June Thorburn and The Scarlet Blade

scarlet2Here’s the thing with old movies (I hate that term, ‘old’ movies, but I guess we’re stuck with it): they are like time machines; indicators of past social-political viewpoints and behaviour. People smoke too much and in social places, people drink too much, men display disparaging views and treatment of women, women occupy demeaning roles… Mind you, in these current times every movie seems to display reckless abandon of social-distancing measures with almost heartbreaking displays of people shaking hands, hugging, fraternising in public spaces… movies even not-so old proving to be sobering time machines.

Old movies also exist like moments of space-time sealed in celluloid amber; actors and places frozen forever. I think that’s the most haunting thing of old movies, totally seperate from their narrative worth. In movies, Kirk Douglas is forever Spartacus, Christopher Reeve Clark Kent…Part of the ‘magic’ of movies, and part of the horror, too, if I’m honest. Films stand there heedless of change, while we can’t help but carry on.

The Scarlet Blade dates back to 1963 and was a fresh discovery for me, one of the films in Indicator’s most recent Hammer collection on Blu-ray. The film is a period action yarn set during the English Civil War, when Roundhead forces led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries in an usually serious and dark role) and Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed) terrorise Royalist locals while hunting down the Scarlet Blade (Jack Hedley) a weird amalgamation of Zorro and Robin Hood. After King Charles I is captured by Judd’s forces the Scarlet Blade is abetted by Judd’s own daughter, Claire, who is secretly a Royalist herself and who puts herself in danger to help the cause.

scarlet3The film is a standard adventure yarn that is benefited by great performances and a strangely downbeat finale that lends the whole thing a suddenly unexpected pathos, almost. What struck me most about the film, however, was the performance of June Thorburn as Judd’s daughter, Claire, who abets the Royalist resistance and secretly betrays her father, thwarting his attempts to trap the Scarlet Blade. Its a great part and despite an unflattering wig, is brilliantly played by Thorburn, striking me as a curious forerunner of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia over a decade later. Quite a few times whilst watching The Scarlet Blade I remarked that I could imagine a Star Wars movie featuring Leia in something like this; dedicated, fiery and rebellious in secret before revealing herself as a resistance fighter when receiving the Death Star plans. Maybe Disney will spin a ‘young Princess Leia prequel’ someday, it wouldn’t be their worst idea. Which is obviously digressing somewhat, but Thorburns performance was so good, and seemed so ‘modern’, it really left an impression on me. Maybe I was expecting so little in a Hammer romp that it caught me off-guard.

June Thorburn was, as one would expect, a very attractive woman, with features that reminded me of a young Natalie Wood, and I was sure I’d seen her in some film before- actually, I hadn’t, it was likely just her similarity with Wood that put me wrong- and her performance was so good the first thing I headed for in the special features after watching the film was the featurette about her. Which is where the darkside of these old movies takes hold- because its so brutally easy, in just fifteen/twenty minutes, to summarise a whole life and career, affording an almost Godlike perspective that seems especially cruel when that life-story is as harrowingly cut short as Thorburn’s was.

By the time Thorburn lit up the screen in The Scarlet Blade, her middling film career (highlight: playing the Forest Queen in Tom Thumb in 1958) was largely already over, with The Scarlet Blade proving to be her penultimate film, reducing her to occasional television roles on British television until her sudden death in 1967-  five months pregnant with her third child, she was returning to London from Spain when her Iberia Airlines flight crashed at Blackdown, Sussex killing all 37 people on board. She was just 36.

So within minutes, really, of being so enamoured by her part in this Hammer film and looking forward to seeing what else she’d done in film, I’m being crushed at the unfairness of her terrible demise in such tragic circumstances. Such is the power of perspective; a chatty talking heads piece and a subsequent search of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is the dark power in all this watching of old movies. A simple search can result in a filmography spanning an entire career and a simple two-paragraph bio sum up a life in bullet-points of ‘born/married/died’. It can be depressing enough when a lengthy and rewarding career is involved, only more so in the case of someone like Thorburn. My cursory internet search resulted in ghastly commentary by police officers involved in searching the air crash wreckage for body parts: a sobering return to reality after enjoying the Hammer film’s gentle romp.

