Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal knowledge and experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon childhood in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.” He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when he started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life miserable. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. Far be it for me to reveal any more of the plot. You’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a pure hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics. This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the UK in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come up. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Five) — The British Period and Thereabouts

Actor-musician Johnny Depp at the turn of the half century

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

That old proverb about “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” could never be attributed to our eponymously titled, middle-aged thespian, i.e., the remarkably adept Mr. John Christopher Depp II, aka Johnny Depp.

With a rich bevy of diverse acting assignments before him, many as varied and sundry as stars half his age would absolutely die for, Depp remained at the forefront of the most-sought-after-screen-personalities category from the New Millennium onward.

Not all of Johnny’s cinematic endeavors were paved with gold, mind you. In spite of ever increasing budgets, exhaustive work schedules, stratospheric salary demands and critical brickbats, the still-popular film actor continued to impress reviewers and fans alike with his versatility and wide-ranging choice of projects.

Indeed, the time he spent in Western Europe, directly (and indirectly) correlated to his live-in relationship with the French-born Vanessa Paradis, certainly had a pervasive effect on how, where and when Depp would put in his next big-screen appearance.

Many of his choices were, for lack of a better word, “odd” or bordering on cameo and/or “supporting player” status. Still, nothing could stop the ever-striving JD from seeking out more satisfying challenges — something that would continue to occupy his hyperactive imagination for years to come and ensure a prominent spot on his expanding curriculum vitae.

‘Lasse, Come Home!’ — Chocolat (2000)

Johnny Depp (l.) helping himself to a treat from Juliette Binoche’s hands in Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

One of Depp’s better-than-average characterizations occurred in his next international film foray. Swedish movie director Lars Sven Hallström, more commonly known as Lasse Hallström, tapped Johnny Depp to appear in the whimsically themed Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by English author Joanne Harris. Lasse and Johnny had formerly worked together on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which had also placed an ensemble cast in quirky yet tantalizing situations.

Filmed on location in both France and England, Chocolat stars the amiable French actress Juliette Binoche as chocolatier Vianne Rocher, a sort of modern-day fairy godmother but without the magic wand and pixie dust. Instead of those standard accoutrements, Vianne uses sweets to charm her customers. In Binoche’s words, “Vianne sells small dreams and little comforts through chocolates.”

Featured as well are some familiar names as repressed village types, among them a dour-faced Alfred Molina as the killjoy mayor Comte de Reynaud, fabulous Judi Dench as the resentful landlady Armande, and Matrix alumnus Carrie-Anne Moss as her straight-arrow daughter Catherine. Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules), one of the few female film composers under-utilized by Hollywood at the time, wrote the starry-eyed music score.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin (reuniting with Ms. Binoche since their joint appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the abused wife Josephine, hulking Peter Stormare as her menacing husband Serge, veteran actress Leslie Caron as a lonely widow, John Wood as the old geezer secretly infatuated with her, and America’s own charmer, Johnny Depp, as an accommodating barge owner named Roux with a faux Irish brogue.

Despite a misleading ad campaign showing Binoche feeding Johnny a bite-sized morsel (which implied a much larger part in the picture than he actually had), Depp’s short-lived contribution as Juliette’s gypsy lover is fleeting but significant enough to merit our consideration.

Blues Brother: Juliette Binoche listens to Johnny Depp as he tunes his resonator guitar in ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

By the way, Johnny’s guitar playing is for real and, according to director Hallström, it was the first time he played the instrument on screen. In addition, his little dance with Dame Judi is an absolute delight and rekindles fond memories of the Brando-Dunaway partnership in Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco.

In a 2015 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Binoche admitted that neither Johnny Depp nor Alfred Molina liked the dark, tasty treat very much. In fact, Depp spat out his portion of chocolates after each of their takes, which goes against the spirit of the script’s premise. Ah, but that’s real life for you.

Indeed, this fanciful tale, billed as a “sinfully delicious comedy” (wink, wink) of a stagnant French village frozen in time, abounds in intimate side-stories. But over the “main course” of the feature, Binoche manages to change even the humorless mayor’s mind through her delectable confections. Which goes to show that sweetness and light make everything right.

Since the story takes place at Easter (as close to Christmas time as you’re liable to get), Vianne can be seen as the angel third-class Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, or at best one of Charles Dickens’ three ghosts. Which ghost would that be? Take your pick! Then ask yourself this question: Who can know the mysterious ways of whimsy?

From Hell (2001)

A deadly serious Depp as Inspector Abberline in ‘From Hell’ (2001)

From the unbearable lightness of dark chocolate, we plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind. From Hell, a thriller loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic-novel take on the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, was Johnny’s next venture.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, collectively known as the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), From Hell stands as the official start of what we like to refer to as Johnny’s “British period,” wherein the actor displayed an ersatz (yet perfectly respectable) English affectation in several big-budget pictures.

Prior to From Hell, Johnny participated in two minor features, specifically The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter) and Before Night Falls (under Julian Schnabel’s direction, the fellow who befriended street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and who made a motion picture about him — see my review of that film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/an-artists-life-for-me-ten-motion-pictures-that-ask-the-question-does-life-imitate-art-part-three/).

