1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean. Lean and Foreman eventually suffered a clash of vision of Foreman, and when he pulled out of the project Foreman suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony when it comes to the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, with a screenwriting Oscar eventually instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

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Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Omen (1976) / Damien: Omen II (1978) / The Final Conflict (1981)

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Directors: Richard Donner / Don Taylor / Graham Baker
Screenwriters: David Seltzer / Mike Hodges, Stanley Mann / Andrew Birkin

By Roderick Heath

The success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) inaugurated a brief moment when Horror films were not just big business but could potentially be classy, mass-audience fare. Rosemary’s Baby had woven quotidian anxieties over childbirth and coupling into a story that slowly unveiled the presence of genuine supernatural evil whilst skirting standard genre imagery and impulses for the most part. The Exorcist had become a huge hit for many reasons, on top of satisfying a basic hunger for raw showmanship and thrills. Perhaps the most vital factor was how it identified the degree to which religious anxiety had percolated during the sexual and social revolutions of the late 1960s. By the time The Exorcist came along, disaster movies had also become hugely popular, serving up another variety of realistic horror as Hollywood’s old-timers and young stars alike lined up to be endangered and often killed off in inventive ways. Producer Harvey Bernhard hit upon a project that allowed him to combine these two popular modes. A friend of Bernhard’s suggested the idea of the Biblically-predicted Antichrist being incarnated in a contemporary setting, and the excited producer hired screenwriter David Seltzer to give flesh to this notion.

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Bernhard aimed high and succeeded in hiring big-name actors not normally associated with the genre, in particular Gregory Peck, who was attracted by the element of psychological drama inherent in the story. The result became a colossal hit that Bernhard and Twentieth Century Fox soon sought to expand into a series, producing two sequels over the next few years that became one of the first real examples of something more familiar to moviegoers today, a coherent blockbuster trilogy. For a director, Bernhard bypassed established genre talents, looking instead for someone with experience in more intimate dramas with the ability to imbue a glossy texture, and one who would also be conveniently cheap. He settled on the little-known Richard Donner, a Bronx-born director who hadn’t made a feature film in five years, since the jailbait sex comedy Lola (1970). Donner was 45 when he was hired to make The Omen, hardly one of the young tyros setting ‘70s cinema alight at the time. Donner had debuted as a feature filmmaker with X-15 (1961), but had done most of his apprentice work on television, on everything from The Rifleman to Kojak, with perhaps his most notable effort being the infamous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone.

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The raw material of The Omen could surely have fuelled a hit at any time, but the resulting film’s potency is rooted deeply in the mid-‘70s sensibility. Not only did it successfully tap the same vein of religious angst as The Exorcist, but also connected with a broader zeitgeist, one fuelled by a general feeling of cultural crack-up in the face of events like the Energy Crisis and Watergate, and compelled by a general penchant for conspiracy theories and New Age jive. A time of Erich von Daniken and In Search Of…, the post-counterculture distrust of official narratives and a blend of paranoia and mystical assurance greeting any theory that a deeper truth lay behind any façade, that even human history itself might be an elaborate cover-up. Another aspect of The Omen’s unusual approach to the fantastical lay in the way it avoided the usual trappings of Horror films, taking on a glamorous milieu in dealing with a rarefied zone of worldly consequence and power, quite a distance from the often grimy realism inflecting the lower-budget genre movies of the time, and showing evil at work not with monsters but a blend of human conspiracy and otherworldly influence. Val Lewton’s series of horror films and some rare other examples like Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1961) had purveyed a certain level of ambiguity over manifestations of evil as possibly elaborate accidents and the like, but The Omen films made this aspect the essence of their formula. With the added twist that rather than trying to establish doubt, these tricks mesh together to form the irresistible impression of something perfectly wicked and insidiously purposeful at work.

