It’s not over ’till the Gray Lady sinks

grayposterGray Lady Down, 1978, 111 mins, Cable TV (Great! Movies Action)

Back in the mid-eighties, when I first saw Gray Lady Down on a Saturday night network showing (likely its British TV premiere), I found it quite enthralling. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for any film concerned in any way with the ocean and its unseen depths. I think we’re all individually predisposed to react to certain films, but I put it down to watching Jaws at the tender age of ten in a scary cinema. After that any ‘perils of the ocean’ movie triggered all sorts of responses in me, like being scared witless by A Night to Remember and its depiction of the Titanic tragedy.

Gray Lady Down has not aged particularly well, to be brutally honest, especially after James Cameron’s The Abyss and Titanic pushed underwater visual effects to new levels. Mind, I dread to think how bad Raise the Titanic‘s miniature shots look like on my up-to-now unwatched Blu-ray copy, but in any case, the underwater/miniature shots of Gray Lady Down typify what studios thought they could get away with in visual effects back then. Or maybe Chuck’s toupee took the majority of the special effects budget.

It’s not that the film is bad, its certainly still watchable, but there’s something very staid about this film, perhaps there’s too much focus on the hardware and not enough on the characters or the pacing. The film proudly credits the navy for its assistance making the film, and one wonders if the producers were so indebted for the Navy boy’s help they thought they’d put a recruitment reel in for good measure. Its kind of funny when the film just literally stops to linger lovingly over the hull of the DSRV being prepped and then later again when it turns up at the disaster site.

Even the gravitas and screen presence of Charlton Heston cannot save the film, which perhaps indicates the problems the film has, because honestly, Chuck’s largely wasted as he has very little to do. The premise is great and could/should make an unbearably tense movie; certainly James Cameron must have thought so, as much of what happens in this film informs similar events in his The Abyss, but this feels more like a 1970s TV-movie of the week than a full-blown motion picture. Its probably telling that the films director, David Greene, worked extensively on television movies and made very few theatrical films at all, and I think it definitely shows in just how much of a TV-movie it looks and feels like: even some of the cuts between scenes seem like pauses for commercial breaks. I also think a part of it might be the ill-fitting Jerry Fielding soundtrack score that feels perfunctory at best, cringeworthy at its worst and does the film no favours at all. I can well imagine how much more tense the film might have been with a Jerry Goldsmith score, for instance.

What Gray Lady Down excels at is its cast; underused it may be but it nonetheless it really is impressive. As noted, Charlton Heston stars, and he is ably supported by Ronny Cox, Stacy Keach, David Carradine and Ned Beatty, and its something of a treat to watch them do their ‘thing’. These days though the film is likely most notable for featuring the film debut of Christopher Reeve, here in a minor role which doesn’t indicate at all the massive starring role he would have later that same year, in Superman: The Movie. Its funny how, watching him as a naval officer and seeing him channelling Clark Kent one moment, Superman the other- its in his demeanour, his jawline and eyes, one can see indications of what he would bring to his performance in that classic superhero movie in scenes in Gray Lady Down, but one would never imagine him making that major transition evidenced in his minor role here: makes one wonder at the sorcery of casting directors.

There are intimations of familiar disaster tropes (the 1970s, after all, was the decade of disaster flicks and Gray Lady Down was at the tail end of that trend) including some we would see later in films like Apollo 13, such as shifting attention to the submariner’s wives back on the mainland. This turns out to be a momentary diversion that fails to go anywhere- indeed, it possibly suggests an entire b-plot was excised from the film completely, because other than one scene I don’t believe the film ever cuts back to the mainland to see the wives again at all. However, it would have been a valid mechanism for the film to use to ramp up the tension- cutting back to nervous, stressed-out wives waiting to hear news of their husbands, something Ron Howard wasn’t afraid of resorting to in his film and yet Greene, despite his TV-movie credentials, seems to have chosen to avoid that. Seems an odd choice when the film flounders in it’s scenes of submariners waiting for rescue.

