of doing, but in a far better-contoured and more efficient vein. The first act sets up the essentials of a classic war-adventure movie and a James Bond-influenced brand of action filmmaking, one in which the omnicompetent heroes are in such control of their derring-do they can toss smart-assed quips at their enemies in the midst of combat, taking the sting out of the post-Peckinpah realism in the violence as squibs erupt on the bodies of the decimated soldiers. Thus the first third of Predator is a wry parade of knowingly bombastic moments from its cast full of brawny protagonists, particularly Ventura, with his immortal announcement that “I ain’t got time to bleed.” The early scenes set up the dynamic as one of macho contest: Schaffer and Dillon meet an immediately engage in an arm-wrestling bout, biceps bulging under a patina of perspiration, cocaine buzz lighting up the stars’ eyes. The celebration of inflated masculine bodies kicked off by Sylvester Stallone, Schwarzenegger’s rival and Weathers’ costar in the Rocky films, had become essential to the action movie. Here the biggest source of cruel mirth is the sight of all these variously pumped bods displayed and fetishized only to then be outdone by a bigger, badder bod, who then sets about slicing these human fleshbags into constituent parts. Superman (1978), one of the progenitors of the ‘80s action movie style, had come at a point when the superhero’s body was pointedly resistant to all the forces of slaughter and decay celebrated in the grittier climes of ‘70s thrillers and horror movies. Predator found a more immediate way than the Alien films to infiltrate and subvert the action movie in this manner.

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Predator also shows off its generic roots with pleasure, the core unit a set of types who’d be at home in a World War II movie – a survey of ethnic exemplars and styles of swagger. They run the gamut from classic he-man redneck Blain with his love of chewing tobacco (“This’ll make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaur, just like me!”) to nerdy Hawkins, who digs comic books and keeps bombing with his pussy-related humour, and Billy, whose native American canniness makes him specially aware of the lurking danger hovering in the trees. The tensions noted between the members are purely supernal, fading away entirely in combat, and the men of different races and creeds and humour styles all function perfectly when faced with a proper enemy: Blain and Mac, who would be instinctive enemies on a normal cultural level, are instead fused at the hip as warriors. Of course, Hawkins is the first member of the team to get iced, a blurry figure lunging out of the bush as he tries to catch an escaping Anna, leaving her sprayed with Hawkins’ blood. McTiernan casually pulls off virtuosic feats of camerawork, like an endless-feeling crane shot rising up through the jungle canopy as the team tramp on, to eventually locate Hawkins’ naked and bloodied corpse dangling from high branches.

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The fraternity of soldiers is of course stressed throughout Predator. The nobility of these dedicated warriors, this thin camouflaged line of defence, who, tellingly, only perform missions of swashbuckling mercy now, is never questioned. Only Dillon has fallen from the true faith because of his choice to move on to a more political vantage. It’s an elaborate version of the belief amongst many that Vietnam was lost because of excessive obedience of political niceties. Mac and Blain have both been fighting together since ‘Nam and their camaraderie is so traumatically broken when Blain is killed that Mac flips out, muttering monologues at the moon and planning bloody vengeance upon their mysterious assassin. Anna warns them of the folklore of the local villages, speaking of the “demon who makes trophies of men” that visits in particularly hot years. What exactly is that demon? McTiernan’s already given the game away in that regard in a pre-credits vignette strongly reminiscent of that in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), depicting a spaceship flashing out of the void and passing by Earth, one small craft peeling away from it and heading down to the ball of blue. The Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) is glimpsed in tantalising snatches – a pair of glowing eyes in the midst of a green jungle setting, the sight of reptilian hands operating sophisticated medical equipment, the speeding blue flashes of its energy weapon and phosphorescent glow of its blood, all evoking the presence of something alien, ferocious, extremely intelligent, and worst of all, as indifferent to other life forms as humans themselves.

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It’s odd to think now that Predator was made a mere 13 years after the end of the Vietnam War, less time than the War on Terror has been unfolding. Today, concerns of the post 9/11 age echo through a vast swathe of popular entertainments, but for a long time, understandably, Hollywood was more set on re-fighting Vietnam. It’s there in embryonic form in the despair of Jaws (1975) in the incapacity of technology to defeat primal fear and an enemy in its home turf, and in the scrappy outsiders versus the great technological empire of Star Wars (1977). But it bloomed properly with Aliens and Predator, tales of hapless warriors confronting their own impotence before an enemy that understands environment better and obeys a simpler impulse driving their defence of it. Predator outdoes Cameron’s film at least on the level of transmuting the imprint of that conflict on the modern American military mindset into a rough-hewn but entirely coherent little myth and then pointing the way forward to a new attitude.