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The Omen begins with American diplomat and wealthy scion Robert Thorn (Peck) trying to reach the hospital in Rome where his wife has just given birth to a son who died almost immediately. Robert is soon convinced by the hospital chaplain, a priest named Spiletto (Martin Benson), to adopt another baby born at the same time, one without any apparent family connections; even his wife doesn’t have to know about the substitution. Thorn agrees, and he and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) name the boy Damien. The family soon travels to Great Britain, where Robert is appointed ambassador, representative of his old college roommate who’s now the US President. An apparently idyllic childhood for Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) begins to destabilise at a showy fifth birthday party thrown for him, a great moment in diplomatic and plutocratic hoopla. Damien’s nanny (Holy Palance) seems to fall under the spell of a staring Rottweiler hovering in the bushes of the Thorn estate. Soon after, the nanny appears the roof of the house, and after shouting the salutation, “It’s all for you Damien!”, hangs herself in full view of the party. The nanny’s place is taken by the sweetly assuring but enigmatic Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who breezes into the Thorn house and quickly establishes a rule over Damien that perturbs his parents. An anxious, seemingly disturbed priest, Brennan (Patrick Troughton), sneaks into Robert’s office to spout warnings that Damien is the anointed Antichrist, and pleas for Robert to perform Communion.

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When Robert meets him again on the Thames bank, Brennan warns him that Katherine is pregnant and now in danger from her son. The priest is immediately killed when a bizarre windstorm rises and a lightning rod, dislodged from the church he dashes to in seeking sanctuary, impales him. Fulfilling Brennan’s warning, Katharine does prove to be pregnant and loses the baby after she suffers a spectacular fall caused by Damien. A freelance photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), approaches Robert to share bizarre evidence about Brennan’s obsession, including photos Jennings took that seem to depict supernatural forewarnings of Brennan and the nanny’s deaths, and perhaps his own. Robert travels to Italy with Jennings to investigate Damien’s birth, but they find the hospital burned down along with all records. After tracking down Spiletto, left badly mangled by the fire and repentantly clinging to existence in a lonely monastery in Subiaco, they head to a remote cemetery where Damien’s birth mother is supposedly buried. They find the skeleton of an animal, alongside a baby with its skull smashed in – Robert realises this is his true son’s remains, whilst animal skeleton conforms a prophecy the Antichrist would be born of a jackal. Robert and Jennings head on to Megiddo in Israel, obeying one of Brennan’s implorations, to see Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a former exorcist turned archaeologist. Bugenhagen presents Robert with seven antique daggers, part of set forged specifically to destroy the Devil’s spawn, and instructs him how to use them, and also on how to finally prove Damien is the Antichrist, by looking for a birthmark of the letters 666, the number of the beast, which might be under his hair.

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Donner and Seltzer’s talent in purveying a potentially absurd story is evinced right from the opening frames of the film: Donner immerses the audience in Robert’s fraught emotional state as he’s driven through the Roman night filled with anxiety and heartbreak as a phone conversation telling him his baby is dead loops in his head. The expert use of disjunctive sound and vision establishes Donner’s storytelling as sophisticated in a very (1976) modern manner, even as his story subsequently dives into a realm of atavistic terrors and ethereal faiths. After Katharine’s recovery from childbirth and a brief moment of panic when Damien vanishes from sight during a country walk, the Thorn way of life seems like perfect fodder for a glossy lifestyle magazine, a similarity Donner underlines as he depicts their life in a montage of still photos. He manages in this way to fend his way through a difficult narrative movement in getting from Damien’s birth to his fifth birthday, when the real drama starts, shocked into life by the nanny’s suicide, a shock illustrated in Remick’s wide blue eyes as Katharine cradles her son and stares aghast up at the dangling body.

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“We’re beautiful people aren’t we?” Katharine half-sarcastically asks her husband in bed as they contemplate the possibility something’s wrong in their life. Peck’s imposing stature and air of stiff-necked conviction made an ideal framework to hang such a movie off, with a strand of dark humour as well as aspirition lurking behind such casting, as the former Atticus Finch is pushed towards trying to stab a small child for the sake of sparing the world a great evil, degenerating from emblem of state to a sad, sick, murderous avenger: finally, when he narrates the same poem Brennan quoted to him recounting the rise of the Antichrist, Peck is back playing Ahab again, speaking incantations of bleak promise. Robert’s emotional crises fight to escape his long, rigid Yankee body, all the smouldering, blue-blooded authority encoded in his frame and mindset resenting being forced to such an end. The build-up to his ultimate failure evokes both the biblical task of Abraham moving to sacrifice Isaac and also the popular moral conundrum of whether you’d kill an infant Hitler. Although The Omen’s plot invokes cosmic-scale drama, Seltzer proved smart enough to focus it on a resolutely human scale, refracted through real-feeling parental anxieties as well as a mainline connection to a lode of paranoia that might be mental illness or pan-cultural.

