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.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December 2019 and January 2020)

December’s always a good time for revisiting old favorites so there was a lot of that…Excluding re-watches of Gettysburg and A Perfect Murder, both of which I’ve commented on several times in the past here, and Knives Out and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which I hope to be commenting on in my At the Multiplex category soon!

December 16-The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it had been a while, and, when it’s been a while, it’s even more marvelous than when it hasn’t been a while. “You got types?” “Only you my darling.” Who doesn’t want to spend time with that? William Powell and Myrna Loy were always priceless. And here, at the beginning, even the mystery part was good!

December 22-The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, d. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Umpteenth Viewing)

Truth be told, I like at least a couple of other versions just as much, but there’s a lot about this one that can’t be beat, starting with Olivia De Havilland, Technicolor and Golden Age Hollywood, all at their most ravishing. The costumes alone would make this worth regular viewing. Interesting at this distance to note that Old Hollywood has become nearly as mythological as the Robin Hood tales themselves. Perhaps more than any movie of its era, this one carries a tinge of melancholy–where else can one count the cost of so many things modernity has destroyed in one place? Errol Flynn’s offhand charm, De Havilland’s impeccable grace, Eugene Pallette’s foghorn voice, Basil Rathbone’s swordsmanship, Claude Rains’ arched eyebrow. Which of those things could even be faked now, let alone replicated? And who would dare leave them in a movie if the world permitted them to exist in the first place? We are further from them than they were from the Crusades that started this whole thing….at least the other fave versions (with Richard Todd or Patrick Bergin) don’t beat me over the head with that mournful stick!

December 23-The Big Heat (1953, d. Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest of all thrillers: peak Lang, peak noir, and the shock of its  mostly unseen violence still strikes deep decades after Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch have become film school exercises. And because I’ve shown it to several friends, male and female, down through the years and the response to Gloria Grahame’s entrance has always been the same: Who is that?

December 24-The Mark of Zorro (1940 d. Rouben Mamoulian, Umpteenth Viewing)

The Adventures of Robin Hood put me in a swashbuckling mood, so why not? A lot of the elements are the same. Zorro’s just Robin Hood gone to Spanish California after all and never mind Basil Rathbone with a sword, it’s even got Eugene Pallette as Friar-Tuck-of-the-West. But it’s not lesser. Tyrone Power was Flynn’s only match for this sort of thing and the story’s just as good, as are the direction, script, and overall Old World craft. It moves! No better way to say Merry Christmas to yourself!

December 24-Duck Soup (1933, d. Leo McCarey, Umpteenth Viewing)

Unless maybe it’s this. After all, even Flynn or Power against Rathbone is no match for Chico vs. Harpo! With Groucho as the referee. I hadn’t watched this for years and I was a little trepidatious because the last time I tried to watch A Night at the Opera, I didn’t make it half-way through. I was probably just in a bad mood because this one had me rolling again. And was it the most significant historical cultural achievement in the year Hitler rose to power? I don’t know but I sure don’t like to think about what sort of response we’ll have when he comes ’round again. Hail Freedonia!

December 25-The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, d. Steve Binder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Reviving a Christmas tradition from the days when this was only available on bootleg video cassettes. I only have two standards for American film-making: this and The Searchers. There are at least a half-dozen performers here who would have been the best thing ever if only James Brown hadn’t showed up. That includes the Rolling Stones, who “won” the argument over who was going to follow who.

December 26-Sabrina (1954, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Roman Holiday was such an across the board success Audrey Hepburn was bound to be the point of whatever she did for the next twenty years, let alone her next picture. One of the many things I really like about this charming trifle is that Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who famously didn’t get along, had an odd kind of on-screen chemistry, while she and Bill Holden (who was enough in love with her to promise he would get drunk in every port in the world if she didn’t marry him, a promise he kept after she told him not to be silly) had none. It works so well for the improbable story that I sometimes wonder if Billy Wilder saw how the land lay and planned it that way.

But you can have a lot of fun watching it even if you don’t know any of that. I promise!

December 29-Witness (1985, d. Peter Weir, Fourth Viewing)

A modern updating of Angel and the Badman that’s just as great as the original. Possibly Harrison Ford’s finest hour and peak 80’s Hollywood even if they had to import an Australian director to pull it off. It has grown with time. The only reason I haven’t watched it more over the years is that it was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother….maybe enough time has passed for the association to soften. In any case it’s a great movie. How Hollywood kept Kelly McGillis from becoming a star would be a real interesting story for someone to tell. I guess keeping her name and face off posters that promoted the feakin’ soundtrack was a start.

January 1-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Diana Rigg, a bunch of great action sequences, a thousand small touches that enhance the atmosphere of a satisfying formula and to remind myself that George Lazenby may not have been Sean Connery…but he came closer than anyone has since.

January 3-Day of the Outlaw (1958, d. Andre De Toth, Second Viewing)

The greatest weather movie ever? Maybe. I can’t think of a better one and it’s certainly in the DNA of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Where Eagles Dare and Runaway Train among many others. Turn the central heat up full blast and you can still feel the Wyoming winter biting into your bones. The atmosphere is intensified by Robert Ryan and, especially, Burl Ives, who provide chilly performances to match the mood. For a surprise, Ryan is the sort of hero and Ives the definite villain while Tina Louise gets a turn that suggests Gilliagan’s Island really was beneath her. The rest of the cast is impeccable, including David Nelson, Ricky’s now forgotten big brother, as The Kid torn between two strong men, nagged by the idea that he may have chosen the wrong one. De Toth’s final western and one of Golden Age Hollywood’s finest….about which I’ll have more to say when I do my Non-canonical Golden Age westerns some time in the new year.

