Was Shirley MacLaine literally the best thing about every single movie she was ever in?
And, if so, is she the only person in the history of movies who can make that claim?
War and Peace (1956)
D. King Vidor
It’s impossible, of course. Novels far less great and complex than War and Peace have tended to school anyone who dared to film them in the vicissitudes of economic and critical failure. Especially with a finely wrought Russian-language version available from the Soviet era (1966 to be exact) having been brought in at twice the length with what amounted to an unlimited budget, what’s to be expected of a Hollywood-financed version filmed in Italy a decade earlier with a bewildering array of international stars not even bothering to attempt Russian accents?
Well, whatever we had a right to expect, a great deal was delivered.
Not the novel, mind you. Even the six-hour Soviet version couldn’t do that. But taken on its own, King Vidor’s effort is more than impressive. After years of enjoying it–and accepting that the miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre is not subject to rectification by time-travel and a word in the producer’s ear–I’ve even begun to lean towards it having more than a little greatness in its bones.
Vidor was a pro’s pro–one of a mere handful of important American directors from the silent era still going strong in 1956. Having made every kind of film (and as entertainment no less), he was well suited to making one where every kind of drama–romantic, familial, political, martial, diplomatic, religious–must be sustained in order for the thing to work at all. Now that I’ve reached the point where I can quit worrying about why and how someone as quintessentially ill-suited to play a big bear of an emotionally tormented Russian as Henry Fonda was chosen for the lead, I can fully enjoy the precision with which Vidor directed each of the film’s dizzying variety of modes, and the grace with which he, keeping close concert with the source no matter how much had to be elided, wove it all together.
I can also appreciate how right most of the remaining cast is. That Dutch-Anglo Audrey Hepburn would make as great an English-speaking Natasha as we’ll have, or draw a relatively relaxed performance out of her then-husband, Cuban-American Mel Ferrer, is no surprise. But she’s not a patch on Sweden’s Anita Ekberg (as Pierre’s supremely haughty first wife, Helene), Italy’s Vittorio Gassman (as Helene’s snake-in-the-grass brother and Natasha’s seducer, Anatol), Austria’s Helmut Dantine (as Dolokhov, an especially strong reminder that cads often make the best soldiers when there’s a real enemy to fight), England’s Wilfred Lawson (unbeatable as the aging Prince Bolkonsky), Austria’s Oscar Homolka (as General Kutuzov, Russia’s military savior) or the Czech Republic’s Herbert Lom (a definitive Napoleon).
With all that going on, Vidor needed some thread to hold his (or, if you like, Tolstoy’s) story together.
It took me a long time to notice that the thread was religiosity, which grows from ritual to faith as the story develops…and Napoleon’s army advances.
Given how closely I usually attend such themes, I credit Vidor (and Tolstoy) for integrating it so thoroughly and naturally, for making it not merely a theme, but part of the film’s air.
It’s what give Natasha’s betrayal of Prince Andrei the quality of sin, without which it’s merely a spoiled tryst….
It’s what gives Pierre’s protection of her the quality of a knight’s honor…
which would otherwise seem ridiculous in any setting as modern as even the Napoleonic era…
It’s what lies, unspoken, at the heart of key reversals in the lives–and spirits–of characters as diametrically opposed as Pierre and Dolokhov, on their twinned-journeys from this….
It’s what holds Kutuzov upright as he’s driven remorselessly backwards by Napoleon’s onslaught…
knowing he’ll be rewarded by Faith in the end…
and, unlike any other film I’ve seen where Napoleon Bonaparte plays a key role, it establishes what he lacked…
…which was belief in something higher than himself.
It’s also what allows a viewer to grasp in shorthand what Tolstoy was at such famously long-winded pains to articulate as “the Russian soul.”
And, in true cinematic fashion, it’s done mostly by showing, not telling. Such long speeches as there are boil down to Pierre and Andrei playing philosophes….