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Katharine flails increasingly under the certainty not only that Damien is not her child but has malign intention towards her, and Robert becomes increasingly rueful of the choice he made seemingly to protect his wife and secure his family legacy. The Omen builds up the impression of Damien’s strangeness through happenings that could simply be reflections of the unexpected eccentricity and intractability of kids that so easily upturns all picture-perfect lives, as when Damien throws a screaming fit when his parents take to a church for a wedding. A visit to a safari park sees howling baboons crawl over the car. The storyline invokes maternal depression as Katharine becomes increasingly alienated from her son and mindful of Baylock’s influence, who breezes in as a cruel lampoon of Mary Poppins, installs the lurking Rottweiler as a guard dog, and who advocates for the child’s needs above the parents’ wishes, like a personification of ‘70s childrearing books. At the same time The Omen also presents a twist on an old folkloric metaphor for such a state of emotional alienation, the notion of the changeling, the creature that takes the place of a child and stakes a parasitical place in a family. The finale pivots on Robert’s awareness upon returning to his house that it now lies under an alien regime, like a newly divorced father contending with others controlling his child.

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Although it’s not gleefully gruesome as some other set-pieces in the film, the sequence of Katharine’s fall is the film’s greatest illustration of its cunning method, a seemingly very credible kind of domestic disaster touch with signs of genuine malice and numinous influence. Damien drives his tricycle around in his room whilst Katharine stands on a table trying to arrange a hanging plant, high on a second floor balcony. Damien, deep in that trancelike intensity of transportation kids can achieve in playing or possibly actually pushed along by Satanic will, with Baylock watching him with indulgent and opening the door so he ride out: Damien crashes into the table and knocks Katharine down. A fishbowl crashes to the floor far below and explodes. Katharine clings to the railing, unable to pull herself up, and falling to earth under her son’s staring regard. Donner’s direction here is a master-class in building a sequence, observing patiently as the circumstance is created in a way everyone can wince at because it’s so believable, whilst there are signs, as Baylock opens the door to let Damien out and Jerry Goldsmith’s chant-ridden, chugging music scoring betrays an unseen factor.

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More famous, however, and gleeful in purveying startling evidence of demonic influence masquerading as happenstance are Brennan’s and Jennings’ deaths. Brennan’s last moments invoke more traditional horror movie imagery, as powerful winds rip through trees and Brennan desperately seeks sanctuary, before the lightning rod plunges from its perch, flash edits alternating a high perspective on Brennan’s screaming face and his of the plunging rod. Jennings’ end comes when he resolves to pick up the seven daggers after Robert tosses them away in a fit of resistance. A truck laden with glass sheets for a building job rolls down a slope after its handbrake slips off, and one of the sheets slides off the tray in languorous slow motion, slicing Jennings’ head clean off. Less pyrotechnic but just as vividly staged is the graveyard venture, where Robert and Jennings uncover the troubling skeletons and fight off a team of savage watchdogs that suddenly try to lunch upon them, ripping teeth and jutting steel fixtures brutalising their bodies. Donner’s gift for intensifying a narrative is suggested in more off-hand scenes, too, as when Robert and Jennings press the gnarled and barely living Spiletto where to find Damien’s mother. The agonising process of him scribbling out the answer with a piece of charcoal is rendered even more unnerving and rhythmically intense as a bell starts to peal above their heads.