Another Anglo-French flick, The Man Who Cried is an operatically-themed work that re-teamed Johnny (fourth-billed from the top) with Christina Ricci, his co-star in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. For yours truly (opera lover that I am), to hear actor John Turturro emoting as Italian tenor Dante and singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearl Fishers (voiced by true-life tenor Salvatore Licitra) is a bit hard to swallow.

In the biopic Before Night Falls, Johnny forgoes his heartthrob status to take on dual character parts: that of the transvestite Bon Bon (an unintended reference to Chocolat, no doubt) with that of Lt. Victor; opposite the Spanish Javier Bardem, who portrays gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Viewers may be reminded of Depp’s wacky assumption of famed Golden Turkey Award winner Ed Wood (if you see the movie, you’ll know what we mean).

Javier Bardem (l.) has a falling out with “Bon Bon” (Johnny Depp) in Julian Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000)

Depp’s skill at vocal mimicry came in handy in the above features, in that he successfully undertook a Romanian accent in The Man Who Cried, as well as a Cuban one in Before Night Falls. Beyond that, both films slipped off the radar as far as box-office was concerned. But the one that got them all talking again came direct From Hell (quite literally in fact).

You might call this a “slasher fest” or body horror-cum-murder mystery. However you see it, From Hell will curdle your hair. Depp takes the part of Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict who spends his off hours in a den of haze and smoke, with horrid “visions” of killings dancing in his head. He takes a personal interest (a little too personal, it turns out) in investigating what became known as “the Ripper murders,” due mostly to the brutal way the homicides of Whitechapel prostitutes were committed.

Poster art for ‘From Hell’ starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham

True to form, the inspector falls in love with, and tries to protect, one of the targeted streetwalkers, Mary Kelly (played by a much-too-wholesome Heather Graham). And why were the Whitechapel hookers being targeted for execution? Well, if you believe the cockamamie theories put forth, they were all unwitting participants in a coverup perpetrated by Freemasons (what, those guys again?) to protect the libidinous Prince Albert, heir to the English throne and Queen Victoria’s randy grandson, from being caught with his breeches down. Shame, shame, shame, Uncle Bertie!

Robbie Coltrane (the giant groundskeeper Hagrid from the Harry Potter series) plays Abberline’s assistant, Sergeant Peter Godley, in good-natured, friendly-banter fashion. Mr. Coltrane uses his large frame to buttress Johnny’s slenderer figure. They come across as squabbling combatants à la Laurel and Hardy. Ian Holm (The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) invests the role of Dr. William Gull, a former surgeon and physician to Her Royal Highness, with just the right amount of highborn reserve; while Ian Richardson (Dark City) as Abberline’s superior officer is impatience personified, and perfectly capable of cutting anyone down to size with a mere look.

Much of the thunder was taken out of this newest screen version of old Jack’s tawdry tale — mostly, in our view, due to a previous trip down this same rabbit hole via the much better Murder by Decree from 1979. In that earlier incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a fumbling yet pensive James Mason) are assigned to investigate the Ripper murders and wind up implicating the usual suspects (Freemasons, Royal Family hijinks, etc.). We can take the comparison further with the recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as master detective and loyal cohort, respectively, where the recycled Freemasons plot gets skewered with an absurd sleight-of-hand angle.

In the Hughes Brothers’ grislier adaptation, which author Moore vehemently distanced himself from (with claims of their having turned the inspector into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”), the blood and gore quotient was turned up to 11. Somehow and despite the distasteful aspects to the story, both Depp and Ms. Graham managed to avoid the temptation of a tagged-on “happy ending” by a parting of the ways (oh, what sweet sorrow). Sadly, a disillusioned Inspector Abberline closes out his police career with one last shot of dope in a public bath house.

Any resemblance to Johnny’s deadly serious Inspector Abberline with his deft comic portrayal of the bumbling Constable Ichabod Crane is sheer coincidence. The two detectives are worlds apart in temperament and tone, as are Depp’s love interests in each. Incidentally, Depp uses a mild Cockney accent to underscore Abberline’s humbler background to that of the supercilious blue-blooded twits populating the upper-echelons of British society.

Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as drug dealer George Jung in ‘Blow’ (2001)

What came out From Hell, and what many critics and reviewers drew from Johnny Depp’s performance, was his affinity for and attraction to ensemble work. Similar to fellow actor Denzel Washington (an older star whom we’ve also written about), but unlike his contemporary Tom Cruise, Depp much preferred to share the limelight with his fellow practitioners.

You can interpret that decision as either claiming the glory or spreading the blame, but Johnny was serious about taking a backseat to fame and fortune. He already had it, to put it plainly; let others have their turn.

This led to his next assignment, one most leading men would either give their right arm for or refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Directed by Ted Demme (filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s nephew), the movie Blow (also from 2001) sported an unusually unlikeable and unglamorized central figure for Johnny (in blond tresses, no less); that is, of 1970s cocaine dealer and drug smuggler George Jung.