Part of the sadness of course is that Thorburn’s film career never really took off in the way it might have, and possibly should have done (on the strength of The Scarlet Blade, anyway). I think its true to say she was a better actress than perhaps The Scarlet Blade deserved. Her bio strikes me as that of a confident and talented, independent woman; she apparently had a reputation for being something of a tomboy growing up (again, how very Princess Leia) and it does seem that the role of Claire perfectly suited her. Maybe she got the right role, at last, but stuck in a Hammer b-movie it was hardly going to light up the film industry.

So anyway, strike this up as another of those sobering experiences of watching old movies. I did enjoy the film very much and will no doubt re-watch it before long (Indicator’s Blu-ray edition is typically excellent) but I’m sure that experience will be laboured somewhat with the knowledge of who June Thorburn was and what became of her just a few years later.

The Pirates of Blood River

piratesbrA matter of perspective, it turns out, is everything when watching old catalogue titles such as this for the first time. Hammer’s The Pirates of Blood River is, on first viewing, a rather average adventure flick obviously limited by Hammer’s production abilities: part of the charm of Hammer’s films are its stable of familiar faces (here Christopher Lee, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed) in front of the camera, and the familiar (re-used) sets that also return time and time again in various slightly re-tweaked guises. But films can’t always get by on such charms, and sometimes they come short- The Pirates of Blood River doesn’t have any ocean, or even have a coastline, never mind an actual pirate ship (bar what is evidently stock footage used over the main titles). As one might expect from a landlocked production shot entirely at Bray studios and the nearby Black Park Lake (and a sandpit) the film rather feels like a pirate film in name only and maybe Hammer pushing ambitions too far.

piratesbr2And yet perspective helps: after watching the film and feeling rather nonplussed (I swear Christopher Lee looks so totally bored throughout I felt sorry for him) I watched this Indicator disc’s special features and finally some of the magic of the film was finally unlocked for me. The Pirates of Blood River was released in the summer of 1962, in time for the school holidays and edited (originally) to achieve a ‘U’ rating ensuring schoolboys the country over could go watch it. It proved to be an absolute smash hit with its target audience and would lead to further such adventure films from Hammer. The perspective that this is really a children’s adventure film finally allowed me to understand the film: I think I was expecting one thing and got something else (certainly its more Enid Blyton than Robert E Howard) – I suspect I suffered some misdirection from the title and Hammer’s reputation for horror. Some of the cuts to ensure a ‘U’-cert were later restored and this version is evidently much stronger than the version that thrilled children back in 1962, but it obviously remains fairy tame stuff (one of the special features compares the cuts/alternate versions, and its pretty interesting).

So I’m certain that when I get around to re-watching this film I’ll most likely enjoy it much more than I did this first time around. Perspective really is everything, sometimes, in just the same way as expectations are too: so many times I watch a film expecting little and really enjoy it, and sometimes expect too much and am disappointed. This is a very good example of finely curated special features aiding the viewer to appreciate a film, and is a very good advert for such releases. Its sad how special features and elaborate releases like this fifth Hammer box-set from Indicator are becoming so much rarer these days (certainly becoming increasingly reserved for catalogue titles, with even new ‘blockbuster’ titles relegated to EPK extras that do the films little justice). If I’d just stumbled upon this film on a television airing or streaming channel I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it all. Instead it turns out to be a welcome addition to my Blu-ray collection of Hammer films and one I’m sure I’ll enjoy more next time around.

Flee to the Movies… but not The Omega Man (obviously)

omega1Listening to Horner soundtracks in my car, commuting to work. Every day a new score, every day less cars on the roads, less people on the streets, the world slowly becoming more The Omega Man. Its funny how the routine drive to/from work that was once pretty changeless day to day, week to week, month to month, has suddenly been so transformed. It was getting so I could drive to work and judge whether I was running early or late by at which point on my journey I would pass by certain pedestrians walking on their regular routes to work or shop etc. I drive alone in my car but the familiar faces almost seem like partners on my journey. A woman who I have figured out to be a teacher at a nearby infant school (regular as a watch term-time, absent during the holidays), or an old man with a hunched back walking his dog… both gone now, and so many others. Suddenly that whole landscape has changed. Call it Covid-19 Blues, a lonelier car journey than usual.