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Another vital aspect of the film lies in how Seltzer’s inventive plot uses the structure of a mystery thriller to pull the narrative along, as Robert and Jennings parse the increasingly suggestive evidence and contend with a lurking, almost existential threat. The act of parsing the signs and omens becomes, rather than medieval irrationality, a process of contemporary logic, whittling down alternatives until it’s plain what’s going on. By the end every cue in the film leaves no ambiguity that Damien really is the Antichrist when it might have been plied far more subtly with the possibility Robert’s psychotic. Which might be counted as a fault of the film but it also surely explains why it became such a big hit. The climactic scenes see the family house, initially seen as a great hunk of real estate porn, become the classic, labyrinthine old dark house, a place where Robert has to outwit the devil dog and battle a startlingly savage Baylock before snatching away Damien. But not before he’s penetrated the ultimate layer of the mystery by clipping away Damien’s hair until he finds the 666 mark. Robert stabs Baylock to death in a tussle and steals Damien away to the church, but pursuing police, thinking some kidnapping drama is unfolding, instead seem him perched over the boy with raised dagger and shoot him dead.

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Here Donner twists the knife with particular sadism as Damien speaks properly for the first time in the film, pleading with his “daddy”, and the cop’s bullet erupts from his gun in spectacular slow-motion. Dissolve to a funeral at Arlington as Robert and Katharine are interred and young Damien is now seen taken in hand by the President, turning to smile triumphantly at the camera. One of the great merciless endings in cinema, of course, but also one that invites the audience conspiratorially into Damien’s space at the end: all the evil is, after all, being purveyed specifically for our entertainment. As classy as The Omen affects to be, it’s really sheer blood and thunder, wielding the thrill of bloodshed with a hint of gamesmanship and design cleverness wrapped in an affection of high-minded metaphysical and familial distress. Part of the film’s effectiveness lies in its sense of branding – the gnarled and creepy 666 birthmark, the lovingly crafted Megiddo daggers. There’s mystique and evocation of grand historical backdrops in the scenes of Robert’s visit to Bugenhagen in Megiddo, the ancient catacombs yawning wide and echoing with the whispers of archaic lore. The strength of the supporting performances also do a lot to convince you this malarkey is conceivable, particularly Warner’s projection of cool anxiety, Troughton’s sweaty disquiet, McKern’s bristling presence, and Whitelaw’s marvellous incarnation of ferocious momma-bear force touched with fanatical lunacy.

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The Omen’s success made Donner a go-to arch-professional for muscular action films and stylish melodramas for the next thirty years. Donner quickly moved to make a kind of messianic sequel/antistrophe when he next took on Superman (1978), offering a hero who’s a perfect inversion of Damien, staving off disasters and misfortunes. For an actual sequel, however, neither Donner nor Seltzer would return. The Omen’s success and open ending begged one, however, and Bernhard began to think more expansively. After hiring Stanley Mann to write the script, he then brought Mike Hodges, the punchy, intelligent director of Get Carter (1972), on board; Hodges contributed to the screenplay and began making the film, but soon he was fired for moving too slowly, and instead Don Taylor was hired to finish it. Taylor was a decent filmmaker who had done yeoman service on Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), but one prized for productivity rather than invention. The sequel, Damien: Omen II, commences immediately after the original, with Bugenhagen dashing into Tel Aviv after reading of Robert Thorn’s death and seeing young Damien’s photo in a newspaper. Bugenhagen talks a colleague, Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry), into coming with him to see a recently unearthed mural in Megiddo called Yigael’s Wall, painted by a prophet and affecting to reveal the faces of the Antichrist in his maturation. The wall does indeed prove to have young Damien’s face as one of the visages, but the underground excavation complex collapses in upon itself and buries both men alive.

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Bugenhagen’s death right at the outset of the second entry was both a clever touch and also a bad one when it came to expanding a one-off hit into a series. The trilogy was left without a strong antagonist or connecting figure other than Damien himself, leaving a hole an actor of McKern’s skill and force might easily have filled. But it also served the purpose of re-establishing the original’s sense of threat, the lack of any assurance the Satanic project can be forestalled, and reiterating that any character can be killed. The cleverly exploited wellspring of the series’ anxious outlook was in identifying not simply the fear that scripture might be right and that a great contest of Good and Evil is in the offing, but in also suggesting that there might not actually be such a contest. That the Devil is uncontested now. That perhaps Jehovah has grown disgusted and uninterested in the fate of his wayward creation in the face of the rational, permissive, immoral modern human world, the infrastructure of which seems to stave off such metaphysical worries and yet which proves consistently throughout the series entirely amenable to Satan’s uses. The way holy talismans and places seem to offer little real defence against Satan’s power throughout constantly hints at this state of abandonment, and the ironic passion the various Satanic minions and then Damien himself wield stems from their state of utter religious conviction, conviction out of reach to anyone else.