One thing about this production that stood front-and-center from the rest was that Johnny would no longer need to hide his American speech patterns underneath a foreign accent. That would be left to the Latin participants, namely Penélope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Gimenez, and others. Cruz, however, proved especially egregious in the part of Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha, a shrill-toned shrew that, as the story progressed, became impossible to tame.

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp & Jordi Molla party hearty in ‘Blow’ (2001)

On the other hand, reliable and complimentary support would come from the likes of the excellent Paul Reubens (the former Peewee Herman) as Derek Foreal (no, really, for real!), Jung’s middleman in La-La-Land; Cliff Curtis as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel; a sullen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) as Jung’s old man; and young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) as Jung’s daughter Kristina Sunshine. This was a “reel” family affair (no pun intended).

Another, more important discovery was Johnny’s apparent concern for the downtrodden, i.e., the lowlifes, the miscreants, the so-called “scum of the earth” — people best left to wallow in their own misdeeds. This “empathy” for the down and out, for lack of a better word, would manifest itself on-and-off the screen in future portrayals that would bring the restless actor low box-office receipts but much professional satisfaction.

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Seven): ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Episode V — Parents and Their Children

Heads in the Clouds

Threepio, Artoo, Luke & Leia contemplate their fate at the conclusion of ‘Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

The Millennium Falcon follows the trash dump to freedom (along with the unseen bounty hunter, Boba Fett, hot on its intergalactic trail). Meanwhile, Luke is doing much better in the control department by staying calm and collected. But in the midst of his Jedi training with Master Yoda, which involves levitating rocks and such, he has an eerie vision of a city in the clouds, with Han and Leia in trouble. He can see into their future, and it’s not a pretty one.

To save his friends from further suffering, Luke decides to leave Yoda’s training camp. Yoda counsels against interrupting his lessons, but Luke is determined. As he makes this decision, the Millennium Falcon approaches the Cloud City. Han Solo expects a safe port of call and some kind of warm welcome from his old gambling partner, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). There are extra added FX inserted here, which are good for what they are: extra added effects.

The slick and debonair Lando (“old Smoothie” as Han describes him) indeed welcomes Han and his friends to his turf. He extends his hand to Leia and offers to help them and their ship (which used to be HIS ship, by the way). Assured of his cooperation, the band enters the premises under Lando’s protection.

Threepio lands himself in hot water almost immediately by meddling where he shouldn’t. His usual habit of poking his nose where it doesn’t need to go gets the better of him, however, as C-3PO has his head and arm blown off in the bargain (he “thought” he had heard an R2 unit in there….).

Back on Dagobah, Luke is preparing to depart on his X-wing fighter with Artoo. A vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him, warning Luke of the Dark Side’s power. Despite Old Ben and Yoda’s admonitions and predictions of disaster (“This is a dangerous time for you” and “if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil”), the headstrong youngster takes off after his friends.

Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) exchanges thoughts with Master Yoda (voiced by puppeteer Frank Oz)

“That boy is our last hope,” sighs Obi-Wan forlornly, as his form slowly fades away in the background.

“No, there is another…” This phrase is cryptically intoned by Master Yoda, a foretaste of what is to come. (In the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater where I first saw the picture, this casual aside left most viewers baffled. Others with more insight speculated among themselves as to what Yoda meant. As for myself, I had trouble just understanding what the hell the little toad had muttered to himself.)

Back at Cloud City (amidst another round of superfluous FX), Princess Leia is pacing back and forth in her quarters. She voices concern about the missing C-3PO to Han. Chewie, for his part, has gone in search of the unruly robotic butler. He finds the overly curious droid in a junk room, spread out in pieces as the furry star pilot attempts to put him back together.

In the ensuing scene, Lando invites the trio to dine with him, sans the physically discombobulated Threepio of course. Unfortunately, “old smoothie” leads our hearty adventurers straight into the gloved hands of Lord Vader himself, thanks to Boba Fett’s relentless tracking of their whereabouts.

Luke and Artoo are on their way at last! But as Chewbacca wails and carries on in the cell, Han is painfully tortured (vide the unearthly electronic sounds that fill the room). To occupy himself, Chewie tries to rebuild Threepio. He can’t make heads or tails out of the mess, a veritable Leggo set of spare parts.

And what about poor Han? Forever suffering the torments of hell, that’s what! Everything hurts, which will also be a running gag with actor Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones series (produced by George Lucas and directed by StevenSpielberg). In just about every subsequent feature after Empire, Harrison will be battered about, poked, punched, pulverized and beaten to the ground. It’s a miracle the actor survives these ordeals. Perhaps being frozen in carbonite isn’t such a bad idea after all! At least he’ll be protected from the elements (and from physical abuse).

Han (Harrison Ford) feels awful after being tortured; Chewie (Peter Mayhew) gives him a helping hand

Luke’s X-wing fighter ship now approaches. There’s a quick wipe to Lord Vader outside the holding chamber. Vader orders that Leia and the Wookiee remain in Cloud City, to which Lando objects. Vader cuts him off with a curt “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.” Agreeing to Vader’s terms (!), Lando mutters under his breath that the deal he’s made with the Empire gets worse as time goes by. Oh, yeah!