Major Dundee Part Two

majcvrDuring the American Civil War, an unspecified incident at Gettysburg has resulted in Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) side-lined in charge of a prison in remote Eastern New Mexico. Frustrated and feeling ill-done by the ignominy of his position, he latches onto a series of Apache raids which have culminated in a massacre near the prison as an opportunity to salvage his reputation. Abandoning his charged duty in order to gather a motley force of Union volunteers, Confederate prisoners ‘encouraged’ to volunteer, and local thieves and drunks, to hunt down and kill the Apache Indian chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his warriors, while also rescuing three children captured in the latest Apache attack. As he chases the Apache bandits across the border into Mexico, he then also has to contend with being horribly out-numbered by thousands of French troops that are also in Mexico and threaten him as a foreign transgressor. Either Dundee returns as a conquering hero or he will be facing probable court-martial and infamy.

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is, as I discussed in Part One of this review, a flawed film that under better circumstances might have been a masterpiece: its premise is a fascinating study of the Old West and the ills of American military intervention and hubris (quite timely bearing in mind the film was made and released as the Vietnam War was escalating). The film is full of interesting characters and blessed by a very strong cast which, as well as Heston, includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. Visually it is very impressive, with the wide-open vistas typical of the best Westerns, and authentic-looking sets and costumes. Its darkly cynical central viewpoint echoes that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but with its American cast and locations it looks rather like a John Ford movie.

Unfortunately, its becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that when it started filming, the script wasn’t actually finished, and as the film goes on, it progressively falls apart. The cast is very large with many characters. Richard Harris’ Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen is a perpetual thorn in Dundee’s side- the men have a long history together dating back to their youth at West Point, a friendship broken by the Civil War and Tyreen choosing the ‘other side.’ Dundee’s band of solders includes several negro solders (including Brock Peters as Aesop) that leads to inevitable friction between the Confederate prisoners and black solders in Union uniform. Actress Senta Berger as Teresa joins the film at its midpoint, a supremely unlikely romantic thread suddenly appearing as if from some other movie, quickly dismissed to little narrative point at all. Sub-plots regards an out of his depth rookie officer, a possibly untrustworthy Indian scout, and a Confederate who tries to desert, add to the busy mix.  

With so many characters and narrative arcs being set up, it would have proved difficult for even a fully-realised script to maintain them all into a properly balanced film, but left unfinished, it results in character arcs set up in the first third being left unresolved, and some character decisions in the last third coming out of nowhere and frustratingly undeserved. Its really very frustrating that there is such a great film in here, if only it had been made in better circumstances, and its evident that too much was left unwritten, too much left un-filmed, and the film cobbled together in an editing room from which Peckinpah himself was excluded, with some stunts and violence being excised to appease the studio heads only further damaging its awkward finale. Even more damning, the film was saddled with a terribly ill-judged score with a vocal march/theme that undermines everything Peckinpah likely intended, almost making the film a parody, comical ‘stings’ whenever Apaches turn up onscreen more suited to an episode of the 1960s Batman tv series.

However, a restoration just after the millennium left an extended version (on disc one of this set) being the way to watch and discover the film, restoring ten to fifteen minutes of footage and replacing that horrible music score. It remains far from the roadshow epic the film was originally intended to be, but much superior to the theatrical version that resides on this set’s second disc: I watched some of this and was quite appalled. The extended version is far from perfect, but its clearly much improved from the film audiences saw on its original presentation, and I really enjoyed the film, for all its faults. Sometimes the problems within flawed films only add to their allure, their fascination, and that’s possibly the case with Major Dundee. I suppose much of the interest in the film derides from director Peckinpah’s later films and naturally the films disastrous production, rather than the actual quality of the film itself, but really, in the extended version its not a bad film at all, rather its a flawed one with suggestions of greatness. Regardless of Peckinpah’s part in the proceedings, Heston (who actually had forgone his own salary for the picture, doing it for nothing in order to keep Peckinpah on, at least until filming was finished as best it could) is always worth watching: one of those iconic stars of the screen his casting is both perfect and ironic, considering the flaws in his character. 

Major Dundee Part One

major1I started writing a post about Sam Peckinpah’s oft-maligned and clearly broken 1965 Western, Major Dundee; I’d bought the recent Arrow 2-disc Blu-Ray, swayed into a rare blind-buy simply because of how gorgeous and finely curated the release is, as well my past affinity for and interest in both Peckinpah’s other films (chiefly Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which itself was a sumptuous Arrow release awhile back) and those of Charlton Heston (for all the many Hollywood icon reasons, but also curiously having seen his Hollywood debut, Dark City not so long ago). My post started with a commentary about broken films and how Major Dundee fits into a particular group of films that includes Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and it became evident it was bogging-down my actual comments regards Major Dundee, so I’ve decided to split the post into two: so here’s part one, and thoughts about broken films in general (hopefully Part Two will follow shortly).

