Category Archives: Old Ones

(Un)important older releases

Dark City

It should not be too much of a surprise that Alex Proyas is turning to literary adaptations and moving away from sci-fi. He is currently in pre-production from Paradise Lost, an action movie based on John Milton’s Christian epic poem dramatizing the war between God and Lucifer. Later he’ll be directing Dracula: Year Zero that seems to about the historical and mythological origins of the first vampire. The Greek director’s 90s output (The Crow, Dark City) was informed by classical and religious texts coated with slick and anachronistic sets – a style similar to Terry Gilliam’s, if less dependent on occasional Monty Python humour.

Critics and fans have had a lot to say about Dark City (1998), a neo noir science fiction film about John Murdoch, an amnesia-stricken citizen of a world run by soulless aliens called ” Strangers”.  Here are some of the ideas being thrown around:

Plato’s Cave

Theologian Gerard Loughlin explains the popular theory that Murdoch’s journey is an allegory of Plato’s Cave.  See his book Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (pages 46-8) for the full passage.

In the time before the story of the film opens, Murdoch is like most of the city’s other inhabitants, prisoners who do not know they are prisoners in a city that is the projection of the ‘strangers’ […] Each night at midnight, the city stops. It is then that the strangers transform the city through their collective and mechanically augmented will power, raising and lowering city blocks, rearranging roads and rail tracks, and changing the memories of the city’s inhabitants.

Proyas adds the inconstancy of identity to Plato’s story: everyone’s memory is everyone’s memory, swapped and shared collectively every 24 hours. Loughlin continues:

Murdoch’s journey out of the city-cave is assisted by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), producing the memory cocktails that are nightly administered to the city’s sleeping inhabitants. Like Socrates to Glaucon, Shreber carefully explains to Murdoch the means by which the shadows are cast. In order to learn the secret of the city, Murdoch does not ascend above it, but it led beneath it, into its bowels. Nor is he simply the prisoner become Glaucon, he is a Glaucon who comes to realize that Socrates’ tale of an upper, more real world, is itself a shadow, a forgery.

(Glaucon is the one listening to Socrates tell his allegory, as documented by Plato in his The Republic) Instead of being given an educational role, it seems that by the end of Dark City Murdoch has simply replaced the Strangers. He pretties up the place, but it’s still a fantasy, now his own fantasy. Blinding sunlight has washed out the darkness and water has filled the deep space void that surrounds the city – but is his life any more “real” than it was before, or his soul more permanent?

In this way the film has a conventional ‘happy ending’, that is nevertheless disturbing, since John Murdoch’s newly enlightened world exists only as he wills it, based on childhood memories that are themselves illusions, without originals within the city-cave.

Protein Structure and Plato

Gnostic Knowledge

Keoni Chavez of Screened.com wrote about Dark City, Inception, The Matrix, and Christian Gnosticism, the belief  that a being called a ‘demiurge’ created the material world, an illusion in the path of true divine illumination and salvation. You can see where this is going:

In each of these films, there is a baseline universe that is hidden to those without the proper knowledge of how to access it. In Dark City, control is achieved through “tuning”, a way to influence matter through the power of the mind. In The Matrix, the running computer simulation that informs the title of the movie is so convincing that special effort must be made to overcome the illusion and see the world for what it truly is. In Inception things are a little reversed: reality is fine, but through proper training, one’s dreams can be shaped into worlds as real-seeming as anything.

Even if normal, continuous reality is unattainable (as in Dark City), the hero’s task is to find other planes of reality or other planes of being. Murdoch has to escape from the trap of the memories he holds to be his own. In that sense he has to lose himself, transcend the individual to come to an understanding of the city’s collective consciousness. Not surprisingly, he draws closer to the Strangers’ “hive mind”, where there is no individual soul or memory but a shared pool of knowledge – memory in a communist state.

God as Everything

A blogger I used to follow had a fascinating idea about the ultimate point of human existence, and, while this may sound outlandish and unrelated t0 Dark City, think of it as an extension of Proyas’ explorations of knowledge and reality:

A rock is a rock, but it also embodies the concept of ‘rock’. For ease of visualization, a concept can be regarded as a singular point in some vast hypothetical space. There are millions of these conceptual points in the human consciousness.