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Moreover, Damien: Omen II is wise enough to expand on the original’s basis in family, with the extended Thorn clan coming into play as a rough assemblage. Seven years later: Damien, now 12 and played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, has been adopted by his father’s brother Richard (William Holden), who has a son the same age, Mark (Lucas Donat), who Damien regards as a brother, and a second wife, Ann (Lee Grant), who plays mother to both boys. Damien and Mark attend military school together, where Damien is solicitously treated by his new instructor, Sgt. Neff (Lance Henriksen). Richard is a powerful industrialist at the head of the Chicago-based Thorn Corporation: Richard and his long-time associate Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) are taken aback by the plans of hotshot young executive Paul Buher (Robert Foxworth) to buy up land in the third world and seize control of international food supplies to ensure hegemony that can counter OPEC. Meanwhile Richard’s elderly aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) urges him to split Damien and Mark up as she believes Damien’s a bad influence, despite lacking any real cause to think so. Shortly afterwards Marion is visited by a raven in her bedroom, and she drops dead from a heart attack.

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After convincing Richard not to go along with Buher’s plan, Atherton falls into a frozen lake whilst playing ice hockey with the Thorns, and drowns. Dr Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor), the head of Richard’s charitably financed Thorn Museum, works to retrieve Yigael’s Wall from Megiddo and bring it to Chicago. His journalist friend Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), who also knew Jennings, has seen the artefact as it was excavated, and she approaches Richard in a panic to warn him about Damien. Whilst the first film suggested that Damien was aware of his true nature, Damien: Omen II finds him oblivious, at first merely an occasionally smart-aleck but hardly terrible lad on the brink of manhood. The ideas that propel the film are notably similar to the thesis espoused in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, adapted for TV in the same year of 1976, in presenting a metaphor for the creation of a social monster via the active, purposeful elimination of characters who represent not just opponents in a hierarchical chain, but also alternative value systems, like Ayres’ conscientious old-fashioned businessman, aghast at a nascent age of dictatorial corporate cynicism, and other checks and balances of family and friends, charity, and faith. Damien’s callow overconfidence and agonised struggle in realising what he is amplify a familiar state of adolescent angst.

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The first film was fairly vague beyond the lot of the Thorns themselves and the trappings of ambassadorial power about the wider implications of the Antichrist’s rise, beyond muttered references to the European Common Market and the Eternal Sea that is “the world of politics.” Whereas Damien: Omen II tries to animate an intriguingly pointed contemplation of American Empire as fit soil for the Antichrist to grow from, from martial inculcation at the military school to increasingly amoral corporate governance. The film’s portrait of world-shaking evil spawned in the form of a relentlessly coddled son of privilege is one that’s taken on a shade more relevance in recent years. A less cluttered narrative might have made more of the way Damien’s ego is fed by minions like Neff and Buher, as he’s rewarded with such adolescent fantasy pleasures as captains of industry kowtowing to him and white-clad debutantes hanging on to his every word. Bill Butler’s excellent photography wraps proceedings up with a sense of high-life lushness in the snowy landscapes and autumnal leaves, the polished and glitzy worlds of the Thorn estate and the military school, as well as pulling off the staging coups when it gives to delivering the goods in the various scenes of contrived death and calamity.

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Where Donner was able to surprise with his death-spectacle trimmings, however, unnerving the audience as the mechanics of death could appear out of nowhere, Taylor is much more obvious, inspiring more a chortling anticipation of watching him set up grim demises than real menace. Still, there’s real visual force in some of the set-pieces, as when Joan is gruesomely attacked by the ominous raven, which pecks out her eyes and leaves her stranded on a highway to be run over by a truck, and when a doctor, Kane (Meshach Taylor), on the verge of discovering Damien’s inhuman physiognomy, is sliced in half by a cable connected to a plummeting elevator counterweight. The film’s best scenes however aren’t the episodes of violence but the very personal ones involving Damien, as when he contends with a teacher at the military school who finds he can’t trip the lad up on historical events, Damien retorting his answers with defiant cool. The highpoint of the film, and perhaps the series, comes when, following a breadcrumb trail of clues left by Neff, he discovers his birthmark. Divining its import, Damien dashes in anguished panic through the school ground before collapsing on a jetty, gazing up into a cloud-riven sky, and screams out the eternal demand, “Why me?” Damien quickly accepts his lot, however, because the promise of power is the ultimate salve and, as noted above, it blesses him with the potent weapon of self-belief. Later, when he’s driven to use his powers to kill Mark, he releases a great cry of despair and weeps over his brother in also mourning for the last of his abandoned humanity.