There is clearly something seductive, for film lovers, regards broken films, or the films that never got made. In a way, its difficult to distinguish between the two because although Major Dundee got made, it clearly isn’t the film that Sam Peckinpah intended it to be. Hardcore fans of the director can no doubt wax lyrical regards what it could have been; the three-hour roadshow epic that would have been a Western intended to rival epics like Lawrence of Arabia, and Peckinpah’s subtle (or maybe not so subtle) inversion of the traditional Western hero and America’s usual rose-tinted myth of the Wild West. With films such as Major Dundee, it is at the heart of their fascination; the endless wondering about what might have been, what should have been, and the why: the latter is where the ranting comes in, and usually becomes a heated discourse about the dichotomy of the art and the business of film-making. 

Peckinpah himself was guilty of this, always bitterly blaming others regards the failure of Major Dundee, a revisionist commentary whenever he mentioned the film in the years after its release, when even the strongest of his apologists would accept he deserved much of the blame himself too, the film a troubled production. Its clear though that Peckinpah had valid reason to feel bitter- taken out of the editing suite, I can only imagine his horror when he only finally saw the finished film at its premiere. I haven’t watched all of the theatrical version, only initially watching the extended version and then later sampling the theatrical, but what I have seen of it with its awful Daniele Amfitheatrof soundtrack music is astonishingly bad. Its a good example of how a film can be ruined by a bad music score, as right from the main titles it turns the film into a bizarre parody of Peckinpah’s intentions. Just how derided and woeful this music score is, can possibly be construed from the fact that it was replaced by a new score by Christopher Caliendo in 2005 when the film was restored to that first assembly: there are likely other examples, but I cannot recall another case of a film getting its score totally replaced during a restoration. 

major3The extended cut that has become how we now watch Major Dundee is no directors cut- I understand from what I have seen/read that its a producers assembly from when Peckinpah was taken off the picture which was then further edited into what then became the theatrical. I’m always fascinated by alternate cuts of films, and how even the slightest alternate edits of scenes can change their meaning and tone and indeed the film itself, and not always for the better.    

A discussion regards broken films can get side-tracked by directors cuts and extended cuts of films- the home video boom of VHS, Laserdisc and DVD allowed for so many versions of films to be released and this actually saved some of the films and possibly damaged others. The assembly cut of Alien 3 is one of the best examples of a broken film being ‘saved’, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like -to the extent I can likely never rewatch it- the Redux version of Apocalypse Now, so its not the case that restorations and extended versions are always such a good thing. In any case, this isn’t what I’m really getting at with regards this post about broken films, and I’m concious not to get pulled into this particular hornets nest. Maybe there should be a distinction between ‘lost’ films, and those broken films which can be ‘fixed’ sometime later via restoration. Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is gone, lost, and the film the subject of much adoration and grievance from those who appreciate what might have been. 

So getting back to Major Dundee and its status of being a film that ‘might have been/could have been…’ in just the same way as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and so many other films where troubled production and disagreements/dissatisfaction from studios resulted in films not being everything they might have been. Very often the stories about the making of the films can be more interesting than the films themselves, and I’m confident I’m not alone in saying that the making of Major Dundee is possibly more fascinating than the film we have. Decades of tall-tales, rumours and hearsay only add to the myths surrounding some of these movies, and indeed any film-lover will have interest in the politics and friction surrounding the making of the films that work and are a success, never mind those that fell astray. Films are a uniquely collaborative medium, whatever the auteur theory that persists and is generally accepted. How much the director is author of a film is possibly a tangential discussion when examining broken films, but its a valid one: in the case of Peckinpah, Major Dundee‘s failure is usually attributed to others even by those who hold Peckinpah partly responsible too, but had Major Dundee been a perfect film, likely credit would have mostly, if not wholly, been given to the director. It is always Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Its curious that very often when films don’t work out as well as hoped, its not the directors total responsibility, there’s plenty of candidates subjected to blame (for my own part, I always feel the central part of what works or undermines a film is its screenplay- everything, the actors performances, the directors visual flair, is dependant on the foundation of a working and concise effective script, but its just as wrong to call it Hampton Fancher’s Blade Runner). I think I’m digressing into authorship of movies and I didn’t intend to.  

