STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.

DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

HOLLYWOOD DOES WAR AND PEACE….AND HOLDS ITS OWN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

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….

to 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.

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

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A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!