Has anyone else noticed the horrible feeling of reality come crashing in, when you’ve just watched a good film and then its over and -boom- you’re back to the Real World with all this Covid-19 nightmare going on? I suppose its all a part of the escapist appeal of movies anyway, but its pretty horrible, lately, coming out of a great movie and suddenly realising whats really going on. There’s a moment of ignorant bliss, basking in the ‘reality’ of the film before that glow fades and reality bites. Anybody else pointedly looking at watching more positive/escapist films than stuff, like, say The Omega Man or Soylent Green etc? Its funny how, when life is fine, you don’t mind dipping into something Dystopian or dark, but when everything in the world turns lousy, that stuffs just plain too horrible to bear and you need something rosier, happier.

There was a time, back in 1982, when I remember Blade Runner seeming dark and moody and Dystopian. Its practically a Utopian Ideal now.

I hadn’t listened to Horner’s scores for awhile. I stumbled into it by accident, my USB stick on random suddenly dropping onto the Main Title of Brainstorm, and that was it, I was hooked, the random function deactivated, listening to the whole album. Brainstorm is such a clear, fresh and astonishing work: the first James Horner score I ever bought, on a TER vinyl that I feared I’d wear out (a few years later it would be one of my very first purchases on Compact Disc, an expensive Varese import). Pretty much every day I would be driving to a different score, my USB stick going alphabetically through the ones I’d put onto the stick a few years back: Braveheart, Cocoon, Glory… the latter in particular bringing incredibly vivid memories of distant days, of blasting out Charging Fort Wagner racing through Cannock Chase in my first car (a banged-up old death-trap posing as a Mini Cooper) with my mate Andy: sun-drenched forest and Horner in his prime, glorious indeed. Its funny the things you remember like yesterday, when yesterday can be such a blur.

Mind, the last several yesterdays don’t deserve remembering at all, do they, so I welcome forgetting the details, the general darkness enough to send me scurrying for something pleasantly positive from my shelves of discs. I re-watched Gladiator the other day (albeit a 4K-UHD edition I bought in a sale a little while ago) and it was great, held up pretty well. Oliver Reed is magnificent in that; every time I watch Gladiator I wonder at what the hell happened with that guy, what amazing roles/films we missed out on because of what I assume were his personal demons. I don’t know much about him- its a funny thing, mind, how he seems to turn up in quite a few of the Hammer films in the Indicator box-sets (he even has a turn in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll that I watched a few nights ago: there was the weird feeling, seeing him in Gladiator, so old worn-out looking, shortly before his death,  while in Jekyll, so young and handsome (I guess the women in the audience adored his angry charms) with his whole life and career ahead of him.

johncAnother film I watched the other night, well a part of it, anyway, as I stumbled on it channel-hopping just prior to going to bed, was John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s wonderfully evocative love-letter to the old sci-fi pulps that Star Wars etc summarily ‘homaged’. Hadn’t seen it for awhile, I really enjoyed  what I saw and really need to find out my Blu-ray copy for a proper re-watch at a more civil time. It still seems mightily impressive,  looking gorgeous and sounding even better, with that fantastic Michael Giacchino score. That was a film from just before Disney purchased Lucasfilm (indeed, John Carter was killed by that particular deal) and you know, it was pretty clear to me from just watching half-hour of it, that the film was better than any of the Disney Star Wars films that replaced it. Whenever I see John Carter I wonder about all those other adventures on Barsoom we were robbed of. There ain’t no justice.

Ugh. I feel my mood slipping darkly. Maybe its time for The Omega Man after all… if you can’t beat it, wallow in it.