…Til then!

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (March, 2017 Edition)

Previous rules apply… Reverse order. Umpteenth viewing means it’s a lot and too much trouble to count. Etc….42 days, 10 movies)

February 6-Where Eagles Dare (967, Brian Hutton, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the crackerjack plot (not usually the first thing that comes to mind in a thriller). For the headlong fusion of momentum and anarchy that Quentin Tarantino and his arty acolytes are forever running out of breath trying to catch. For Richard Burton’s voice, which could make lines like “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” sing. And for the Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and who, if she had been allowed to kill as many Germans as the perfectly respectable female lead, Mary Ure, would have been the sexiest thing in the history of film. She’s pretty close as it is.

February 12-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (962, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

I always watch top-tier John Ford films with an idea of getting to the bottom of them. I never do. What, you think it’s possible to get to the bottom of a film where  Ken Maynard’s seventh billed Doc Willoughby is in a bar, falling off his feet, declaiming “Gettysburg? You’ve heard of Gettysburg? Two hundred and forty-two amputations in one…” and, the fifteenth time you watch it, you realize that he’s just explained why there are so many drunken doctors in post-Civil War westerns? Or that anyone but Ford would have cut the line off so that you never know One What?…Day? Week? Battle? Hour?

Okay, Robert Altman maybe…but he would have insisted on you noticing.

February 13-Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

So I can feel chic, of course. Not an everyday occurrence but sometimes even I have to digress from the norm. I save this for the rare occasions when I don’t want to feel like I’m seeing too much of how the world is made. That’s what happens when I watch Andrew Davis’s superb (I’d even say superior) 90s remake, A Perfect Murder. Sometimes you just need to escape into a world where John Williams’ dour Scotland Yard Chief Inspector can handle Ray Milland as he smiles and smiles and remains such a perfect villain you can easily imagine him wanting to off Grace Kelly for God’s sake.

February 19-Run of the Arrow (957, Samuel Fuller, First Viewing)

Because it was mostly unavailable and legendary for decades. And it’s a 50s western. Worth the wait? Yes. The fine performances you would expect from Rod Steiger, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker. Plus a sympathetic view of not only Native Americans, but the staunchest of the Confederate holdouts and their own curious brand of honor. On a first viewing I didn’t come away thinking I’d seen a masterpiece. But it was moving and intriguing enough for me to know this won’t be my last visit…And, oh by the way, that’s a poster.

February 19-The Lion in Winter (968, Anthony Harvey, Second Viewing)

To see–and hear–Pete and Kate converse. Not as good as Becket (which just missed this list). Not as good as a local stage version I saw a decade or so back. But if you like your politics literate and bit unstable…

February 20-Blow Out (981, Brian DePalma, Third Viewing)

Speaking of unstable. For the modern zeitgeist. For career best performances from John Travolta, John Lithgow and, especially, Nancy Allen (playing the kind of woman who is almost always treated with contempt in American film and American life) and for the one DePalma film I’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I understand the mixed responses, then and now. I didn’t get it the first time I watched it way back when. A subsequent viewing set me straight. This third viewing confirmed its value. The one film from the eighties which had to wait for the world to catch up to it? To everyone’s regret?

Yeah, that could mix a response or two.

February 23-A Fistful of Dollars (964, Sergio Leone, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, because one of the twitter writers I follow (Mark Harris wrote something interesting about the Man With No Name Trilogy. This is my least favorite of the three by far but it’s still pretty entertaining. I kind of like that it takes a classic, flawless story-line and turns it into a fever dream which might even lift the eyebrow of a modern Hollywood producer.**

I realize that’s saying something.

(**Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was turned into a samurai movie, 1961’s Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, who later successfully sued Leone for copyright infringement, even though neither he nor Leone ever credited Hammett, or, it seems, quite admitted they borrowed from it.)

February 25-Rush Hour (998, Brett Ratner, Third Viewing)

Because I was flipping channels and it was just beginning. And because the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker chemistry jumps off the screen every time. It jumps off the way Fred and Ginger and Myrna and Bill still do. Only modern Hollywood would have wasted the new version on two uninspired sequels and left it at that.

March 20-The Law and Jake Wade (958, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

For perhaps the best of Robert Taylor’s many fine stoic leads. For Richard Widmark’s riveting turn as what amounts to a jilted lover. For the coiling tension in a script that serves as a reminder that spurned friendship can burn as deep as the worst fights between siblings or spouses. For the way Taylor’s shoulders slump at the end of a final showdown that’s on a par with Winchester ’73. (No surprise given John Sturges in the director’s chair.) And for a standout supporting cast, led by Robert Middleton’s sad-eyed outlaw lieutenant and Henry Silva’s messed up kid, always keeping one eye open for the chance to be captain.

March 20-Experiment in Terror (962, Blake Edwards, Umpteenth Viewing)

Crisp. The opening sequence is as good as it gets. It brings the “terror” close enough that it never stops resonating, even in the few relatively mundane spots of what is essentially a well-made procedural. And it’s always worth remembering a time when the sisters next door could be played, believably, by the likes of Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers, even if it comes at the cost of also believing the FBI can protect you.

…Til next time.