But, the writer reminds us, human consciousness changes and grows through time. Gravity was not a known concept five hundred years ago, yet it existed outside the space of human knowledge:

Now if one were to consider all of these concept-points that exist but are not yet perceived, the night sky fills up with countless more stars […] Now we visualize what appears to be the sum total of all knowledge.

Spinoza believed God to be the sum total of physical laws that described the universe, and the writer comes to a similar conclusion:

I argue that this sum total of all conceptual points and connections is God […] If all of these conceptual points were to be perceived by one consciousness there would still be one unknown concept: nothing. This consciousness would not be able to perceive the concept of nothing, because to completely understand nothing you must know no-thing. The remedy to this problem is simple, however. Create a machine that accumulates knowledge, then delete everything in this conscious network. The aforementioned machine can then re-accumulate all knowledge into a conscious network again.

And, the final argument (one that would make an excellent premise for an Alex Proyas movie):

I further argue that this machine that re-accumulates knowledge is what has come to be known as life. Our universe is its operating environment.

Shoulda seen the crowd we got together for the séance last weekend.

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Eden of Exploitation

Although I wouldn’t call the adventures of Americans making B-movies in the Philippines a dry subject, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a joyride of a documentary, breezing through talking heads and endless clips of guns, girls, and gore with one adoring and one ironic eye to exploitation films. Writer/director Mark Hartley is quickly establishing himself as the top archivist of cinematic trash, chronicling Ozploitation (Australian genre filmmaking) in Not Quite Hollywood (2008).

Turning his gaze two dozen degrees northward, Hartley starts in the mid 1960s, when the domestic Filipino film industry was churning out over 350 titles a year. Kane W. Lyn, an American G.I. who had made the tropical islands his home, partnered with director Eddie Romero to attract overseas investment. The country had everything you could want for economical production: cheap labour, dense jungles, and available exotic women. Lyn and Romero sold horror flick after horror flick to American drive-in audiences with what critic Mark Holcomb calls the requisite three B’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.

After cult producer/director Roger Corman saw one such masterpiece, Beast of the Yellow Night, he visited the Philippines and his New World Productions oversaw a decade of astonishing qualitative, if not quantitative, output. Notable for mediocre film history was the desperate-women-in-prison genre, which Corman updated in Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier’s breakout role.

In interviews Grier and her co-stars suggest the girls-gone-wild film empowered women in cinema, giving black actors roles they would not have found in the Hollywood system. I find this a stretch, a moment when Hartley is looking too hard for a redemptive angle. Did Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage pave the road for Ripley in Alien? Maybe, but turning abused objects into gun-spraying killers is a pretty limited arc for feminist liberation. As director John Landis says: “They took control. But they’ll show you their tits!”

Well, at least Hartley shows both sides of the argument. What he tends to hurry over is the mutually exclusive relationship Corman had with the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. New World was truly exploitation filmmaking, using reckless stuntmen happy to get five pesos even if it meant breaking limbs. Marcos volunteered the use of his army, especially ironic in films like The Hot Box (1972 – one of Jonathan Demme’s first) sporting revolutionary, anti-fascist messages.

But apart from an unnecessary sequence on Apocalypse Now’s troubled shoot (better see Hearts of Darkness: Apocalypse Now for the full story) the doc sticks to its trashy subject, capturing a unique moment in place and time before multiplexes and Star Wars. Now our bad taste comes in big budgets too.

You can also find this article at The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.

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Chivalry in the Cracks

The other Terry Gilliam movie I’ve been meaning to see for a long time is The Fisher King (1991), a modern take on the grail legend. It’s uneven and too long, but, as usual, gives you a lot to chew on. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a narcissistic radio hosts whose comments unwittingly compel a man to shoot up a restaurant. After his wife is killed in the massacre, Perry (Robin Williams) slips into homelessness, madness, and a quest to find the Holy Grail. To help him cope with his guilt, Jack tries to help Perry regain sanity and find love.