The Damned

damned1This is a particularly odd one, but its also one that, strangely enough, I’ve absolutely completely fallen in love with. Part of Indicator’s long-awaited fourth Hammer box, this  ably demonstrates the genius and worth of these collections, as its another excellent film that otherwise I would likely have never heard of, never-mind had opportunity to see.

The Damned really doesn’t begin well- it starts like a very horribly dated, awkwardly British gang-culture film, in which a group of leather-clad teenage bikers armed with knives pick upon unwitting tourists in the coastal town of Weymouth at the start of the 1960s. A female member of the gang, Joan (Shirley Anne Field) baits the attentions of frankly predatory middle-aged American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) and once led into a back street by Joan the gang sets upon Simon, beating him up and stealing his money. So far, so ordinary, and not helped by the film’s soundtrack being dominated by a terrible song that acts as the biker anthem which infects the viewer like the most terrible ear-worm one could imagine (by frequent Hammer stalwart composer James Bernard, and part of a quite effective score).

But immediately it becomes apparent that something else is going on under the surface, and I find myself wondering if Hammer’s Weymouth was an inspiration for Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The leader of the gang is Joan’s brother, King (Oliver Reed) who clearly has an incestuous fascination with his sister that is hidden from no-one. He seems to externalise his own self-revulsion by beating up any man who dares touch Joan (“I’ll kill any man that touches you,” he promises her). There’s a tension between them that goes unrealised but carries some weight on the proceedings: at one point later in the film a child asks “Mr. Stuart told us that brothers and sisters can’t marry. Is that true?” Its a peculiar question that comes out of nowhere, but would seem to be a sideways reference  to King and Joan. There also seems to be an unspoken friction between King, Joan and Sid, another member of the gang who shares furtive glances with Joan, indicating some kind of secret relationship of their own that threatens Kings ‘ownership’ of his sister and the solidity of the gang.

Something about Simon attracts Joan, even though he’s clearly old enough to be her father (or maybe because of that, as King and Joan appear to be orphans), and she finds her way back to Simon once she’s temporarily escaped the watchful attentions of her brother. Simon, of course, comes across as something of a sleaze- a divorcee who has left his career behind in America and has seemingly decided to spend his mid-life crisis yachting around Europe preying on women young enough to be his daughter. I mean, this guy is the nominal ‘hero’ of this film, but it makes you wonder if anyone has Joan’s best interests at heart.

Simon resumes his pursuit of Joan, and at one point when he’s got her on his boat out to sea he attempts to awkwardly force himself on her, an attempt which begins to feel like a rape until she manages to push him away. Joan demonstrates a peculiar ill-judgement when, after asking him to put her back ashore, she acquiesces to his  desires once she’s led him to an isolated cottage and he finds them a bed. Its a really uncomfortable sequence and there’s something genuinely unlikable about all the leads, really, which just makes it so interesting to watch. Naturally all the attention Joan is aiming towards Simon causes King to become increasingly unbalanced and dangerous as he sets the gang searching for them.

damned2At this point I haven’t mentioned Bernard (Alexander Knox) who is in charge of a military installation above the cliffs outside of the town, or his relationship with Swedish sculptor Freya (Viveca Lindfors) who arrives planning to spend the summer in the cottage in which Joan ‘enjoys’ her romantic tryst with Simon. Freya teases Bernard for an explanation of whats going on in his military base, but Bernard’s work is a secret, he warns her, that were he to confide it with Freya, might condemn her to death. Definite shades of typical Hammer there.

As you can likely tell, its a very strange, dark and surprisingly disturbing film- and I haven’t even gotten to whats REALLY going on, or whats REALLY disturbing about the film, as its all part of the genuinely surprising twist that transforms the film into a science fiction film. Suddenly the Lynchian gang-culture, the sexual taboo obsessions of brother and father-figure with poor confused Joan, melt away as the film becomes something else entirely. Its disorientating and quite brilliant, and I can’t explain why: this film is getting on for sixty years old but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Maybe in a few months time, maybe.