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As strong as these aspects of Damien: Omen II are, it doesn’t add up to nearly as much as it might have, because it struggles in lacking the original’s sense of foreboding and discovery whilst trying to retain its formula. The basic premise is solidly established and the film refuses to do much to complicate it. So it becomes too often a mere succession of elaborate set-pieces aimed at pleasing an audience there for the great kills, repeating the same process – some hapless individual gets in the road of the Satanic programme or threatens to uncover Damien’s identity – over until the requisite running time is reached. Meanwhile Holden is locked into a role that forces him to play out Peck’s arc from the last film again, with the twist at the end that this time the doting Jane, who makes a show of refusing to think ill of anyone, proves to be another Satanic minion. She stabs Richard in the stomach with the retrieved Megiddo daggers when he plans to use them on Damien. The film ends effectively if bluntly with Damien unleashing an exploding boiler in the Thorn Corporation headquarters to clear away all evidence including the luckless Jane, and he marches out of the burning Thorn Corporation building to take charge of his kingdom. The third and final entry, The Final Conflict (sometimes also called Omen III: The Final Conflict), came out three years later. This time Bernhard hired Graham Baker, who had only directed TV commercials previously, perhaps in the hope he might nab another Ridley Scott or Alan Parker, and he hired a young New Zealand actor, Sam Neill, to play the now-mature Damien.

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Set nearly twenty years after the previous film (although all films are set demonstrably “now”), Damien has become an immensely powerful plutocrat who’s plotting to spark war between east and west by blowing up the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and leaving conflicting evidence about who did, with the chance to step in and appear the humanitarian saviour. But his attention is distracted by the seemingly imminent rebirth of his ultimate nemesis, Jesus, whose return is heralded by three stars converging into an alignment in the night sky, recreating the Star of Bethlehem. Damien becomes convinced through interpreting Revelations that Jesus will be reborn in England, so he manipulates the current US President (Mason Adams) into assigning him his father’s old post of Ambassador to Britain, after the compulsory hovering Rottweiler mesmerises the current Ambassador into committing elaborate suicide. Meanwhile a team of monks at the Subiaco monastery have formed themselves into a band of assassins, led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi). Having recovered all the Megiddo daggers, the monks set out well-armed to protect the returning Jesus by slaying his foe. As Damien moves to battle them and kill the returned Messiah, he also falls into a pensive romance with BBC TV journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow).

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Although it was another big box office success, The Final Conflict has since its release been generally taken for a humiliatingly weak cap to the series, and a particularly worrying example of what can happen to an interesting property if it hasn’t been thought through by a strong creative hand. But it certainly wields some good ideas, chief amongst them a central sequence in which Damien assembles an army of his acolytes, called The Disciples of the Watch, to recreate Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, killing all the male children born in England in the appointed time for Jesus’s return. Damien addresses them in a meeting that evokes a twisted recontextualisation of artwork depicting Christians performing masses in the Roman catacombs. There’s also one charged and memorable moment in which Damien, having survived an assassination attempt by the monks during a fox hunt, performs the ritual of “blooding” Kate’s son Peter (Barnaby Holm) by wiping the blood of the prize on his cheeks, only with the blood being that of one of his felled enemies, bringing Peter under his influence. Primal rite plays out in the blasted beauty of the English countryside laced with a discomforting note of seduction. There’s also an interesting notion in Damien’s desire to influence all youth, after also wrangling himself the post of UN Ambassador for Youth, setting himself up as a cultish hero for rambunctious youths who might all share, as he once did, a thirst for such ego gratification and exaltation.