It’s messy, lovely, funny, and overburdened with too many scenes and too many outbursts. But it’s also got a very sweet theme. Despite the cold alienation and mundanity  of twentieth century life, moments of romance, imagination, and grace appear to those who look for it. The grail becomes a symbol for redemption and meaning in the flowing crowds and taxis of Manhattan.

Enough summarizing. Let’s recap the traditional Arthurian legend of the fisher king.

The Curse of Desolation

He’s called the Wounded King, the Maimed King, Lord of the Waste Lands, Pellam, and in my edition of the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Roger Lancelyn Green, 1953) King Pelles, lord of Castle Carbonek. According to Green’s sources, Sir Balyn the Savage was visited by an image of the Grail at Carbonek. A voice, presumably God’s, told him to quell his temper, but instead he grabbed a spear and stabbed Pelles, a reenactment of Christ’s stabbing by Longinus. This so-called Dolorous Stroke permanently wounded the king and turned his lands barren and fallow. In some versions he has a son who fishes in a river by the castle, hence the Fisher King and his father the Wounded or Maimed King.

Later, when the image of the grail revisits Camelot, the knights quest after it. Sirs Gawain and Lancelot arrive in Carbonek to find Pelles old and thirsty, his people distressed. As Sir Percivale approaches, Naciens the hermit proclaims:

King Pelles and all you people of the Waste Lands, rejoice and be exceeding glad. For Gawain has taken away the Curse of Desolation which Balyn brought upon you when he struck the Dolorous Stroke. Therefore be sure that the Grail Knight draws near, and the long penance will soon be ended.

Pelles is cured by the blood of Christ dripping off Longinus’s spear – it appears along with a lot of unaccounted for grail maidens in white. The body of the sovereign is the microcosm of the body of his people, his state. So his lands grow fertile again, and he doesn’t have to fish no more.

Enter Eliot

Jack’s sarcastic catchphrase on his radio show is  “forgive me.” Forgiveness for his rude and condescending behaviour to his callers, and later forgiveness for triggering the restaurant shooting. Like humanity waiting to be redeemed for their sins by Christ, like the people of Carbonek waiting for their crops to grow, Jack takes three years off from work to “sort out his emotional issues”. In exile, he drinks too much, mistreats his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) and spurns the rest of the world.

Pelles’ story has been frequently alluded to in art. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is a poetic reinterpretation of the Fisher King, setting the wounded Pelles in post-World War I London. There’s disillusionment here too, and a search for growth and vitality:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you only know / A heap of broken images.

Gilliam and Bridges amp up Jack’s desperation by making him a barren soul. His apartment is walled with glass and tiled in black; it has the studied nihilism of Patrick Bateman’s aesthetics in American Psycho. Visually the point is clear. Jack is empty, arid, a stony rubbish that needs some water. By forming a bond to Perry (Percivale) and losing himself in the troubles of another, Jack finds the grail of friendship. I think this is the humanist and slightly saccharine point Gilliam is trying to make: we are each other’s Holy Grails.

What’s pretty cool is how the set design shows the flowering of old stories in between the skyscrapers and asphalt of New York City. Gilliam finds classical figures like arches to introduce scenes when Jack encounters Perry:

Or placing important plot points such as Perry’s pursuit of the Red Knight and the monologue about the Fisher King (a little different from Green’s) in Central Park, a jewel of nature blossoming in the centre of a metropolis:

Or a Corinthian column outside the window of Perry’s hospital bed:

So there’s definitely a connection between antiquity, nature, and Perry, the deluded Grail Knight. He praises the romance paperbacks Lydia (Amanda Plummer) buys every two days:

There’s nothing trashy about romance. In romance there’s passion, imagination, beauty. Besides you find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.

This might as well be Gilliam speaking. The ex-Monty Python animator makes no distinction between “high art” and “low art”. His films are smart and crude at the same time. Perry’s mythical infatuations and hallucinations of the Red Knight are heavy in symbolism and folkloric history, but he’s not above letting a nude Robin Williams loose in Central Park, screaming “it’s good to let the little guy hang out”.