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The popular perception of the war is played out: firepower-packing Yanks arrive, clean up the regular fighters easily, but find themselves up against a foe that can hide and plays a game they’re crucially ill-equipped to deal with psychologically as well as in method.
Blain carries a version of the Gatling gun, a weapon that carries historical associations dating back to the Civil War, and also connects again to ‘Nam where was mounted on a plane dubbed Puff the Magic Dragon, used to devastating effect. And yet, like Hopper’s crew before them, who stand in for the lost patrols of ‘Nam, Dutch’s team finish wasting vast amounts of ammunition and muzzle velocity firing blind into the trees, hoping to hit something, fighting their own magic dragon. The team make an increasingly desperate trek to try and reach safe ground where Phillips’ helicopters can extract them, an extraction that has to wait because of the potential political furore that would explode if any US choppers were downed on the wrong side of the border. Hawkins’ death is followed quickly by Blain’s, felled by even bigger firepower, sparking the maddened wastage of ammo from his fellows. Trying to secure a position for the night, the team set traps that are deliberately triggered by the Predator with the ruse of driving a colossal wild pig through them, a beast Mac slays in the dark believing it’s his mortal foe, whilst the alien snatches away Blain’s body to use in its trophy-making habits.

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Part of Predator’s punch lies in its indifference to the pretences of its heroes, who mostly die in various postures of surprise. Mac’s purpose of revenge, which might in another narrative have posited him as the natural hero, sees him merely and casually killed whilst making an attempt to sneak up on his opponent. Dillon dies more spectacularly, going out on his feet with such a display of manly fortitude as he tries to gun down his opponent with one severed arm that he redeems himself, but really gives his opponent barely more trouble. Billy’s decision to strip off his fatigues and weaponry and meet the monster with machete in hand points in the right direction, but his choice of stand-up courage is just as quickly fatal. The film even subverts the basic appeal of Schwarzenegger as a movie star, to a great extent: his evocation of the human body at its strongest and most perfect – not for nothing had he made his film debut playing Hercules – is still dwarfed and outmatched on a sheer pound-for-pound level. The team slowly glean the nature of their enemy and start to adopt the right tactics, but one effort to entrap the alien only gets Poncho badly injured, and he’s later killed by a bolt from the Predator’s weapon as Dutch and Anna try to carry him out. Dutch sends Anna on to meet the rendezvous (okay, here we go…three…two…one…“Get to da choppa!”) whilst distracting the Predator. Dutch only escapes the fiend’s clutches because he falls over a waterfall and then propitiously discovers the chief weakness in his opponent: mud clinging to his body retards the Predator’s heat-sensitive vision, a discovery that allows Dutch to invert the terms of the struggle. The Predator’s strengths, its capacity to detect the abnormal, its feel for a natural landscape, are finally turned against it.

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The Predator’s alienness is conceived and mediated in terms of devices of technological augmentation. His lysergic-hued point-of-view was achieved by radically employed new filmmaking tech whilst his habits of recording and looping back fragments of the human conversations he hears, render him an insidiously witty alien mixmaster. He is, at first, a stand-in for the audience as a fetishist enjoying the sounds and textures of the humans in all their homosocial habits as well as fascinated by their strange physiognomy, a strangeness conveyed to the audience through the transforming prism of his infrared sight. He also stands in for the filmmakers, trying to understand individuals as collectives of information, little catchphrases and earworms, accents and modes of expression, the things that make them distinctive but also knit them into a unit, a species. By the end the Predator has learnt enough human expressivity to laugh with mocking pleasure at the expectation even in death he can defeat his enemy. The Predator itself was subject to changes in look and concept during the shooting, shifting from a faintly biomechanical creation emphasising agility over bulk (played initially by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but soon revised into a hulking humanoid with crocodilian skin, spiky tendrils on its head that resemble a Rastafarian hairdo, and a crablike face sporting mandibles. McTiernan could get away with this shift because of his smart appropriation of Jaws’ policy of slowly revealing the monster, which depends on its sophisticated camouflaging, its ability to see prey who cannot see it in turn.