There is a tension between the business of making movies- a studio and its backers financing a film hoping to make a profit in return- and the art of making films, the creative team making a film worthy as a piece of entertainment and indeed possibly a work of art in itself. Sometimes both happens, sometimes one and not the other- bad films have made lots of money, great films have failed and made a loss. I have often stated that I don’t think anyone intentionally makes a bad film but I suppose in the real world, every project/film is a pay check and ones personal investment evidently varies. Film lovers generally -maybe rightly, who knows?- cite the creatives a the good guys and the studio brass as the bad guys, the ones who complicate matters citing budget and time overruns in the face of a directors efforts to make the perfect, best film he can. Its out of all this tension though that films flounder and fail, as films if not as products made for a profit. I mentioned in an earlier post the popularity of horror films as a genre when many if not most of the horror films made are very poor, but part of their popularity is how cheap they are to make, how easy they are to market and usually how that translates into something profitable.

major2So again, trying to get back to Major Dundee– its a film that had problems from the start, and its one of those films that was made without a finished script (which, if you consider my own thoughts regards how important a foundation a good screenplay is, speaks volumes), and I’m always surprised and aghast at how often that happens. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was being shot and Robert Wise didn’t have a finished script, the last third of the film was a blank, pretty much, and they made it up on the fly, mostly. Which seems an incredible thing considering the investment into what was such a major motion picture and no small reason why the film turned out as troubled as it did. So it was with Major Dundee in regards how the film starts very well- the first half, at least in the extended version, is a great entertaining film- but slowly fragments into a incoherent mess as it runs into its second half, with a very odd romantic element for Dundee that seems abruptly thrown in from some other movie, and very messy finale with characters suddenly acting very strangely (probably because whole scenes have been cut or never even shot). Cutting the budget and production schedule and shooting it in a very difficult location were only part of the films problems, as was feuding actors and its drunk and antagonistic director but hey, the making of Major Dundee would make a great picture in itself. 

Part Two of this review of Major Dundee will follow…

Dark City (1950)

dark1You waited long enough. Why Now?  Well, this film first came to my attention just a year or so ago, when I noticed that Arrow had released a Blu-ray of it- since its a film noir, and stars the man-mountain that is Charlton Heston, it stayed on my radar, and I actually came close to buying it when I noticed it in a sale. Anyway, it turning up in the Talking Pictures schedule this week finally sealed the deal with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Yes, I know I’m 70 years late to the party, but I have the excuse I wasn’t born back then. Also, films like this don’t appear on the networks at all often, even though they patently should do.

So whats it about, then?  Charlton Heston plays Danny Haley, a small-time bookie whose operation is shut down by the police one time too many, leaving him keen to get out of town and try his luck elsewhere- if only he could get the money to do it. Danny thinks his luck has at last changed when he stumbles across Arthur Winant, a businessman from Los Angeles with too much money in his wallet. Danny and his work associates sucker Winant into a series of poker games where they fleece him of all his money- including $5000 that isn’t his. Winant staggers off distraught and the next morning the hustlers learn he has killed himself in shame; Danny and his cronies try to cover their tracks but later learn that Winant had an older brother who is out for revenge.

Any good? Perhaps not a classic, definitive film noir but very good nonetheless. Its curious seeing a young Charlton Heston channelling a sulky, moody character struggling with right and wrong and lashing out at the world- there’s clearly all sorts of nascent Ben Hur bubbling away here, and isn’t it strange, with this film featuring a “Introducing Charlton Heston” credit, that that most famous of all epic movies was released in 1959, just nine years later. What a meteoric career Heston must have had. That being said, I’ve noticed on IMDB three earlier credits for Heston so perhaps the credit referred to it being his first starring role in a major studio picture or something.

So worth waiting for? Crikey, yes. Some of these film noir are just fantastic, full of mood and atmosphere and menace, and they manage to spring twists and surprises, even for old jaded fools such as I, who’ve seen too many films and rarely get surprised anymore. Modern films tend to telegraph things too easily, I guess, and I’m pretty certain that script-writing is something of a lost art. As a movie buff, seeing such an early film for Heston is particularly fascinating too- like Clint Eastwood in bis early films (like Play Misty For Me a few days back), its clear this guy was destined for movie stardom.