…aping the intellectual airs of the French who are coming to destroy them, rousing themselves to gut-level emotional commitment only when Moscow stands ready to be consumed by fire (in scenes, I might add, that are as impressive and harrowing as Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta, to which there are an essay’s worth of literary, cinematic and historical parallels)….
The rest of the time, Vidor allows the haunted, glorious imagery of Orthodoxy to suffuse scene-after-scene so that, by the time it’s foregrounded, it seems to have sprung more from Nature’s design than man’s. An icon peeking from the side of a frame, a quick sign of the cross as a medallion is handed over or as Pierre, the skeptic, enters a rare church service, set a tone which allows the great Act of Faith–the abandonment of Moscow “the holy city”–to seem less miraculous than dutiful. In a word, the film accomplishes, through its use of music, painting (not to mention painter-inspired cinematography), sculpture and iconography, what few explicitly “religious” films have ever done, which is demonstrate the power of cohesive Faith. Russia’s class-bound society–portrayed with a concise, gimlet eye in the film’s early scenes–responds to the invader as one because the abstract nature of God allows what only belief in God can: real humility for those previously favored by Nature or Fortune…
and real dignity for those punished by same. ..
Of course, it helps that Vidor knew his way around a battle field…
…as this movie, which offers so many other things, also gets the shock of war–so carefully planned one minute, so arbitrarily executed the next–as right as any film ever has.
Listening to the pounding of the French drums at Borodino, you can understand why a man with God-like ambitions would define himself by war’s fleeting glory….and feel his loss when the God he sought to replace turns his back and casts him down…
…only to be reminded that he’s earned his fall by the destruction he’s wrought…
…a fate worth pondering as the modern beast, whispering W-W-three-e-e–e, continues to slouch, quite literally, towards Bethlehem, and stupid people seeking no more than a medal and a bigger office, dream once more of war with the Russkies and convince themselves that this time–this time!–it will be different.
As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.
June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)
Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.
June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.
June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)
Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.
June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)
Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?
June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)
Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.
June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)
For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.
June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)
For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.
June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.
June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.
June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)
What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.
…Til next time!
Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard
I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.
If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.
I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE, HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”
Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).
Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.
Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.
As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.
All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.
It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?
I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.
As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.
Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.
So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.
She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.
Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?
I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.
Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler
There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.
Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.
The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:
Have found Gigi. Come at once.
Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.
When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.
In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.
Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.
Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:
“Maybe she lisps or something.”
Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.
A star was born.
Except not quite.
Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.
He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.
A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.
It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.
He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.
Thus….a star was born.
I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.
TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.
I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.
The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.
Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.
Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.
If VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.
I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.
I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.
I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.
Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.
And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.
* * * *
For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.
I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.
Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.
Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?
Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.
That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.
This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.
I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.
Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.
More of everything please. That will sustain us!
Sure it will.
I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kramer, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.
Looking back, I’m not surprised I was, er, “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.
Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks
(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)
Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).
Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.
Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.
Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.
Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.
It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.
But please don’t radiate it.
Which brings us to this:
That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.
It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.
Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.
Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:
Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?
It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.
Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.
But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.
Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).
Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.
It’s not a surprise, though.
Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.
Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.
Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.
I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.
I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.
I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.
And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.
As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):
(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)
December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)
Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.
December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.
December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)
For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?
December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)
Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.
December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)
To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.
December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)
Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.
December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.
December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)
For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.
December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.
December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)
Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!” once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.
Happy New Year!
I’m happy to be participating in the latest blogathon from Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Please click on the link to visit their places and read as many entries as you can over the next few days. It’s always fun and enlightening!
The subject is “Things I Learned at the Movies.”
For me, this is a short list. The only people who ever taught me anything “at the movies” are John Ford and Janet Munro.
John Ford’s a book, or maybe a library.
Janet Munro is…well, something that can’t be found in books.
She’s my first movie love.
You learn a lot from your first movie love. Whether or not it ever connects to anything or anyone you encounter in the “real” world (hereafter, Realworld), it’s likely to leave a mark that never quite washes off.