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Dutch’s disarming of the Predator in this regard stirs the Predator’s own pride, inspiring it to strip off its weaponry and armour and meet Dutch on exactly the same level of pure physical force and guile. McTiernan’s immediate follow-ups, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, would both revolve around conflicts defined by arts of eluding and utilising landscape, but which eventually devolve eventually into traditional tests of strength between personally offended and challenged antagonists. The latter film would prove Hollywood’s half-accidental farewell to the Cold War with its eventual détente of technological advancement: when everyone can hide, no-one can, something Dutch and the Predator have already discovered. Dutch’s adoption of bushcraft offers an answer to the Vietnam problem, as Schaffer strips off all technological pretence and remakes himself as a guerrilla warrior, armed with tool gleaned from the environment he must disappear into. But the greatness of Predator is that it finally goes much deeper than such recent psychic horizons. By the time Schaffer announces his resurgence to his foe in a rite of fire and a howl of prehistoric violence, we’re back in the dimmest recesses of the human imagination, struggling for survival in some post-Ice Age landscape against the deadliest beast in the forest.

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The first two-thirds of Predator are in this regard mere curtain-raiser, a programmatic disposal of various trappings to get at this basic fantastical perfection, a situation of which Jung could only approve and stuff his face with popcorn. Predator wouldn’t be the movie it is without two invaluable behind-the-camera contributions, from DP Don McAlpine, whose crystal-clear images render all these absurd events hyper-real, and composer Alan Silvestri’s career-best work. The film’s high-point where McTiernan, McAlpine, and Silvestri’s work comes together in perfect unison isn’t the climactic fight between man and monster, but the montage sequence of Dutch preparing for that battle, a succession of shots that depict the ritualised stripping away of modernity, even identity, as Dutch remakes himself as primal warrior, with weapons and disguises won out of the jungle, the only way to take on his sophisticated enemy, representing the species. Predator is one of those movies which remains palpable as a pillar of today’s blockbuster ideal, and yet this sequence, the essence of the movie’s awesomeness, is also the sort of moment that’s all too often missing from its progeny, present only to beef up the film’s rhythmic intensity, to create a mood of epic largesse and titanic events looming.

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The finale sees hero and dragon pound on each-other, Schwarzenegger’s ponderous bulk reduced to an impressionistic blur in the Predator’s vision spitting out blood under the blows of his fists, the alien’s blood providing a tell-tale trail: ways of seeing are ways of battle. Dutch’s final outwitting of the Predator comes after underestimating his enemy’s cunning but improvising enough to still win in dropping the counterweight for a trap on its head. The mutual incomprehension and awe of the two species – “What the hell are you?” – is not the gateway for understanding but instead a cue to take things to a higher, nihilistic level of gratification. The Predator enacts a hawkish nightmare of taking the nuclear option to avenge itself, a dishonourable yet cruelly apt reductio ad absurdum of the duel. This feels like a variation on the climactic joke of one of the most cunning yet innocent-looking satires on Cold War exigencies, Chuck Jones’ Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952): this planet ain’t big enough for the both of us, buster. Dutch however manages to run far and fast enough to escape, and looms out of the smoke to be picked up by Phillips and Anna, enshrined as the iconic survivor, the man who emerges from the wastes. The last shot revises the concluding image of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) from a hymn of haunted failure to one of boding triumph. It’s very easy to see the pieces that make up the film in this way. But the final beauty of Predator is one it shares with any accomplished work of fantasy: much as its title monster discovers in dissecting its human prey, the essence of it remains impossible to reduce.

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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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1970s, 2000s, War

Apocalypse Now (1979; Redux, 2000)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic.

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Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. The recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.

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The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.” 

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Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation. Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream.

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The film’s weird and uniquely expressive texture, verging on the oneiric, gains inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.

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Apocalypse Now proved at once the apotheosis of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong, and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic.

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Coppola’s s triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked and spiralling in Promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.

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For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open when combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.

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Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal. Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat.

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But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.

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The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod.

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For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos. The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show.

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The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.

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Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration.

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The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can be waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”

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Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft  that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.

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The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ethereal eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.

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Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.

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Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.

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In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.”

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Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and receives wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.

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