Eliot is more pretentious, seeking the self-contained order in literary works to stave off the “anarchy and futility of contemporary history”. Quoting Dante, he turns London into a congregation of soulless workers:

Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. / Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…

One last comparison. There’s a scene in Grand Central Station when Perry falls under the trance of Lydia, a woman who hasn’t met him yet. The flowing crowds suddenly pair up beautifully into waltzing pairs, turning the pulsating terminal into an elegant ballroom. Here’s the before and after.

In the end Perry becomes the ailing king, beaten by two very 90s street thugs into a coma. I’m not sure what the switch in roles means, only that Jack has to get himself in emotional order and break into a billionaire’s house to steal the cup of Christ – or a placebo of the cup of Christ – to pull Perry back into consciousness. Since I can’t resist quoting more Eliot, here’s are a few lines at the end of The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore. / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Read a book, watch a good movie. It’s a good start.

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Religious Ideas in 12 Monkeys

I don’t know why it took me this long to see 12 Monkeys. I call myself a Gilliam fan, or a fan of 80s Gilliam. After the mild disappointment of Brothers Grimm and the stomach-churning shame of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I thought the man had derailed after The Fisher King, unable to face the headaches and crises of another shoot and another duel with the studios. Last night I saw 12 Monkeys (1995) at Cineplex’s Digital Film Festival. Part conventional thriller, part mind-bender, it blurs the same dreams-reality present-future border Brazil mined ten years earlier. Bruce Willis stars as Cole, a convict from 2035 sent to retrieve knowledge from a pre-viral past – hopefully you’ve seen it already so the following ideas will have some context for you. If not, read no further, there are some serious spoilers to be warned of. But see 12 Monkeys, it’s two hours well-spent.

James Cole = Jesus Christ

Is Cole a Christ figure? He’s sent to the past from the future to save humanity from a deadly virus, or at least allow the humans of 2035 feel fresh air again. He’s granted a pardon for helping the scientists find a cure. So he is meant to be a saviour who is pardoned for his early, unspecified sins by acts of altruism and suffering.

Cole and the eye of God?

These appear like fragments of Christian myth inverted and warped by Gilliam’s imagination. Cole doesn’t succeed in creating a new future for humanity, and for the film’s second act he tries to forget his duties. Only his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) r can convince him he’s perfectly sane, and she discovers that Dr. Peters is the real carrier of the virus. Cole is a very reluctant Christ. Even when pushed by Railly and Jose (the divine messenger from the future who gives him a gun) he fails to stop Peters from boarding his flight. While he is shot dead, he is not really dead: he is watching his own death as a child.

He can’t save the world from the apocalypse, which does not bring ultimate salvation. Humanity limps on under the ground, possibly a metaphor for hell. 12 Monkeys deserves a lot more views before a substantial thesis can be teased out, but there is clearly a postmodern angle, maybe even parody being played on the Bible. Cole does not want to save anybody, he wants to remain in the past/earth and forget the future. In a way, he wants to forget God; what better representation of an omnipotent being in science fiction than the unknowable, unfathomable, but all-powerful future?

The Flood

Also, the animals running around Philadelphia scream Noah’s Ark, as the virus does the Flood. Again, Gilliam has turned the Biblical story on its head: instead of a diety punishing humans for being sinful, a diety (maybe just karma) is punishing humans for mistreating animals. The Army of the 12 Monkeys protests animal testing. Humans are said to be “an endangered species”. A monkey is exploited to save a child at the bottom of the well. Animals go on to survive the virus and reclaim the earth, while the humans are driven underground like rats.

Buddha

There are doubtless other mythical references at work – I’ve even read an argument that Cole is Osiris and the other characters Ancient Egyptian deities. Watching any of Gilliam’s films is like unpacking a T.S. Eliot poem, where allusions point to older allusions which point to ancient allusions.