When, exactly, Janet Munro put that mark on me is murky now. Looking up things on the internet, I see that her breakout film, Disney’s 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, was re-released in time to scare the bejesus out of eight-year-old me in 1969. Sorry, but even if I’d been of an age for a first movie crush, it wouldn’t have survived the Banshee and the Death Coach. What I remember about the first time I saw Janet Munro was it was the last time I slept with my parents.
Later that same year, Swiss Family Robinson, which premiered December 10, 1960, two days after I was born (be sure to keep up with the serendipity here, there’s more than a bit), was also re-released, and my nine-year-old self saw it some time in 1970.
The second time I saw Janet Munro, what I remembered was the pirates.
Hard to say. My memory says the film was released again in about 1972 and I swear I once saw documentation to that effect. If so, the information seems to have disappeared down every memory hole but mine. That being the case, I’ll trust mine and swear I was eleven or twelve–that the eagerness with which I attended that second re-release not once but twice (unheard of in my youth as my parents were not big on either going to the movies or sending me with someone else, though they never objected if someone wanted to take me to a Disney movie) is not only fondly, but accurately, recalled–and a whole lot more interested in girls than I was at eight or nine.
All of which makes me now wonder how I really felt when my about-to-be first movie crush showed up…as a boy.
In the hands of pirates, of course. Dreamland pirates–everything in Swiss Family Robinson is from Dreamland–but scary enough to mark the memory.
Whenever I started crushing on her, it probably wasn’t just here. I can’t even say, at this distance, if I knew she was going to turn into a girl. I can’t say if I knew it when I was nine and I can’t say if I remembered it at twelve. Maybe I was fooled the first time. Maybe I forgot the second time. Maybe both. Maybe neither.
In any case, I doubt I was much concerned. At nine and twelve, there’s such a thing as being caught up in the story and the spectacle. When Swiss Family Robinson came around, I was that.
Having rarely gone to movies in theaters, a condition that would continue until I could drive to them myself, those I did see tended to make a larger-than-life impression, even in the crummy little second-run strip mall venues where most of my limited movie-going experience played out. Swiss Family Robinson made the biggest impression of all. It was the only movie I saw three times. It was the only movie I saw that was perfect in every way and stayed perfect in memory.
And then, that last time around–and the real reason I took, or badgered for, the rare opportunity to go on back-to-back weekends–was because, by then, I knew that, somewhere along the way,Janet Munro turned into a girl. The girl, as it happened.
From this (where I must have been catching on, assuming, you know, I didn’t already “know” or remember)…
…and this (and surely by now)…
…to this (which I’m not even sure would have done the trick, except that my first movie crush was an excellent actress, and, well, it was a plot point, what they call a “reveal” even in Dreamland)…
….and this (the part where my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, and his surly older brother, James MacArthur, aka Fritz, turned into gentlemen….at least until they started fighting over her)…
…and, finally, this…
…at which point my reaction, there in the cheap seats and the precious dark, was probably something along the lines of this….
…a reaction I would, as it turned out, have only twice in the “real” world, neither of which ever had a chance to lead anywhere, and which, I realized much later on, when the miracle of home video allowed me to revisit SFR, conditioned all my other movie crushes, too.
I never had cause to regret my Fate. If somebody had to be the first one who left me no choice but to surrender, I couldn’t have asked for better. Whenever it was that I realized “Bertie” was really “Roberta,” I thereafter made no distinctions. After the big change hit me, she was always Janet Munro to me, in this and every other movie I ever saw her in (including the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and her other great Disney movies, Darby O’Gill and The Third Man on the Mountain, where that lucky little so-and-so, James MacArthur, wasn’t quite so surly but just as damn lucky). At least she was Janet Munro whenever she wasn’t “the girl in Swiss Family Robinson.” That was a phrase that brought a smile and a nod to every male my age back in the days when I–never having seen either The Godfather or Walking Tall, the two movies everybody else named as their favorite in the early and mid-seventies whenever the “what’s your favorite movie” conversation started–would admit Swiss Family Robinson was it for me.