Worthless observation? Co-star Lizabeth Scott, who plays Fran, a singer hopelessly besotted with Danny, was no stranger to noir films (that’d be her husky, too-many-cigarettes-voice, I’d imagine) and later starred in an Elvis Presley movie (Loving You, 1957)). And its great, also, to see Dean Jagger as wise cop Captain Garvey; he was a very fine character actor who I recently also caught in Hammer’s X: The Unknown. Yeah, sometimes its a small world watching films from a certain era. Finally, no, this film is not to be confused with the 1998 Alex Proyas sci-fi thriller that borrows so many noir tropes itself.

The mighty Ben-Hur

benhurWell, continuing my recent penchant for all things epic, last night I rewatched what is arguably the mother of all epics, Ben-Hur. They don’t make ’em like they used to- Hollywood does ‘big’ now in ways that were undreamed of in the pre-CGI era, but I think its clear that many of those old Hollywood epics can teach us a thing or two about characters and drama…  and old-fashioned things like well-structured, cohesive scripts.

Music, too- I think its an important thing we are missing in current films, the role music used to play. Miklós Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur, which won him one of the film’s eleven Oscars, a single films record Oscar-haul at the time later equalled by Titanic and The Return of the King (and frankly, neither those two later films should be mentioned in the same breath as Ben-Hur– they simply aren’t in the same league) takes such a major part of what makes the film work, from the Overture through to the Main Title… indeed, almost every scene of the film (barring the actual Chariot Race, really, where its absence serves just as much importance) features music score. Its almost like a musical narration informing the viewer what is happening and why. Watching Ben-Hur and taking in the role of the  Rózsa score I am always reminded of Basil Poledouris’ brilliant score for Conan The Barbarian, which likewise provided a wall of sound throughout its film (in Poledouris’ case, lending meaning and gravitas to Arnie’s monosyllabic Cimmerian).

The work of the actors and their performances in Ben-Hur cannot be over-stated; it occurred to me re-watching the film last night how the scenes must have seemed when being filmed on-set without that score lifting and intensifying every moment, every victory, every betrayal. The level of intensity in the performances in the cold light of a midweek morning or afternoon, on-set over multiple takes, minus that music carrying and lifting, well, it must have been a whole different experience on-set. I guess that’s the magic of movies: ‘magic-time’ indeed, as Jack Lemmon used to describe it. Its possibly a skill of actors we take for granted- reaching a level of performance and drama ‘cold’, without having that music helping.

Such a pity George Lucas was never that good a film-maker, or had the necessary ambition, to lend his Star Wars prequels the level of ‘epic’ and meaning that Ben-Hur has. Its clear that the Pod-race of The Phantom Menace takes so much inspiration from the Chariot Race of Ben-Hur, but this sequence has a drama and meaning that Lucas’ film totally lacks. Why couldn’t Star Wars prequels be as serious and dramatic and self-important as Ben-Hur? Why couldn’t the Evil Empire of a galaxy far, far away be as mighty and real and tyrannical as Rome, and Anakin be as strong a character as Judah Ben-Hur or, perhaps as flawed and doomed as Messala? Star Wars is often described as modern myth for our times, but it seldom had the ambition or self-seriousness of mythology, always content to be ‘just’ entertainment or ‘just’ a children’s matinee serial.

Oh well, I’ve caught myself daydreaming movie what-ifs again. What a thing it must have been, back in 1959 and 1960, watching Ben-Hur in cinemas for the first time, that sense of epic spectacle, of event. We have ‘event’, tent-pole releases these days but I doubt anything could really recapture what Ben-Hur must have been like when it came out.

The Great Escape Pt 2: Papillon (1973)

pap1Ladies and gentlemen: the Randomness of the Universe. Its a terrifying thing; Lovecraft wrote about a universe of chaos, of a mindless cosmos utterly ignorant of us, and our place so insignificant within it that the stark reality of it was enough to drive men mad. Patterns within it, a sense of meaning, well, that’s all just constructs of our minds, it’s just the way our brains work. Its why we ‘see’ recognisable shapes and objects in clouds. We discern patterns that aren’t really there- we see ‘God’, we see ‘meaning’ in our lives, some rational explanation for existence. We are good storytellers too.

How does any of this relate to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 prison epic Papillon?