Han is returned to the holding chamber in worse shape than when he left it. While Leia soothes his aching head, Lando returns to his “friends” and informs them that Han is to be turned over to the bounty hunter for delivery to the loathsome bandit, Jabba the Hutt. Jabba wants his prize trophy (Han had squelched on their deal, too, no doubt). Ticked off at his seeming betrayal, Han gathers up what strength he has left to take a poke at Lando’s chin. Before things get out of hand, Lando halts the brawl. He is powerless to prevent what will occur.

Frozen in Time (And in Carbonite)

The freezing facility is made ready for the inevitable. Certainly, the excellent sound effects in this sequence (the work of sound designer Ben Burtt), and in the ensuing lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, are to be commended. But before Luke’s entry into the fray, Han Solo will be the test subject. The rising smoke and gases from the freezing chamber, along with the red glow, evoke shades of a fiery hell. In fact, the heat from the blast-furnace sets made Peter Mayhew’s Chewie costume stink to high heaven.

The prevailing darkness and flame-red colors fall on the actors’ faces, which give them a hellish glow. Chewie throws a Wookiee fit in order to save his friend Han, but Han looks up at the eight-foot-tall, walking fuzz-ball and tries to soothe his jangled nerves. He charges Chewie with taking care of the Princess. Leia then turns to Han as they kiss goodbye. Their love theme resounds on the soundtrack. Han is taken to the freezing platform to meet his maker.

When Han is being lowered into the pit, Leia cries out, “I love you.” Now, one would half expect a repeat of that hackneyed “I love you, too” phrase, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t satisfied. Repeating take after take after take, and rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, “Kersh,” as he was fondly called, wasn’t convinced that another “I love you” would do the trick. Finally, in a last-ditch move, Kershner had Harrison do a final take where the ad-libbed line “I know” came out of the actor’s mouth. No one believed the scene was over when Kersh yelled “Cut!” but the line stuck. Not only did it stick, it went on to become a classic. And Harrison’s “Clark Gable meets John Wayne” acting impression became legend as well.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) faces the freezing chamber

And, as “frozen in carbonite” Han Solo is taken on his journey back to Jabba, so will Luke be taken to the Emperor as a prize gift from Lord Vader — or so Vader thinks.

In the meantime, Threepio has been jabbering on about Chewie’s lame efforts at putting him back together à la Humpty-Dumpty (it’s a clumsy attempt at channeling the classic nursery rhyme, one might suppose, but so be it). He doesn’t realize that Chewie is more concerned about sparing the life of his buddy Han, who had previously asked him to save his rage for other times. Threepio must have witnessed Han’s stealing a parting kiss from Leia who, in the film’s most passionate exchange, FINALLY declares her ardor for the half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

And what does Han Solo remark in return? “I know.” To echo the words of the late Governor Tarkin: “Charming to the last.” In these so-called final moments, Han has gained a measure of nobility that, up until now, his character has rarely if reluctantly displayed. His stature with Leia has risen ten-fold by his noble self-sacrifice. Furthermore, it’s a credit to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, and also to Kasdan, Lucas, and Kershner’s keen sense of where the Leia-Han romance needed to go: it had to take center stage. At this juncture, you could say it’s the big setup for what will be the ultimate reveal at the end. But that is yet to come, dear fans! “Patience, young padawans! Patience!”

While audiences are still fawning over this sequence, i.e., where Han’s body is frozen stiff in the coal-gray-black carbonite — his expression is a mixture of pain and horror, as well as fierce resolve — we are being distracted from the real crisis. That is, how will Luke Skywalker be able to overcome and resist the Dark Side when faced with such unrelenting power, the power of the Dark Side, which he knows very little of?

As indicated above, John Williams’ love theme rises tellingly in the orchestra as the rectangular carbonite container (reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only sideways) hits the ground with a resounding thud.

May the Military Force Be With You!

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) eyes the bounty hunter Boba Fett

Vader hands Solo over to the bounty hunter and demands that Calrissian escort Leia and the Wookiee to his ship, the aptly-named Star Destroyer Avenger. When Lando balks at this change in their plans, Vader cuts him off with a terse, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Lando shoots a knowing look at the cool bald guy with the radio-transmitting headset (known as Lobot), who silently acknowledges the message: they are planning a little getaway of their own.

With blaster in hand, Luke cautiously wanders the Cloud City’s halls. He catches sight of Han’s frozen-in-carbonite form and the armed escort that accompanies it. Without prior warning, bounty hunter Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison) shoots his formidable weapon at him while Leia shouts of an impending trap. In true “hero’s journey” fashion, young Luke is heedless of her admonition. Artoo has the door close on him (redolent of a monstrous mouth with teeth) as Luke enters the freezing chamber for the final confrontation with Fate and the dreaded Dark Lord.

Luke surveys the layout of the freezing chamber before he is abruptly greeted by a thrice-familiar voice. “The Force is with you, young Skywalker,” Vader croons in sepulchral tones. “But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Now begins another of those Captain BloodRobin HoodSea Hawk sequences whereby Vader and Luke cross lightsabers in what seems like every nook and cranny in the Cloud City complex. Luke’s blue-shaded lightsaber mixes with Vader’s red-toned one — Akira Kurawawa’s samurai influence runs deep in this and subsequent scenes.