In the now forgotten days before it was memory-swamped by Star Wars that was an answer that always changed the conversation around, as in, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one!” More often than not, the other kid would change his pick. A horse’s head in the bed was cool and all and Buford Pusser taking a baseball bat to somebody’e head even cooler….but they weren’t pirates, and they sure weren’t Janet Munro.
Well, Star Wars did come, God love it, and I still think of it as that admittedly fun movie made by some guy who has never proved he watched any movie except SFR from beginning to end, because there’s no other movie where he’s filched every single element–though the cinnabuns he put on Janet Munro’s doppelganger, Carrie Fisher, were all his own idea–even if he no longer admits SFR director Ken Annakin’s name was the source of Anakin Skywalker, the only character who appeared in all six of the SW franchise movies Lucas was directly involved in. (I don’t hold it against him. Just shows he had good taste. But honestly he should come clean.)
It didn’t matter that, in Dreamland, where everything should go right, she preferred my doppelganger’s older brother to him…and, by extension, to me. That extension still leaves a bit of a mark on me during every one of the not-infrequent occasions when I renew my acquaintance with the movie via the still-applicable technological miracle of home video. But in the end even that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, aka “the one who didn’t get the girl,” turned out to be gay in Realworld and that he was left with a hellishly hard road to hoe as a result (about as hellish as you’d expect if that central fact complicated the transition every Disney kid, including Janet Munro, who wasn’t really a kid, found so difficult to make in even the best of circumstances).
It doesn’t matter that she was part of a grand tradition, invisible to me at the time, of the tomboy forced to live by her wits, which Disney had revived and/or invented with Glynis Johns surviving Henry VIII’s court in Annakin’s The Sword and the Rose and finalized by first turning Hayley Mills into the All-American Girl (she, like Munro and most of the other girls-next-door America has ever taken to its heart, was a child of show-biz…an English girl is fine, just so she’s a trouper) and then sending her all around the world.
It doesn’t matter that the tradition died with Disney (Walt, that is, not, alas, the corporation) and it doesn’t matter that Janet Munro (already in her mid-twenties when SFR was made) grew up.
It doesn’t mater that one Sean Connery has confessed that, on the set of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (also his breakout movie), she was the only actor who ever intimidated him, by virtue of being the daughter of Alec Munro, a Scottish Music Hall legend. Something along the lines of, if he didn’t measure up in the singing scene, he could never go home again.
None of that has ever mattered.
It probably does matter that she was who she was.
Scottish even if she was born in England (the way I was Scottish even if I was born in America–serendipity perhaps).
It certainly mattered that all that roughhouse show-biz training left her, in Annakin’s accounting, game for anything. That stuff shows and, at nine and twelve, a girl who can ride and shoot and climb trees and mountains is a catch no matter what other qualities she does or does not possess. And Janet Munro hardly lacked for those “other” qualities, which make a subliminal impression even a nine and a not-so-subliminal impression soon thereafter.
I don’t know if it matters that, on the set of SFR, when she was giving a performance in which no single element has ever broken down under dozens of viewings, she was severely depressed and already hitting the bottle that would help kill her–two days before my birthday–in the year I fell in love with her.
Serendipity can be as depressing as anything else in this world.