Well, here goes: several weeks ago I stumbled upon the film Papillon airing on BBC that evening. This in itself was something of unusual good fortune, as I watch very little (network) tv and seldom look at the tv listings or digital guide. Papillon has always been a minor-favourite film of mine. I remember first seeing it one Christmas, decades ago now, back when films were an important part of the Christmas holidays and staying up late to watch a movie something of a treat. Thinking about it, maybe that’s how I fell in love with movies. I must have been maybe twelve at the time, something like that, and the film made quite an impression. I’ve seen it several times since, but not for some years now- possibly it was back in the VHS era when I last saw it. Yeah, thats going back some, when you think about it.

So anyway, I set the tivo to record it, thinking it would be good to see it again, in HD now and widescreen too. Maybe I would eventually get around to it, maybe I wouldn’t- quite often I record films on a whim and wind up deleting them to make room for other, more pressing, stuff. I have seasons of tv shows on that tivo hard-drive (latest casualty of the delete button, the Legion tv series).

papostMidway through last week I received an email from Quartet Records, a French label who released a 2-disc set of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack awhile back. In itself this wasn’t unusual, once you are on someone’s mailing list in this email age you are guaranteed occasional news of releases, and I have had a few from them time to time. This time though the email referred to an imminent release of theirs which caught my attention- they were releasing a new edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Papillon soundtrack, expanded from newly-discovered master tapes featuring music not used in the film. I’d always been as fond of the score as I was the movie, but had never bought any of its previous incarnations on vinyl or CD… not sure why- but in anycase, here was an opportunity to finally rectify that with a definitive edition. And hey, no double or treble-dipping involved, for once- and so soon after the release of Goldsmith’s Thriller scores on disc (as I wrote on the FSM forums, how weird that life can still surprise with new Goldsmith releases after so many years).

So anyway, although I was coming off (another) twelve-hour stint at work in another long week of them, I took ten minutes to log-in to the Quartet website and preorder the disc. Just as well I did, as it turned out- this edition was limited to 1000 copies and sold out within a few days of being announced, indeed the very next day after I put my order in (apologies if I’ve just spoiled your day).

So here we are with the randomness of the universe deceiving us with some apparent reason. I stumble upon the film airing on BBC 2, I record the film on my tivo, the score suddenly turns up out of the blue in some definitive edition… its like I’m being told to rewatch the film again. It’d be rude not to, right?

Papillon was directed by  Franklin J. Schaffner during a spell of great movies that included the original Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and would go on to include Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil– all of these films also being scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Its quite a run of films. And the scores are greats too, with Goldsmith in his prime. Actually, this was likely why I first paid attention to the film so many years back- I would always watch films that I knew Goldsmith had scored for. Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid back then- most people watch films because of who stars in them, and here was I watching films because of who had scored the music (I should have gotten out more, clearly, but the ‘seventies could be pretty dismal).

PapillonPapillon dates from 1973. Films were different then, even prison epics like Papillon. It has a slow, steady pace that is quite deceptive in how it establishes character and place. It seems very low-key, surprisingly lacking any Jerry Goldsmith score for almost half of its two and a half-hour running time. The film pulls you in with its brutal sense of reality, of time and place. Have I mentioned that this is one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made? Well, it is possibly second only to The Shawshank Redemption… and watching Papillon again I have to note that it must have been an inspiration for Stephen King when he wrote the original story that The Shawshank Redemption was based on. The sense of male-bonding, the passage of many years of trials and adversity, the inhumanity of jailers and inmates, the life-affirming message of friendship and freedom. Its like a cinematic guide to how to write/shoot a prison movie: shady characters, noble inmates, betrayal, loyalty, cruelty, harrowing ordeals such as periods of solitary confinement.

The difference between the two is clearly that Papillon is based on an (allegedly) true story from the best-selling memoirs of Henri Charrière, a burglar arrested for the murder of a pimp (which he always denied) and sent to the brutal penal colony in French Guiana; Devils Island and the St. Laurent du Maroni prison camp from which escape was deemed impossible. Back when prisons were, well, prisons, with no pretence of rehabilitation or mercy. While some doubt has since been placed upon Charrière’s story, its nonetheless a great story and makes for a great movie. The actors are pretty epic too, to be honest. Steve McQueen is hugely charismatic with a great presence onscreen ( a ‘natural’ actor I guess, who, like actors such as Charlton Heston or even John Wayne brought a huge sense of personna to every role, regardless of their actual acting talent). Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive too, and the kinship and bond these two actors demonstrate clearly prefigures that of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman years later.