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Moreover, The Final Conflict could be regarded as an analogue, Horror genre precursor to The Social Network (2010) in portraying a lonely and neurotic young billionaire who responds by developing delusions of grandeur whilst simultaneously grasping greedily on his few human contacts and also using them cruelly. Damien hovers around his country mansion, barking taunts at the Jesus icon he keeps hanging about his attic, extolling the beauty of “perfect solitude” as a worthy riposte to a saviour he accuses of doing “nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality” when “there is only one hell, the leaden monotony of human existence.” There’s a great idea here, as Damien tries to convert his own alienated emotional state into a religious paradigm. Damien begins to suspect his loyal lieutenant and executive Harvey Pleydell Dean (Don Gordon) is lying to him over the time of his child’s birth and eventually uses his canine harbinger to mesmerise Harvey’s wife Barbara (Leueen Willoughby) into slaying both her child and husband. When he seduces Kate, he turns from tender lover to brute in bed, buggering her and leaving her bruised and bedraggled (he’s the son of Satan, so of course he’s also a sodomite).

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There’s a hint of the familial psychodrama dynamic of the first two film sustained as Kate realises her son has become Damien’s slavish follower, and the Deans are destroyed by Harvey’s attempt to profit from managing Damien’s malign mission only to run off in horror when he learns he might have to make his own sacrifice. The trouble is, The Final Conflict desperately lacks any of the sense of urgency and wild, obscene revelry that seems inherent in such an ambitious story motif, nor any Biblical-scale spectacle in watching Christ and Antichrist do battle. The film rather plays out on a level that’s so stodgy and unpassionately earthbound it might as well be a rejected episode of a TV soap. Granted, it would never be an easy thing to try and film an apocalyptic drama or sell it to a Horror audience, who, much like the characters in the film, find it much easier to believe in the Devil than in God. And to be fair, The Final Conflict tries to sustain the core substance of the series as a perverted bildungsroman, locating the adult Damien as a man both obsessed with justifying himself and operating from a position of crushing solitude, and playing out his apotheosis and downfall on a worldly scale. But where the film might have been rich, weird, and clever in the attempt, The Final Conflict just slouches along. Given that special effects showmanship was starting to creep into Horror and Fantasy filmmaking around this time, it feels particularly frustrating that The Final Conflict nails itself down to such a glum palette.

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Baker has none of Donner or even Taylor’s sense of composing suspense sequences, with some supposedly thrilling episodes, like when three of the priests try to corner Damien in a ruined castle, and the scene of the Dean family’s nasty end, proving particularly clumsy and enervating. Rather than seeing righteous ministers finally stepping up to the task of battling the Antichrist, the priests are ludicrously incompetent and clumsy mob who all get themselves pathetically killed. Hiring Neill and Harrow, who were a couple at the time, to anchor the film suggests a level of bravery on the filmmakers’ part, the feeling that now the series didn’t need big names to attract viewers – Brazzi is the only old-time star on hand, and he’s given very little to do. But the film desperately lacks a compelling focal point. Neill looks the part but his Damien is dull and shrill, desperately lacking wicked charisma. There’s not even a note of amour fou and romantic apocalypse in his relationship with Kate, who finishes up wielding the last of the Megiddo daggers after DeCarlo manages to maintain his team’s terrible batting average by trying to knife Damien but killing Peter accidentally instead.

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Kate stabs Damien in the back vengefully just as he manages to track down the reborn Christ to his hiding place in an old monastery and is confronted before death by the brilliantly shining cosmic manifestation of the Holy Spirit hovering over the infant – Disco Jesus to the rescue. The Final Conflict is generally so flaccid and uninspired that it feels almost unfair to consider it with the first two films, except for two elements: the excellent, atmospheric photography by Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and, once again, Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. Astonishingly, Goldsmith won his only Oscar for The Omen, particularly its main theme with Latin lyrics and dramatic choral singing of inverted paeans to Satan’s son. Goldsmith remained with the series, turning each film in a grandiose study in what great music can do with mediocre cinema. At the end of The Final Conflict, Goldsmith’s invocation of resurgent divinity is every bit as impressive as his portrait of depthless evil, and succeeds in doing what weak filmmaking can’t, in conjuring a sense of truly epic spiritual horizons opening as the series concludes.

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