It’s only from this distance that I see how unlikely she was–that one twenty-six-year-old actress could convincingly play a fourteen-year-old-boy…
…and a sixteen-year-old girl you wouldn’t mind hiring for a babysitter…or taking home to mother…
..even if, one, two, three, she was capable of sparking, spurring and manipulating a romantic rivalry…
..without ceasing to be a down-and-dirty action heroine…
…her own stunt-woman…
…or, as the reaction-shot glue in the greatest action sequence ever filmed (yes, Lucas lifted it from a jungle to a space-ship’s garbage bin…and, great as that was, he came short), the all-time Damsel in Distress…
…in a sequence that otherwise involved Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur (again doing most of their own stunt-work) in a fight with a twenty-foot anaconda that I pray I live to see on a big screen once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
All that and, down at the very end, she had to let my doppelganger down. First hard (sometimes there’s no other way)…one, two, three
..then, because the heart wants what it wants, even, or especially, in Dreamland, harder…one, two, three…
…without letting Realworld girls forget they still wanted to be her, or Realworld boys–even those who saw themselves more in Ernst than Fritz–forget they still wanted to be with her, or Realworld parents, in that faraway land of 1960, which now may as well be 1690, forget they wanted their girls and boys to be like or with some version of her.
With or without the associations of a first crush, Swiss Family Robinson still has a Dreamland glow about it, which, for better or worse, modernity cannot disturb. Those involved felt it. Ken Annakin, the man who formed the bridge between Golden Age swashbuckler masters like Michael Curtiz and the best work of his own acolytes, Lucas and Steven Speilberg (none of whom were better than he was–with action movies, there’s no such thing as better than Ken Annakin), was exceptionally and justifably proud of it. Tommy Kirk, who survived hell and, with last year’s untimely passing of Kevin Corcoran, is now also the last surviving main cast member, has said it’s the movie he’d like to be remembered for and that he’s the most proud of.
Until James MacArthur’s death, they exchanged Christmas cards every year and signed them “Fritz” and “Ernst.”
On the great documentary and commentary track where I learned a lot of this, (they attend the special two-disc DVD that Disney put out a few years back–accept no substitutes), everyone seemed to have fond but not very specific memories of Janet Munro. In his autobiography, Annakin recalled her fondly as “the complete trouper, ready to try anything.” By way of proof he mentioned the only two occasions she complained.
The first was after he hung her off the side of an Alp in The Third Man on the Mountain (which I should mention here is the greatest mountain-climbing movie ever made…a lot of what Annakin did is the greatest, even if few remember or acknowledge it now). When she was finally hauled up, she said, “You might have padded the harness. I think I’ve lost both my boobs.”
The second was after she took a fall from a galloping zebra in SFR. She walked past him and said: “I don’t know why I do all these crazy things for you!”
That was the full litany of her complaints on two of history’s most grueling action shoots, on which there was next to no stunt-doubling and, of course, no CGI.
Scottish Music Hall was apparently a hard training ground.
I wish she and Annakin had been able to do more together. I bet that would matter.
More than that, I wish she had lived a longer and happier life, long enough, perhaps, to realize, as the other Disney kids did, that their best films are worth remembering and derive most of their iconic power and joy from the performances given by the best of them, among whom not even Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills rank higher than her.
Sad as the passing of any person is at the age of 38, it is infinitely sadder when it was your first movie crush and she died in the year you fell in love with her and you are left with a forever-just-out-of-reach feeling–or perhaps illusion–that only someone with whom you were truly simpatico could have affected you so, here in the real world.
The Longest Day (Daryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wiki, Andrew Marton, 1962)
Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)
“Tich ‘as ‘ed it! Fook me!” His face was purple, running sweat. “That shows ye w’at air strikes an’ tanks is woorth! Fookin’ ‘ell!”
“Will we go in again?”
“We’ll fookin’ have to!”
(George MacDonald Fraser, recounting a conversation with his Border Regiment’s old hand, Grandarse, during the Battle of Meiktila, fought between the British and the Japanese in Burma, 1945. From Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)
I hope to be reviewing Fraser’s book soon. That will give me an excuse to look up his quote about the value of “special forces.” For now, suffice it to say Fraser and his mate were hardly alone in their disdain. Infantrymen who have served in combat tend to have a jaundiced view of the things which most impress their betters.