Luke (Mark Hamill) challenges Lord Vader (body by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) to a lightsaber duel

In the meantime, Lando is able to free Leia and Chewie from their bonds, only to have Chewie almost choke the life out of him for his seeming betrayal of old buddy Han. He’s saved from his fate, however, by choking out a few breathless phrases that there is still time to save his friend. Oh, good to hear! They make haste for the east platform. Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO are reunited at last, even if Threepio is a bit worse for wear (and as cranky and complaining as ever).

Vader and Luke continue to battle it out in Edo-era fashion. Vader also exudes over-confidence, as to be expected, but Luke surprises him with some deft maneuvering in and out of the freezing chamber.

“Impressive,” observes Vader, “most impressive.” He takes a few swipes at young Skywalker. “Only your hatred can destroy me,” he bellows, but is that really part of Vader’s plan?

Vader calls on Luke to release the full brunt of his anger. It is the only way the Dark Lord can be vanquished. But Luke manages to fight his way out of a conflict. Losing his balance, Vader plunges into the outer rim of the pipes surrounding the freezing chamber. There is a brief pause in the action, enough for Luke and the audience to catch their breath.

Luke jumps in after Vader. He snoops around the reactor room — again, the superb sound effects in this next sequence are tops in their field. From nowhere, Vader re-emerges. Undeterred, the Dark Lord throws everything at Skywalker that isn’t nailed down (and then some!). Luke impotently swats at the oncoming objects, one of which breaks open a window. He is then sucked out of the room and thrown onto a platform in another of those omnipresent Forbidden Planet moments, with Luke holding on for dear life — literally on the edge! The look is all there, down to the triangular shaped doors, in another of George Lucas’ nods to his sci-fi past.

Back to Lando and company: he cautions everyone to leave Cloud City at once before the Empire takes over operations. Panic ensues, of course (in one more of those “expanded” scenes — completely uncalled for, in my opinion). Artoo is able to open the hanger door where the Millennium Falcon is housed. While Threepio hurls a series of comical one-liners at his mechanical playmate (having mostly to do with the inoperative hyperdrive), Lando and Leia manage to board the Millennium Falcon in time to make their escape.

Trust Your Feelings!

In the same instant, Luke and Vader are back at it. The Dark Lord duels it out with the novice Jedi Luke to the edge of the platform, where Luke nicks Vader’s right arm with his lightsaber, a nice move. It looks like he made a dent in the bout, until that fateful moment when Vader slices Luke Skywalker’s right hand off with his lightsaber.

Vader makes an offer that Luke must refuse

Luke will remember this encounter for the rest of the series (and what remains of his screen life). Indeed, this is the pivotal episode in the hero’s journey where the confrontation with one’s parent reaches mythical proportions. In both Classical and Norse mythology, we have copious parallels to consider: in Siegfried’s chance encounter with the Wanderer (or Wotan) in Wagner’s Ring cycle; in Oedipus’ slaying of his father Laius from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles; and in Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her killing of his father Agamemnon.

Luke’s conflict with himself has also reached a climax, in typical Greek fashion, with the discovery of his true origins. Left with no defenses and suffering an open wound on his hand (emblematic as well of Amfortas’ unhealed wound via the lance held by the magician Klingsor), Luke holds on for dear life with his left arm. Vader, sensing his quarry is trapped (and knowing of his true origins), plays psychological mind games on him. In fact, messing with another’s mind is part of the routine (i.e., that “old Jedi mind trick” gimmick).

Conveniently, Vader suggests a way out of Luke’s predicament by offering to complete his training. In getting Luke to trust his intentions by making them sound reasonable and acceptable, Vader uses reverse logic to validate his offer. In other words, the ends justify the means; it all sounds so logical and doable, but it really isn’t.

So what does Vader offer? In essence, Vader reveals his plan to usurp the Evil Emperor by bringing Luke to his side — to the power of the Dark Side, that is. First, he claims that with their combined forces, both he and Luke can end “this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” I’ll bet! But Vader’s plans go much deeper than that.

Lord Vader emphasizes the “power of the dark side” to Luke Skywalker

Fortunately for film fans, Luke imagines himself capable enough to reason this out. “I’ll never join you!” he blurts out. Atta boy, Luke!

Now comes the big reveal! Realizing that he must level with the young man, Vader tells Luke the thing he longs to hear but wishes he never heard. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough,” Luke counters roughly. “He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

Luke cannot accept this knowledge (or rather, he refuses to swallow the bait). Knowing who the messenger is, he cannot possibly be receptive to the message. Can you blame him?

In response, Luke hurls a mighty and repeated “No!” to Vader’s metallic visage. But Vader presses the matter further by proposing a father-son union. By joining with him, they can depose the Emperor. It is Luke’s destiny. Together, they can “rule the galaxy as Father and Son.” This does not sit well with Luke’s plans. In defiance of his parent, Luke releases his grip on the platform — and on life as he’s come to know it — and floats down the long garbage chute (similar to the one where he, Leia and Han had fallen into in Episode IV: A New Hope).

