Adventure in Sahara

Adventure in Sahara – 1938, 57 mins, Blu-ray

My second review of a film included within Indicator’s tremendous Fuller at Columbia boxset, which was my Christmas-present highlight. This boxset is now sadly OOP, but thankfully the four individual discs are now available separately, albeit minus booklets. 

sam4Sadly, Adventure in Sahara is one of those films where the story behind it is better than anything in the film itself. The story goes, recounted in this set’s booklet, that Sam Fuller was approached by producer Sam Briskin if he had any ideas for a film- initially caught off-guard and at a loss, Fuller assured him that he did, buying time by lighting up a cigar before finally coming up with an idea- “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” he announced, much to Briskin’s bemusement. William Bligh, of course, was a reference to Mutiny on the Bounty, which had been a big hit starring Charles Laughton a few years prior, and Victor Hugo a reference to the novel Ninety-Three, another story of revolt which Fuller had read. Fuller was pitching a Mutiny on the Bounty set in the French Foreign Legion, and that’s pretty much summing up Adventure in Sahara entirely. The screenplay by Maxwell Shane based upon Fuller’s story lacks many details of Fuller’s idea, notably (albeit not surprisingly) a more downbeat ending inspired by the Victor Hugo novel, in which the nominal hero of the film and leader of the mutiny is, following an awarded act of gallantry in battle, is nonetheless sentenced to execution because of his part in the mutiny. Try selling THAT to audiences back in 1938; or 2022 for that matter. The final film would end with something much more traditional and consequently far less interesting.

sam5Adventure in Sahara is a fairly limp, pedestrian adventure yarn with several troubling aspects, only one of which is its treatment of a black character (which considering current sensitivities would likely earn this film a warning prior to any network airing) and another its horribly irritating musical score which intrudes upon everything. The chief problem, with all deference towards Fuller, is its predictable and quite preposterous story, although I guess he could point an accusing finger at Shane’s screenplay. It begins with American pilot Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) learning of his younger brother’s death in the French Foreign Legion, upon which he immediately volunteers for the service albeit on the proviso he is sent to the command of Commandant Savatt (C Henry Gordon) where his brother was based. Savatt is the William Bligh of the film, a sadistic and twisted military commander whose punishment of the men under his command is brutal and ultimately leads his desperate men to mutiny, led by Wilson who is seeking revenge for his brother’s death at Savatt’s punishment. Its almost remarkable how the films romantic interest is thrown into the film- Carla (Lorna Gray), an Amelia Earhart-like pilot who literally crashes into the desert near to the Fort where Wilson is based. It takes some nerve being as blatantly ridiculous as your film’s love-interest literally falling out of the sky mid-movie.

Perhaps the films biggest asset is its brevity- at 57 minutes it doesn’t linger too long; its clearly a b-movie supporting feature and nothing more than that.  C Henry Gordon as the dastardly villain is great value, but Paul Kelly is pretty bland- and Lorna Gray even worse than that- although to be fair to them the screenplay leaves them little to work with, and the shoot was likely very quick and very cheap: there’s no aspirations for greatness here, that’s for certain. Adventure in Sahara is far inferior to the first film in this set, but thankfully things improve greatly with the next film…

And finally, of course I’M Spartacus

spartacusI’ve rather enjoyed this accidental run of ‘Ancient Movies’, and barring Ben-Hur (which I’d re-watched last year) the inevitable end-point had to be the classic Kubrick/Douglas film Spartacus from 1960. I refer to it as a ‘Kubrick/Douglas’ film but its obviously more Kirk Douglas’ film than it is a Kubrick film- there is really very little of this film that screams ‘Kubrick’ at the viewer. In fact, if there’s anything regards Spartacus that proves a little off-putting to me, its that the film very often feels like a Douglas vanity-project: possibly an unfair accusation, because producing and starring in a film as big as Spartacus is no mean feat, but when I watch the film there’s an uncomfortable (to me, anyway) sensation of watching a huge ego onscreen and everything else orbiting around it. I mean, Spartacus as a character has practically no negative features, he’s painted as a heroic, ‘perfect’ figure and not at all, in that sense, realistic. In that respect it does feel like a ‘old’ or ‘very Hollywood’ movie, but most likely its just a feeling that its the star actor/producer calling the shots rather than the director, and its clear that its not a directors ‘vision’ that we are seeing. Some films are like that, Spartacus is hardly unique, and its possibly just a reaction on my part from being used to watching a ‘Billy Wilder Picture’ or an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Picture’ or a ‘Ridley Scott Picture’.