That’s because, from the dawn of warfare until yesterday, war only had a very limited set of real meanings.
Take the ground.
Hold the ground you’ve taken.
Don’t give up the ground somebody else is trying to take.
Until yesterday, war’s hard rules–and history’s–were well and universally understood.
If you lose, expect to bear the consequences.
When the men with the hardware meet the men with the belief, the men with the belief will end up owning the hardware.
These meanings, and yes, one might call them rules, were best and most clearly understood by those who were asked to do the hardest, dirtiest work–and the overwhelming majority of the killing and dying.
They were called various things in various languages at various times and places. All of which boiled down to a simple concept: Foot soldiers.
Important battles–or portions thereof–have been fought throughout history on horseback, at sea, in the air.
Every existential battle has come down to foot soldiers. You can win an important, history changing battle at sea (see the English defeat of the Spanish Armada for a prime example). But to take and hold ground–the final essence of war–you have to put boots on it. And those boots have to stay put.
The English could have lost to the Spanish Armada (or at Trafalgar, more than two hundred years later, or the Battle of Britain, fought in the air over a century after that) and still not lost.
You only really lose, existentially, when your foot soldiers lose.
Now, this foot-soldiers-holding-or-taking-ground seems like an inherently dramatic situation, the telling of which would lend itself most readily to film, the most visceral story-telling medium. And so it does. That being the case, there are surprisingly few movies devoted to straightforward depictions of foot soldiers doing their dirtiest work.
A lot of movies have battle scenes, and these battle scenes are often riveting. They frequently form some important role in a larger story. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), ostensibly about the same subject as The Longest Day, has a memorably harrowing opening sequence devoted to taking the Normandy beaches. After which, in typical fashion, it spends an additional two hours being about something else, namely saving Private Ryan. Such sequences are highlighted in almost any film that concerns itself with war.
But I only know a relative handful of such films where the clash of foot soldiers is the primary focus.
Of those, I only know three really good ones.
I don’t think any of them reach the last level of greatness–no one’s going to mistake them for Citizen Kane or The Searchers or even Paths of Glory (another film where foot soldiers figure prominently but the actual fighting is not quite the point). But they’re the best we have, in the English language anyway. And they have lessons within them that we have spent the last half-century forgetting.
We have convinced ourselves that no powerful army will ever again be in striking distance of our own national capital…or the capital of any valuable ally. We have convinced ourselves that we will never again have to throw the full weight of our own mighty army onto the outer edges of a foreign continent and fight for every inch of ground just to get a foothold. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the defense of an empire’s lonely outposts (and God knows we have more of those than any empire which has preceded us) will never come down to hard fighting against overwhelming odds.
We have convinced ourselves that any victory worth having can be won by special forces and air strikes and, at a stretch, tanks.
We have entered a safe zone where none of this….
or certainly this…
will again be necessary.
These are now ancient anachronisms. Not useful to our enlightened age, never mind that our age and our “enlightenment” were built upon ten thousand years worth of such.
And it’s true that even the most improbable victories do not necessarily bear final fruit.
More or less faithfully depicted in Zulu, the stand a hundred and fifty British regulars made at Rorke’s Drift in present day South Africa, on January 22-23 of 1879, against four thousand Zulus whose fellow tribesman had wiped out a command ten times larger at Islandlwana literally hours before, kept the earlier battle from being counted a disaster on the order of Custer’s Last Stand, fought with similar odds to those faced at Rorke’s Drift, three years earlier, half way around the world. It greatly enhanced the British army’s ability to quickly and efficiently mount a re-invasion of the Zulu Kingdom (the attacks on Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were a response to the first invasion). And it gave the Brits a stirring mythology (the best “myths” are always the ones based in hard truth) that may well have served to stiffen more than a spine or two in the dark days awaiting in the century ahead.
Still, in the long run, the victory at Rorke’s Drift meant no more strategically than the defeat at Little Big Horn. We’re still in charge of the lands where the Sioux and Cheyenne once roamed. The Brits are long gone from South Africa.