The ending reflects Eastern theology and, tellingly, is a lot more optimistic than the gloomy Christian overtones. Kathryn and Cole and James are locked in a cycle of two presents: he witnesses his own death and looks into her eyes, though he does not know this until he grows up, gets thrown into the past, and walks into that airport on that particular day. Is this an endless journey, repeated infinitely, without James able to break it because, as a child, he does not understand what’s going on?  It’s a beautiful, mind-blowing conclusion. Maybe most touching is how Railly looks into the young Cole’s eyes and smiles, as if she knows she will see him again.

This could be the Sanskrit Sangsara: the endless wheel of life and death. According to Buddha we have all been in Sangsara for an indefinite period of time, continuously suffering, dying, and getting born, only to suffer and die again. Eliot probably had this is mind when he wrote “April is the cruellest month.”   Release from the cycle of mortality comes with Nirvana, a freeing of identity and end of the world. Has Cole reached Nirvana? The last shot is one of his eyes watching the Peter’s plane take off, suggesting grown-up Cole and young Cole have merged and he understands what is going on. Or he could be ignorant and go through the same cycle again.

From the 1962 Chris Marker film La Jetée, the inspiration behind 12 Monkeys

David Webb People and Janet People’s by-the-books script is an odd bedfellow to Gilliam’s flamboyant sets and cartoonish wide angles, but it’s a partnership that is mostly functional and sometimes brilliant. 12 Monkeys explores very human issues, which is maybe why there are so many religious allusions. The drive behind Cole’s story is the very human desire to reverse, escape, and finally defeat time. Cole might have reached Nirvana, but like the end of Inception, we are left without an answer because we have to fill in our own.

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“The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”

After months of campaigning, the ever-lengthening awards season draws to a close in January, when the new releases feel like leftovers from the summer. Look at the mediocre debuts of the last few weeks: The Rite, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet.

You can always find exceptions to the rule, even if you have to go far back into history. On January 25, 1970, 20th Century Fox screened MASH at a few theatres in New York, New York. It is surprising Robert Altman’s film even got that far. Fox was heavily campaigning for the upcoming releases of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, weighty affirmations of American patriotism that were to be the real war movies of the year.

Until MASH was in front of its audience, it had always been a hard sell. Richard Hooker (born Hoernberger) wrote and edited the book over eleven years, only to be rejected by everybody except William Morrow. The book was a hit. Fox was interested, though they only paid Hooker a couple hundred bucks for the right.

Neither was there much enthusiasm among filmmakers for the project. Altman was thirteenth in line for the throne. His love of improvisation and overlapping dialogue, his disdain for scripts – these would become his celebrated trademarks. In 1970, everyone on set was wondering what the hell he was doing.

Lead actor Donald Sutherland, worried that reels were being wasted on secondary characters, tried to get Altman fired. In retrospect the attention to ensemble acting is what makes the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital such a colourful community. Comedy and tragedy mingled over surgery tables of spurting blood, stripping death and the military of sacred status.

MASH cost 4 million to make and expanded from a platform release to make over 80 million, the second highest gross of the year. Although Altman was done with Fox, he now had the credentials to start other projects. In the next few years he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), the bulk of his legacy.

Media historian Rick Mitz argues the film made dark comedy a staple reflex of mainstream entertainment. Humour is often the only possible reaction to the futility of life, and where can the human condition appear so desperate (and hilarious) as the front line of an inconsequential war? There is little overt reference to Korea, the film’s official setting, and most filmgoers associated Hawkeye and Trapper’s mischief as reactions to the frustrations of the Vietnam War.

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Errol Flynn: Captain Blood

Since we’ve been hearing about the planned Captain Blood remake since July, 2009, I thought it about time to revisit the 1935 version. It’s unclear when the Spierig brother‘s science fiction adaptation will be released, or if it’s in pre-production. Warner Bros. and producer Bill Gerber have said the story – lifted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel – will remain unchanged, even if the characters will be fighting across galaxies and not in 17th century galleons.

The Captain Blood that has endured as a classic was actually a remake of a 1924 silent film starring J. Warren Kerrigan, who left acting after this film. Some shots of the naval battle were edited into Flynn’s sound update.