pap4One observation- there’s a sequence in the film during Papillon’s escape attempt that he wears a loose-fitting shirt and slacks and a crumpled hat, and he looks like the clearest prototype for Indiana Jones. Its so like he’s wearing the same outfit, I had to do a doubletake. Don’t know if this was simply accidental or something indicative of Spielberg or Lucas loving movies- I seem to remember James Steranko doing pre-production art for Raiders, maybe he was a fan of Papillon. Or maybe its just more of that random universe slipping cosmic tiles into place. In anycase, Steve McQueen looks like he could have been a pretty cool Indy. He would have liked doing his own stunts, for one thing…

Very often as I’ve gotten older, revisiting ‘old’ movies can be rather disappointing, but not so here- this film is more impressive than I remembered. There is something fascinating in the widescreen framing, the steady, long-held establishing shots that don’t try to amaze you in the way so many current films do with fancy camera moves and effects work. The cinematography of course is all in-camera, with none of modern film-makings tinkering in post; it looks very authentic and real. There’s just something ‘classy’ and confident about it. Yeah, films were rather different back then. Less ‘wow’, and all the better for it.

Familiar faces of actors from that 1960s/1970s period grace the film leaving a warm, fuzzy feeling of reacquaintance, memories of other films, other tv shows. A nostalgia for the period. The Goldsmith score when it finally takes hold is wonderfully indicative of his scores of the time and movie music in general back then. Its clearly a film of its time. Its a genuine great, and oddly not available here in the UK on Blu-ray yet. What gives? This film so deserves a good HD presentation on disc with a commentary track or two- odd how some films have still somehow slipped through the net.

Its a great prison-break movie and a great reminder of just how good a star Steve McQueen was. Hmm. Maybe its time I rewatched The Great Escape again…

 

The Naked Jungle (1954)

naked1This is one of those films that made an impact on me when I was lad-  the threat of the relentless army of soldier ants was pretty scary and the experience of watching this film bugged me (sic) for years. An airing on TCM offered me an opportunity to revisit the film after those many years, and in HD to boot. In all honesty, its another one of those situations where a film hasn’t aged at all well, and I guess this was me saying farewell to it as I doubt I’ll ever watch it again- perhaps some films should stay in our childhood past, and we should revisit them with extreme caution.

While the ants no longer dominate the film quite as much as I thought they would according to my memories (they are actually regulated to the last half of the picture), what does rather dominate the film are the sexual undercurrents that quite completely passed me by as a young lad. For a young lad murderous ants are far more interesting than sexual frustrations and heaving bosoms, but with me older now and the ants relegated to the background…

The Naked Jungle betrays its era with a frankly offensive treatment of its native South Americans. It is 1901, and Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is the indomitable White Man who has spent 15 years carving his own plantation out of the wild jungle, bringing civilisation to the wild natives who work his land for him and serve him. Having been there since the age of 19, he realises he should be raising a family in this kingdom he has created, so he marries an American woman by proxy and has her sent down to him like some mail-order bride. The feisty redhead that has been selected for Leiningen (he has never met her) is Joanna (the beautiful Eleanor Parker), but he balks at the fact that she is actually a widow, declaring her to be ‘used goods’.  The sexual undercurrents are quite obvious; Parker pouts and sighs and Heston scowls and snarls with frustrated desires. There is some wonderful innuendo, as in the line when Parker snaps  “If you knew anything about music, you’d know that the best piano is one that’s been played!” 

naked2It’s a terrific potboiler really and the sexual tension is almost palpable. In spite of her protestations, since Leiningen is a virgin and Joanna does not reach his standards of propriety, Joanna must return from whence she came, but this is interrupted by the onslaught of an army of soldier ants that threatens the plantation and their very lives. Yeah, well, this is the part of the film that I remember from watching it as a lad. Again, the film betrays its age and ‘acceptable’ politics of its day, as the natives threaten to flee but are shamed into staying by Joanna who cries “Leiningen doesn’t run! Leiningen’s woman doesn’t run!” Yes, she gets her man, and he gets his woman, and again its up to the white man to save the day as he single-handedly races into the army of ants to blow the dam that will destroy the horde, sweeping the army aside in a torrent of water as the jungle reclaims the plantation.