Which ought to give us a clue about our tendency to continually poke hornets’ nests and be forever surprised when we are stung and stung and stung again.
In case that doesn’t happen–in case we insist on both fighting “wars” and not winning them–there are other lessons to be learned from the films that give us the most realistic glimpse of what the dirtiest work of not just empire, but civilization, looks and feels like.
One of the lessons is civilization’s fragility–the nearness of Chaos and its attendant darkness. Cast aside Rorke’s Drift, with its junior commanders (played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), the senior of the two an engineer, who had seen no action previously and would never again distinguish themselves in battle or anywhere else, if you want to.
But we’ll do well to ponder Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg) holding the far flank at Little Round Top after having been told that retreat was not an option, or a crippled Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda in The Longest Day), landing on the wrong Normandy beach and deciding “We’ll start the war from here.”
They and their men, and thousands of others doing equally dangerous and difficult things around them, turned tides that might well have swept over western civilization had they given way. And none of those men sprang from a vacuum. Certainly none sprang from the kind of vacuum we have created for ourselves now, when military units are valued, if at all, more for their all-well-and-good-if-they-work social laboratory aspects than their ability to do the elementary things every single empire before us has forgotten at its peril when the weight of battle turned their laboratories back into yet another real war zone, where chariots or tanks or social experiments were never enough by themselves.
What elementary things?
Once more with feeling….
Take and hold ground. Whatever ground Fate and the moment have deemed vital to personal, national, civilizational, survival.
Believe that the effort was worth something.
There’s always the chance that the hard and fast rules of human history and human nature really were made for others.
But if I could lay odds on the future I won’t live to see, I know which way I’d bet.
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
(Note: I got a request to review this, which is not exactly a chore, but as it didn’t fit any existing category, I decided to create a new one. No idea how often I’ll update it, but it could grow into something. Not everything is a western or a noir, after all, no matter how hard some folks insist on having it otherwise.)
I’ve now seen His Girl Friday six times.
That’s three more times than I’ve listened to Never Mind the Bollocks and seventeen times fewer than I’ve seen Rio Bravo (yes, I keep count–on the movies no matter what, and on the albums if it doesn’t go over three). I only mention this to place it on a scale: I like screwball comedies better than punk rock and not as much as westerns.
I’ll let you figure out what that says about me.
One thing I’ve figured out for myself, though, is that the twenty-something me did not predict the fifty-something me.
At twenty-something, I didn’t have much awareness of directors, let alone auteurs. If such awareness had existed, Howard Hawks almost certainly would have been my favorite.
At twenty-something, dreams tend to occupy the lion’s share of a romantic sensibility and, at twenty-something, it’s hard to accept–even if you can imagine it–that those dreams will one day be memories.
Mostly memories of what might have been.
Unless, of course, the dreams come true (fat chance), or you don’t quite grow up (I had my doubts but, curse or blessing, it happened to me).
Which is all a way of saying that the part of me that once wholeheartedly embraced Hawks’s happily-ever-after world view generally and His Girl Friday specifically, now has a tendency to hold him at arm’s length, His Girl Friday–which, with the possible exception of To Have and Have Not, I once embraced most wholeheartedly of all—not excepted.
Oh, it’ s still great fun. As pure fun goes, I can’t imagine greater. I’m sure I’ll watch it several more times before my dreaming ends–in any case, way more times than I’ll listen to the Sex Pistols. I’ll always keep it in a special box, well-lit and carefully tended, in part because it’s such a perfect distillation of a cultural confidence and cohesion the loss of which I so regularly mourn here.
I mean, who doesn’t want to be (or be with) Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading memories and wisecracks and secret nods and winks at the expense of the rubes and charlatans who are forever running amok in this world? Who doesn’t want to believe that our perfectly idealized selves aren’t capable of rising to any challenge, whether it’s coming up with the next zinger in the fastest-talking movie ever made or running rings around corrupt politicos or saving an innocent man from the gallows even if–maybe especially if–he’s a consummate rube himself?