Re-watching classic films can be a surprising experience, most often they of course still hold up remarkably well- they are ‘classic’ for a reason, after all. My surprise this time around was something regards the narrative, and hardly a  surprise at all really but I was take aback this time around by just how black the ending is. Naturally this is inherent in the basic story, as history tells us Spartacus and his buddies don’t walk off into the sunset for a happily ever after, and any film that did would be wholly inappropriate, for some reason this time around I was struck by just how bleak the film is. Maybe its a Covid thing, but I was taken by how much of a grim tone this film ends with: basically, the bad guys win, the good guys die, literally, every last one of them (even Charles Laughtons’ Senator scurries off to dispatch himself after settling his affairs) – its almost like its prefiguring the closing moments of Revenge of the Sith (albeit Lucas could only dream of that film having the gravitas of something like Spartacus).  Indeed, on that last point, while its clear that the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace owes everything to the chariot race of Ben-Hur, it would seem that George Lucas had his eye on other historical epics like Spartacus with how its grim finale is echoed by that of Sith. Its rather a pity that Lucas didn’t really nail that feel with his Prequel Trilogy in general- its possibly too coy a conceit but had that trilogy been like some great Roman spectacle moved into a space fantasy milieu then it would have better existed on its own terms away from the Original Trilogy – it does seem to me that Anakin suggests something of a ‘Messiah’ figure in the Star Wars saga and treating it more like a big biblical epic may have been beyond Lucas (hell, its only about selling toys, after all) but I have to wonder. Instead of some snotty kid in The Phantom Menace, had Anakin been a teenage slave like a slightly-younger Spartacus, later saved from a Hutt’s gladiatorial arena and then rising through the Jedi ranks to eventually fall to the Dark Side… Well I guess my daydream is more of a set of movies aimed at grown-up fans of the Original Trilogy rather than films preoccupied by a new generation of kids and what they want from Santa. 

But anyway, that’s all by the by and ancient history of its own, really. For some reason though I was rather struck by how bleak the ending of Spartacus is. Its authentic of course but I suppose I’m just reminded of how modern Hollywood seems to avoid any films with ‘downer’ endings.

Re-watching the film of course afforded me opportunity to watch my 4K UHD copy of Spartacus that has been waiting for too long. The film looks quite gorgeous, as one would expect – like the 4K UHD of Vertigo (shot in VistaVision) Spartacus benefits hugely from its Super 70 Technirama format, its larger film format affording a much more detailed image than usual that really shines on 4K. Naturally the film sounds gorgeous, too, with its timeless Alex North score that is at times brutal and others sweepingly romantic: Spartacus is one of those films that is much better for its score, the composer doing a lot of the films heavy lifting.

Spartacus is also one of those films more famous for its place in cinematic history, the reaction of the public at the time and its continuing popularity, and historically of course its cast and film-makers, than for its qualities, perhaps, as a film in itself. The film is not as perfect as its reputation perhaps suggests (later generations/s seem to much prefer Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for instance) but its still a great film. The “I am Spartacus” scene has of course become part of the cultural lexicon of our age and again, part of the film that lives outside of the film itself, referred to an mimicked in all parts of pop culture. It proved to be a film and a role that was completely identified with Kirk Douglas for the remainder of his life, even if Stanley Kubrick largely disassociated himself from it. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, in every frame as dominant an actor and onscreen personality as he likely was as a Hollywood producer: a little distracting for me this time around watching the film but perhaps symbolic of its place in Hollywood history.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

witnessOh, this was a sheer joy; a ‘new’ Billy Wilder film (well, one I hadn’t seen before) is like an early Christmas present. What a genuine pleasure this film was- the sparkling dialogue, the great cast, the perfect character beats, the effortless, consummate direction. As entertainments go, while this could be argued to be a ‘lesser’ Billy Wilder film, if only because some of his best were genuine classics, this film is nonetheless an absolute riot and is a prime case for the argument that they simply don’t make ’em like they used to.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Eureka, this edition boasts a very strong HD image and a raft of very interesting extras, but I’m sure even on fuzzy VHS this film would be great.

Based on an Agatha Christie play, the film demonstrates the advantages of stagecraft; the tight plotting, clearly defined characters and the drama generated by those characters (although Wilder actually made a few changes, they improved the on the play and made the film superior, by all accounts). Its a tense thriller/courtroom about an innocent man being tried for murder in a case that seems hopeless for the defence, and yet its also very funny and it has twists you genuinely don’t see coming. I mean, really, how do they do that- tense drama and yet so very funny? Brilliant acting that feels natural and effortless?

Really, it’s the sophistication of it that took my breath away- it looks so simple but you know such a lot of work must have gone into it, starting with the script. You see this so often with Billy Wilder films, the precision of the screenplay and getting it absolutely right before going to the shoot. Like a Hitchcock film, I suppose, the secret seems to be the preparation, and of course the casting is no small part of that. Charles Laughton chews up the scenery and proves the heart and soul of the film, a thoroughly entertaining performance of considerable merit, but the magic of the film is the whole ensemble.

The mystery of it all, as usual, is how it took so long for me to finally see this film- indeed, until this Blu-ray was released I didn’t even know the film existed- I must have seen the title on Billy Wilder’s filmography but it couldn’t have really registered. Like The Lost Weekend, this was a discovery I only made thanks to its Blu-ray release and thinking it worth a punt on the strength of Wilder’s involvement. Well, another very welcome surprise, anyway. I’m certainly hoping there’s plenty left ahead of me.