Well, with me older and wiser now in more enlightened times, the film does leave a rather bitter taste in the mouth. Its a film of its time, I guess, but the vivid and rather blatant sexual intrigues that dominate the first half of the film made it a quite surprising watch after all these years. And it is rather curious to see such a young Charlton Heston so soon after having seen him in The Omega Man– he’s almost funny in this, a brooding man mountain wracked by sexual frustrations. Some would describe his performance as wooden, but of course its actually pure Heston.

Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard…

omega1I don’t care what anyone says, The Omega Man is a cool film, and a great old-fashioned sci-fi film. Whatever ‘old-fashioned’ means- maybe its just the lack of any cgi or virtual sets, or its blatantly dated 1970s fashions and cars. Its odd that, for all its possible faults as a movie, it remains just plain cool, and gets cooler as the 1970s get more distant. Maybe you had to live in the 1970s and remember that decade with some fondness, but whenever I watch The Omega Man I’m rushed back to my childhood. Not that my childhood featured desolate streets and bad guys in spooky hoods prowling in the night, but… Likely people born in the 1980s or 1990s look back at something like The Omega Man rather differently, with the wrong kind of horror. But to me, its a cool film, a film made back when August 1977 was still in the future. Can you even get your head around that?

For one thing, it stars movie legend Charlton Heston. Say what you like about him as an actor or his real-life politics, but thanks to his Biblical epics he always seemed larger than life (Omega Man’s love-interest Rosalind Cash remarked to Heston  “It feels strange to screw Moses”). Certainly, Heston oozes a screen charisma so lacking in actors of our generation.  He had such a run of films back then, fighting a planet of talking apes in 1968, playing the last man on Earth here in 1971, and then discovering the horrifying secret of Soylent Green in 1973. I never really think of him as a sci-fi actor, but he made three solid genre films back then, and his presence is a big part of their success. Somehow a big ‘name’ like him gives them a certain gravitas and allows them to stand the test of time better than others. I remember an issue of Fantastic Films that had an interview with Heston discussing his genre films- I’d love to dig that out sometime. As I recall, Heston was fairly critical of The Omega Man, believing it to be one of his lesser films. He was probably right, but if he were alive today, I think he might be surprised how the film has survived and gained a cult status.

Sure, The Omega Man is patently a film from 1971 that was trying just too hard to be relevant in those turbulent times, with its interracial romance, casual female nudity, ‘hip’ slang/dialogue and its fashions (that jacket with the logo on the back sticking the finger to ‘the man’). There is something about the music score, funky and cool and jazzy, which I have mentioned here before. Its dated in places but when the main Neville theme kicks in its irresistable. But maybe all that is just what makes it so cool? Its like a film from some other planet (maybe the 1970s is some other planet), likely part of its appeal- it isn’t sophisticated, it is just a simple thriller with the good guy at odds with lots of hooded bad guys in an urban wilderness.omega2It is a little odd that they don’t even go for any matte paintings to give some scale to the ruined desolation, going instead with panoramic ‘live’ shots usually filmed in LA on Sunday mornings in deserted streets. I’m told you can actually see other cars moving in the far distance in wider shots but what the hell, I don’t even look for them; I’m enjoying watching the movie too much to care.  Why look for goofs when you’re enjoying a movie?

One of the films clear failings is that the director Boris Sagal was the wrong director for a film like this. While its actually fairly effective, given its limitations, in depicting its dystopian, nightmare vision of the end of the world from a monstrous man-made plague, I’ll admit there’s a certain lack of imagination in the direction of the film. ‘Functional’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe it. Heston suggested the closing shot of him lying, arms open as if in  Christ-like crucifixion, that is a flash of imagination (perhaps ill-judged, by which I mean it crudely sticks out) that the rest of the film lacks. Of course the shot also inevitably references Heston’s earlier Biblical epics, as much as possibly the Hollywood star’s ego.

I’m pleased to report that the Blu-ray edition of The Omega Man, whether you buy the HMV-exclusive or import the triple-feature edition that I did, sports a pretty solid picture. Its sharp and has fine detail (maybe a little too much for some make-up effects) and is no doubt the best the film has looked since its theatrical showing back in 1971. The extras are slim, unsurprisingly; a few minor featurettes, one of them a promo featurette from when it was made that particularly dates the film. They are rather interesting, but a commentary would have been nice.