And who doesn’t want to believe that the elements of a world that made such a movie possible still exist somewhere, waiting to be drawn forth at any moment even if, in our heart of hearts, we know there is nobody left who could imagine anything remotely similar, let alone write, produce, direct or act in it? I mean, it’s a testimony to just how great His Girl Friday is that it makes it possible to wonder if the war and famine that were loose in the world when it was made might actually be worth enduring again if we could just get the dream life it depicts so beautifully back to stay.
Would that there were still room for fairy tales.
Of course, none of this makes me immune. Hawks’s Rio Bravo–take it from somebody who’s done serious research for western fiction–is not a whit more susceptible to anything approaching “realism.” And, yes, I have seen it twenty-three times.
That’s probably because it’s at least grounded by a streak of melancholy.
You don’t find much of that in Hawks’s work prior to the late fifties. (You could measure the psychic distance between Hawks and his perpetually melancholy friend, John Ford, by their WWII “combat” movies. Hawks’s Air Force, made a few months after Pearl Harbor, ends in triumph. Ford’s They Were Expendable, made just after Japan’s surrender, ends in defeat. All that was before Hawks worked Red River in such a way as to prove he could wring a happy ending out of literally anything.)
And you don’t find a trace of melancholy, or any other form of doubt, in His Girl Friday.
So you have to lay the world aside, sure, but once you do, the movie still takes flight and never touches down. It may not have much to do with this world, but it sets you down in one any dreamer would want to live in, one where you’re always Cary or Roz and never Ralph Bellamy or, God forbid, Mother!
No small feat for a movie about a bunch of hyper-cynical newshounds covering a hanging!
I wouldn’t say the film takes any big chances. Not for nothing was Hawks the most reliably commercial director in Hollywood for two decades. He always kept the rules straight. No masks allowed.
In a Hawks’ movie, you always know who the winners and losers were going to be from the first breath.
But Hawks had the rare gift of making formulas work for him by never forgetting the inherent limits of those formulas–by making them work for him. Give him a cliche and he didn’t push outward, try to explode it. He doubled down.
By God, if he was stuck with a sad sack loser convict then he was going to get John Qualen and nobody else to play him because that would make him the greatest sad sack loser who ever lost.
If there was gonna be a corrupt mayor in this thing, then he was going to get Clarence Kolb and nobody else, so he’d be sure you were watching the most corruptible mayor who was ever corrupted.
And so on and so forth, and you don’t even have to know who those people are to know what they are the second they show up.
Hawks being Hawks, you also don’t have to worry about whether they’ll change up and surprise you.
Oh, the circumstances might change. The mayor might weasel all the way to the right before he’s forced to do the about face you knew he had in him and weasel all the way to the left. But you know where they fit right off the bat.
Which means you can, among other things, relax, turn off your mind and float downstream without the assistance of hallucinogens.
If it’s not exactly brimming with moral force, at least there are no distractions or pretense. No Hollywood mantra was ever more surefire than “give ’em a good time,” and His Girl Friday was just about the best time that could ever be had.
Still is, despite everything.
Because of course I still want to be Cary Grant–especially this Cary Grant, i.e., Walter Burns, who has not a single redeeming virtue except the greatest redeeming virtue of all, which is his Cary Grant-ness. And of course, I want to be with Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, especially this Rosalind Russell, who would be such an impeccably perfect match for my Cary Grant-ness!
And I’ve read enough reliable reportage from enough Hildy Johnson wannabes to know the reverse works just as well.
If I don’t tend to include His Girl Friday in my personal Top Ten anymore, or think of Howard Hawks as my favorite director anymore, it isn’t really the fault of the director’s particularly sunny vision or his most perfectly realized dream-scape.
They didn’t really get any older….