Ten minutes in I doubted I’d ever watch the film again, by the time it ended I was keen to devour the substantial on-disc special features and give the film an immediate second viewing. Its quite strange and brilliant. I’m not going to suggest its perfect- in some respects it hasn’t aged well and there is an oddness about some character motivations and twists that don’t quite gel, but maybe even because of this, on the whole its a bizarre and fascinating film. It really struck some kind of chord in me, and I wish I could expound on some of those twists that transforms the film into something so special. Its a very bleak, odd and mesmerising film that ranks as one of the major surprises of this year for me.

 

 

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

league2Major Race, looking at a portrait on the wall: Is that your wife?

Lt.Col. Hyde: Yes.

Major Race:  Is she dead?

Lt.Col.Hyde: No, no. I regret to say the bitch is still going strong.

Somebody get Guy Ritchie on the phone. While I’m much averse to remakes/reboots etc, this is a film just begging for a modern-day remake with an A-list of Brit actors and Guy Ritchie’s crime-comedy skillset at the helm. I can hear the ‘ker-ching’ of the box-office cash registers. Just take my money, dammit. What? It won’t sell overseas? Whats Chinese for… oh, never mind.

Even for a film made in the late 1950s, this film has something of a modern-day wit and sensibility. The brilliant cast chews up the dialogue with gusto, and indeed, what a cast: Jack Hawkins, Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesay, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes and even Oliver Reed in perhaps one of the most ill-judged cameos ever, a briefest of moments that likely haunted him for years, it’s so awkward and camp. A reminder that even the biggest of movie stars need to put food on the table before stardom calls.

The story is a boys-own adventure by way of a sojourn in the world of noir:  Colonel Hyde (Jack Hawkins), having suffered enforced redundancy from his beloved army, recruits seven other dissatisfied ex-servicemen for a bank robbery.  Each of his carefully-chosen recruits are experts in their particular field, forced out of the service and each with shady backgrounds and need for money.  Hyde reasons that only a crack team with military discipline and training can pull off the daring heist that he has in mind. Naturally there are twists and turns and tense moments, and the film dates from a period when crime really wasn’t seen to pay, so you can guess how things end up, but its a cracking yarn well-told, and quite daring, I think, for its time in how it tackles topics like bad marriages, promiscuous wives and hidden homosexuality.

A surprising treat and a cracking entirely British film the likes of which we don’t see anymore. Not unless Guy Ritchie picks up the phone, that is…

league1

*The League of Gentlemen is currently doing the rounds on the Talking Pictures channel available on Freeview, Sky, Virgin media etc. and is well worth looking out for.

Captain Clegg (1962)

cleggAnyone who reads this blog will know my appreciation for the great Peter Cushing, and how I will make a point to watch anything that has him in it. Captain Clegg is a pulp thriller/boys own adventure yarn that was likely already out of fashion even when the film was released, but over fifty years later this does give it a certain old-school charm. Based on a series of Doctor Syn books from the 1930s/40s that Cushing himself was a big fan of, it tells the tale of coastal pirates/smugglers who work under the guise of marsh ghosts. Cushing is magnificent playing a village priest with an alter ego, full of wit and charm and a wicked triumphant grin whenever he has the upper hand. You can tell he had an absolute ball playing this character, there is a twinkle in his eye throughout.

Its all fairly tame and predictable compared to today’s standards but its a strong Hammer effort production-wise, with a great cast alongside Cushing (featuring some familiar Hammer faces such as Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed in an early supporting role). Its great fun, even if it will always be destined to (deservedly) sit in the shadow of Hammers more popular Dracula/Frankenstein movies. Its a wonder this ever managed to slip out onto Blu-ray at all, considering some of the ‘bigger’ films yet to get a release.

Some have complained that this is a 1080i release, with a ratio issue. Can’t say I really noticed (but then again I’m due at Specsavers next week so maybe I shouldn’t voice an opinion). The 1080i business no doubt results from a master source problem and while its regrettable, I hardly think a fairly obscure film such as this would get a new remaster. Eyesight withstanding, it looked fine to me. And its Peter Cushing at the top of his game. Come on; it’d be great in VHS on a black and white CRT, and this disc is cheap as chips. I’m just glad we got what we got. Its a fun little movie.