Consequently, Vader is left empty handed. What must he have felt at that moment? Did he expect this kind of reception from his young recruit? Did he search his feelings, as the Evil Emperor had earlier advised him, or did he not heed his master’s word? To be exact, Vader poses the same message to Luke: “Search your feelings; you know this to be true!” One wonders, too, if Luke bothered to heed his advice.

There are many avenues to explore in not only Luke and Vader’s troubled and unrealized relationship, but also in Vader and the Emperor’s long association as slave and master, and as pupil and mentor. In reality, if Vader was “happy” with his current situation, why would he want to destroy it by killing the hand that feeds it, i.e., the Emperor (and with Luke’s help no less)? Was it ruthless ambition, lust for power, or unnatural selection? Or was it a case of “destroy or be destroyed”? By firing the first shot, he may have tried to avoid a problem before there was a problem to resolve.

Luke hangs on to what he can, which amounts to a few metal rods of support in open airspace. He keeps asking himself why Old Ben (Obi-Wan) never told him about his father. Calling out telepathically to Leia, the Princess forces Lando to turn the Millennium Falcon around so they can rescue Luke. Hesitating at first, Lando is convinced to help Luke out after Chewie bares his teeth in his direction. Upon arriving at Cloud City’s base, Lando goes through the top hatch and drags poor Luke to the safety of the cargo hold.

TIE fighters are in hot pursuit as they try to dodge their attack. Too, Vader is back on his flagship Star Destroyer to view the chase from his vantage point. In like manner, Vader calls out telepathically to Luke, who is in sickbay convalescing.

“Luke, it is your destiny….”

“Ben, why didn’t you tell me?”

The Millennium Falcon is being tracked by the Star Destroyer, and Lando and Chewie are STILL trying to jump into hyperspace (deactivated beforehand by the Imperial crew at Cloud City). Providentially and despite Threepio’s claims of “delusions of grandeur,” Artoo is able to reactivate the hyperdrive which blasts the fast-moving Millennium Falcon beyond Vader’s reach.

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) tries to put C-3PO back together again

In an instant, the ship has disappeared from view. Vader is left on the deck of the Star Destroyer to brood and pace back to his quarters. This brings relief to the furrowed brow of Admiral Piett, who believed that he would be the next victim of Vader’s unappeasable frustration with how badly things have turned out.

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia takes Luke to his bunk and plants a kiss on his lips for encouragement. The ending is a cliffhanger encased in true cliffhanger fashion. Rebel spaceships abound throughout. Lando vows to regroup on the planet Tatooine to find and bring back Han. In sickbay, Luke is being fitted with his new bionic hand. With feeling restored to his pulse, he approaches and embraces Leia. The two look out into the endless reaches of outer space as the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to rescue Solo.

Juxtaposed against the original New Hope ending, where, facing the viewing audience, the entire crew is rewarded for their bravery, the same cast members (minus Chewie and Han) are seen from the rear, their backsides turned to those same viewers in contemplation of their future. What does that future hold for our intrepid companions?

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes     

Delivered in Pain: The Birth of Nations — Operas, Musicals and Movies with Patriotic Themes (Part Two): History Blends with Drama

Battle of Wills and Wonts

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) gives Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) an ultimatum in “The Buccaneer” (1958)

It is instructive, at this point, to compare two of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epics, both dealing with the pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte under the title The Buccaneer. Taking place in and around New Orleans, and along the bayous and waterways of early 19th century Louisiana known as Barataria, the two films (the first, from 1938, in black-and-white; and the other from 1958, in glorious Technicolor and eye-catching VistaVision) feature, as a minor protagonist, the equally colorful and charismatic Major General Andrew Jackson.

Known to history as  “Old Hickory,” Jackson served as our seventh U.S. president from March 1829 to March 1837, but the films concentrated instead on the prior events of the War of 1812 as well as the lead-up to the Battle of New Orleans of 1814.

The War of 1812 was considered a “do-over” for the defeated British army of King George III. The forces of His Royal Majesty that came back to fight in America — that is, to pick up where their colleagues had left off during the Revolutionary War — were, in essence, battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns. No pushovers as far as trained combatants were concerned, the Red Coats were met by a raggedy bunch of volunteers, misfits, Native Americans, poorly equipped Creoles, and African American slaves.

Joining them were bands of desperados governed, to put it mildly, by French-born adventure seeker Jean Lafitte (his actual surname is spelled Laffite, with two “fs” and only one “t”). Fabulously wealthy due to their plundering of Spanish ships off the Caribbean Coast and near the Gulf of Mexico, Lafitte and his followers, to include his brothers Pierre and Alexandre (who is called, in both film versions, by the bogus moniker Dominique You), opted to fight for the American side.

History records that Lafitte’s brother, Pierre, had been captured and arrested for piracy by the Americans. Their idea was to use Pierre as a bargaining chip in order to obtain Lafitte’s loyalty to their cause. Yet, frère Pierre is neither mentioned nor found in either screen production. Logically, the screenwriters may have felt that one brigand named Lafitte was one too many for viewers to handle.