The Talent

Producers Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner hired Michael Curtiz, and old hand at Warner, to direct the big-budget swashbuckler. The Hungarian-born Curtiz had moved to the United States in 1926, though his English remained so poor he often called his estranged wife Bess Meredyth for linguistic help on set.  [Harmetz, Alean. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of “Casablanca”. Orion Publishing Co, 1993. p. 123] Though he was a versatile talent he always inflicted a sense of action in a scene, moving the camera, playing with shadow, adding a shifting European dynamism.

Jack L. Warner and Hal B. Wallis plan Blood. Curtiz looks on. From: http://www.eightyoddyears.com/gallery-103.html

Captain Blood was the first of eight collaborations between Curtiz and Tasmanian actor Errol Flynn, who worked for Warner Bros. England in the early 1930s. He was, however, unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Olivia de Haviland was also unknown, playing parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and The Irish in Us (1935 – and what a title). This was an almost unprecedented risk for a tentpole picture.

Warner was gambling on the recent successes of The Count of Monte Cristo and Treasure Island (both 1934). The period piece allowed studios to bend the rules of the Hollywood Code, enforced energetically due to pressure from groups like the Catholic  National Legion of Decency. Historical settings allowed more leeway for violence, drunkenness, and sexual innuendo – how can you shoot a pirate movie and not show brawling, alcoholism, and womanizing? Warner felt the time was right to reinvigorate the genre. He made some predictable casting decisions, too, just to be safe: Basil Rathbone was an easy pick for the likeable villain Lavasseur, and Lionel Atwill was a reliable bad guy, whose every gesture and sharp glare lets you know he’s mean without the trouble of much establishing dialogue.

Flynn and Atwil (Governor Bishop) size each other up at a slave auction.

According to  film scholar and biographer Lincoln D. Hurst, Flynn was quaking with fear in the early days of the shoot. This is not apparent in the final product partly because Curtiz reshot some of those moments after Flynn gained the charisma and confidence that seduced audiences. Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, calls the star a “personality” actor, not a “method” actor of the Stanislavski school: “He had style when style was everything.” Evaluating Flynn as a good or bad actor is almost besides the point. He matched the glowing pomp of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Despite the scope of the pirate battles, Warner and Wallis relied almost exclusively on soundstages. The Rathbone-Flynn duel was filmed at Laguna Beach under the supervision of fencing master Frank Cavens. He gave Hollywood sword fights a polished elegance, and was probably held in the same high regard Woo-ping Yuen of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is today.

The original music was supplied by Austrian composer Erich Korngold. He had just returned to Europe from scoring A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was asked to score Captain Blood…in three weeks. Because of ominous sounds from Germany, Korngold decided to remain in L.A., scoring Warner’s films until 1947. In Captain Blood he hammered home emotional themes through operatic crescendos, drumming in the upswings and downswings of the plot. His flourishes underscore Blood’s motivations and desires, a perfectly thunderous accompaniment to a full-throttle action movie:

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAMMgOtxISo]

The film’s overwhelming success was one of the most stunning debuts of any Hollywood actor. And the debut of a stunning couple: de Havilland and Flynn became a star team. I will look at a few of their others collaborations, including They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) in the new few weeks. Warner’s casting instincts proved right, and all of the film’s uncertain elements coalesced and connected with audiences. Something similar would happen in 1942, when Curtiz directed Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in an oddly structured film called Casablanca.

The English Revolution

James II, 1633-1701

Warner wisely stayed away from the political content of the period, which was in any case an odd scenario for a modern pirate movie. Pirates of the Caribbean remained in safe waters by pitting the British Royal Navy and a rabble lovable pirates against unlovable pirates. Peter Blood, on the other hand, is a Protestant rebel in an England on the brink of another civil war. The year is 1685, the Catholic James II has just ascended the throne, and the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion has just been defeated.