Franciska Gaal, Fredric March & Akim Tamiroff in the 1938 version of “The Buccaneer,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Nevertheless, both films capitalized on the involvement of Maj. Gen. Jackson, who took command of a seemingly hopeless situation by spearheading the defense of New Orleans. What Jackson found when he got there was a city without means, i.e., one lacking in even the basic necessities regarding supplies and munitions so as to put up a spirited resistance. Jackson was forced to contend with Lafitte and his cutthroats, whom he despised for their thieving ways (in the films, Lafitte offers his services in return for a pardon for his offenses).

The American Governor, William Claiborne, however, took a harder line. He had previously refused to deal with Lafitte. Instead, he ordered that his base be attacked by U.S. warships harbored nearby. This led to Lafitte’s retreat into the bayous and the capture of some of his followers, including Dominique You. Interestingly, “General” You and his compatriots had once served in Napoleon’s Grand Army as cannon and artillery men. Their expertise in that department would eventually prove useful to Jackson and his buckskinned squirrel shooters. He would need them, as well as their ample supply of arms and ammunition, for the coming confrontation with the British.

Born in the State of Kansas, actor Hugh Sothern, who played Maj. Gen. Jackson in the 1938 version of The Buccaneer, was a supporting player (usually uncredited) in flicks from the 1930s and 40s. A distant relative of Jackson’s (Sean Wilentz, Professor of History at Princeton University, labeled him a “collateral descendant”), Sothern conveys his kinsman’s volatile personality, hair-trigger temper, and the capricious, mercurial nature of a future U.S. president and Creek Indian War hero.

Be that as it may Jackson’s appearance in the picture is rather inconsequential. As was the norm with DeMille, there were a plethora of character vignettes by a who’s who of veteran scene stealers, each scrambling to top the other. Among the players were Akim Tamiroff as Dominique You, Walter Brennan as the cantankerous Ezra Peavey, Ian Keith as Senator Crawford, Franciska Gaal as Gretchen, Margot Graham as Annette de Rémy, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, Beulah Bondi as Aunt Charlotte, Robert Barrat as the duplicitous Captain Brown, Fred Kohler as Gramby, and Stanley Andrews, Paul Fix, Luana Walters, John Rodgers, and, in cameo roles, Spring Byington as Dolly Madison, Montagu Love as Admiral Cockburn, and literally dozens of familiar faces.

One of those faces belonged to that of DeMille’s son-in-law, the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn, as Beluche. He’s the fellow with the faux Creole accent and thin black mustache. Oh, wait! They ALL had faux accents and thin black mustaches — in particular, the titular buccaneer himself, performed by Wisconsin-born Fredric March. DeMille had earlier cast him as Marcus Vinitius in The Sign of the Cross (1932), one of those Romans vs. Christians toga epics. March portrayed Lafitte in typically flamboyant fashion, what with the florid dialog he was forced to speak. Incredibly, March’s impersonation rang true to history. He even bore a resemblance to the real Lafitte, at least as far as the few surviving portraits of the scoundrel had showed.

Anthony Quinn (far left), with Fredric March as Jean Lafitte (far right)

Incidentally, one of the reasons for the capture of Lafitte’s brother Pierre was to thwart his illegal operation of converting the vast plunder they had acquired into hard cash. In shutting down Pierre’s operation, Lafitte was deprived of his livelihood and, consequently, whatever creature comforts his nefarious lifestyle had provided. Survival, then, not patriotic fervor, was central to Lafitte’s participation in the American effort to thwart the British invaders. Still, Professor Wilentz attests to Lafitte’s bravery under fire, not only earning a pardon for him and his men from then-President James Madison, but the “warm public thanks from an admiring Jackson.”

DeMille’s writers, Jeanie Macpherson, Edwin Justus Mayer, C. Gardner Sullivan, and historian and biographer Harold Lamb, took sufficient liberties with the story to provide a fairly decent box office return on Paramount Studios’ investment. Of course, they had to invent several romantic interests to hold the audiences’ attention (recalling the mantra of the period, in that you had to have a woman in there to soften the rough edges).

Two decades later, DeMille decided to revisit his earlier take on the matter, much as he had done with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. With the worldwide success of The Ten Commandments remake in 1956, DeMille intended to make an even splashier musical version, believe it or not, of Lafitte’s participation in defeating the British. However, after suffering a heart attack while filming the strenuous Exodus sequence in the Sinai desert, DeMille was forced to curtail his activities. Taking the title of executive producer instead, C.B. assigned the directing chores to Anthony Quinn (his one and only effort behind the cameras), with DeMille’s production duties being taken over by longtime friend and associate, Henry Wilcoxon.

Sadly, the remake of The Buccaneer turned out to be “a disastrous flop,” according to John Douglas Eames in The Paramount Story, who blamed the lack of DeMille’s formidable “creative drive” and the “unexciting account of the pirate Lafitte” on the producer-director’s waning health.

To give the 1958 version its due, the picture is beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Loyal Griggs (The Ten Commandments, 1956), with the addition of three-strip Technicolor providing a feast for the eyes. The $5 million budget allocated toward it was well spent on period costumes, and suitable props and paraphernalia, a DeMille trademark. Unfortunately, the film is dead on arrival as drama, with the fabricated love triangle between Lafitte (an uncomfortably bewigged Yul Brynner), Gov. Claiborne’s nubile daughter Annette (the lovely Inger Stevens), and the roguish Bonnie Brown straining credibility to the breaking point.