Peter Blood, a physician of Monmouth’s supporters, is sentenced to slavery in Bardbados by no other than Judge Jeffreys, a notorious alcoholic and royalist. Some rebels actually did become plantation slaves, though Curtiz does not portray the misery of the black slaves in the colony who vastly outnumbered the band of English dissenters. The film also avoids religious references; apart from the word “papist” in the opening scenes, the struggle is cast in mould of tyranny vs. freedom, not Rome/France vs. the Anglican Church (and the other strands of Protestantism).

The Glorious Revolution itself happens offscreen. While Blood captures a Spanish galleon, pirates all over the Caribbean,

William of Orange, 1650-1702

duels Levasseur over the governor’s daughter, and saves Barbados from the French navy, William of Orange invaded England with a Dutch navy. William was married to James’ daughter Anne. The King’s support collapsed when William came ashore and ascended to the throne as join-ruler with his wife. The Bill of Rights were passed, cementing Parliament’s ascendancy in financial matters, essentially keeping England on the course of constitutional monarchy.

In the film Blood is summoned back by the new King. He gladly throws down his pirate ways just as he seems most determined to stay an outlaw. Protestant William’s summons is an odd mixture of deus ex machina and historical accuracy – though I am not sure if the rebels were pardoned by William. Monmouth, after all, held several coronation ceremonies in Somerset county, treasonous behaviour since James II was a legitimate monarch.

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James Stewart: The FBI Story

As its title suggests, The FBI Story is not about one person, but an army of intelligence agents and analysts in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is about the department’s growth from a disorganized arm of the federal government to a powerful crime-fighting force under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. But it is also about, or tries to be about, Agent Chip Hardesty, a fictitious agent who fights the KKK, hoodlums, gangsters, and communists while struggling to keep his marriage and family intact.

He’s in the thick of all the action, but he’s not the brains behind it. As director Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, producer of The Wizard of Oz) flips through the landmarks of FBI history he does not ascribe much to his lead character, played, of course, by James Stewart. Okay, he does take the lead in the earlier episodes: arresting KKK members in Tennessee, investigating the murders of Native Americans in Oklahoma. But once the dangerous 1930s roll through Agent Chip is a side-player, hopping onto half-finished cases, firing one gun of many, and following rather than leading the charges.

This is realistic, but it makes for an odd narrative, and an odd James Stewart movie. The shooting and arrest of Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Ma Barker among others is played out like TV dramatizations. Apart from the Native American murder mystery, none of the cases are explored in enough depth to be intriguing.

It feels like propaganda, especially when Stewart’s voiceover tells us American communists “betrayed their country”. In the opening sequence Stewart narrates the investigation into a plane explosion, taking us into the labs of FBI scientists and criminologists. Praise is heaped on these men and women, the real heroes of the story, throughout the film. Hoover himself is shown only in shadow or from the back like Seinfeld‘s Steinbrenner. He apparently picked Stewart personally for the role and forced LeRoy to reshoot several scenes.

LeRoy invented the 1930s gangster picture with Little Caesar. From: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_bpdWsOrotV0/TLZYFmJoV5I/AAAAAAAADjc/c1OMARoasSg/s1600/mervyn+leroy+1.jpg

Stewart was an engaging, even menacing, protagonist in Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Hitchcock’s thrillers, but here he bumbles through his sappy relationship with his patient wife Lucy (Vera Miles, also better with Hitchcock). When he’s making arrests he takes a backseat to a conveyor belt of interchangeable FBI agents. His one companion Sam (Murray Hamilton, who co-starred with Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis) is shot by Baby Face at Spider Lake, Wisconsin.

The real shooting took place at Little Bohemia Lodge. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies renders this scene and Dillinger’s death outside the Biograph Theatre in more detail.

Stewart’s character is neither interesting nor especially integral to these proceedings. I found myself thinking of this film in the larger context of the actor’s career. Released in 1959, The FBI Story is post-Vertigo (a film coolly received upon release) and pre-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also under-appreciated). Stewart has reached his 50s and can no longer convincingly play younger men – though they tried their damnedest in The Spirit of St. Louis. You know an actor’s career is winding slowly down when the film he stars in don’t seem to need him after the ad campaign.

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Filed under James Stewart, Old Ones