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

Much of the casting, too, was well below par for a purported DeMille epic. For instance, the newly invented character of Bonnie Brown (Claire Bloom), the Creole offspring of the renegade Capt. Brown (Robert F. Simon), struck few onscreen sparks. And the normally reassuring presence of such movie heavies as Ted de Corsia, Bruce Gordon, and John Dierkes (their familiar mugs hidden behind false beards and whiskers), along with E.G. Marshall as Gov. Claiborne, and Lorne Greene as the excitable Mercier, verged on egregious miscasting, especially in the flowery wardrobe, oversized pirate hats, and ersatz “period” dialog they were burdened with. Even the hulking Woody Strode made little impact.

At least the magnetic Charles Boyer was capable of bringing some authentic French flair, along with a decent accent, to Dominique You (in addition to his requisite Continental charm), while the querulous Henry Hull took over for Walter Brennan as an annoyingly persistent Mr. Ezra Peavey (“Don’t forget to drink your milk, Andy!”).

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

The whole studio-bound affair should have been scrapped from its inception. So why did DeMille (or rather, those who were laboring in his stead) insist on the remake being made at all? For one, the wily producer-director had a nose for box office receipts, despite the dreary results and poor reviews. For another, he likely wanted to capitalize on the crackling screen chemistry generated by Yul Brynner, the “sexy bald guy you love to hate,” and the latest hunky male attraction, Charlton Heston. Their initial teaming in The Ten Commandments (as Pharaoh Rameses and the Deliverer Moses, respectively) proved most lucrative for Paramount Studios’ coffers, offering viewers a fascinating glimpse of divergent acting styles.

In between these two assignments, both Heston and Brynner were kept busy with movie work. In Heston’s case, he appeared in three back-to-back productions for three different studios: Three Violent People (1956) for Paramount, which reunited him with Anne Baxter, another alumnus from The Ten Commandments; Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal, with maverick movie director Orson Welles and Janet Leigh; and The Big Country (1958) for United Artists, directed by William Wyler, and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives. This was followed by his biggest part yet, in Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) for MGM, another widescreen remake of a silent classic.

Old Hickory (Heston) with Mr. Peavey (Henry Hull) in defense of New Orleans

As for Brynner, he fulfilled two contracts for Twentieth Century-Fox in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956) with Deborah Kerr, and Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman; and for MGM’s The Brothers Karamazov (1957), with Maria Schell and Claire Bloom, his costar in The Buccaneer.

In analyzing the two versions of The Buccaneer, we can determine that both films followed a similar scene-for-scene path. The latter feature included some slight alterations from the earlier flick, in that the refurbished script (by Jesse Lasky Jr., son of Jesse Lasky, one of DeMille’s fellow Hollywood pioneers; and Bernice Mosk) substituted the boy Miggs (Jerry Hartleben) as the lone survivor of the downed fictional ship, the Corinthian. In the original, the person confronted with the news of the Corinthian’s sinking was Gretchen (Franciska Gaal).

The climax and dénouement are along similar lines. One of the major differences, though, lies in the approach to Lafitte’s personality. Yul Brynner adopted a pensive, brooding mien, quite apart from Fredric March’s self-confident air and lack of diffidence. Brynner also took to sitting in an armchair, a makeshift “throne” (à la Rameses II) in his bayou stronghold — with one leg over the armchair’s side. Hardly regal behavior, but one more appropriate for a pirate. Brynner’s pose may remind audiences of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

In addition, there’s a 1950s allure to the two love interests: that is, the blonde and blue-eyed, playing hard-to-get New Orleans belle Annette, portrayed by a young Inger Stevens; contrasted with the bayou wildcat, an untamed, dark-haired, and purposely darker-skinned Bonnie, played by Claire Bloom, a tomboy in petticoats and fancy ball gowns. This is reflective of the general change in attitude towards women of the time, the gathering storm of the coming sexual revolution. Annette Claiborne is the highborn daughter of Lousiana’s governor, a trophy bride over-and-above Lafitte’s social station and class; whereas the plain-Jane Bonnie Brown (she apparently wears her name on her sleeve) represents the forbidden other-side-of-town gal, an easier mark for Lafitte, so he may think, but a huge step down in rank.

Inger Stevens as Annette Claiborne, speaking to Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner)

In both films, Lafitte accepts the blame for the sinking of the Corinthian and the death of all on board. And in both, he and his cohorts are run out of town, so to speak, with Maj. Gen. Jackson giving them an hour’s head start. The disparities, as they were, between these two features are in the setup and execution. The 1958 remake leans more toward the “dramatic” if heavy-handed side, and was obviously influenced by the theater (a remnant of DeMille’s silent movie days). Although DeMille remained on the sidelines for this one, his unseen hand is everywhere, most convincingly with the last-minute entrance of Heston’s Moses-like Andy Jackson, spouting fire and brimstone in an otherwise strained situation.

As Lafitte is about to be dragged bodily to his own hanging by the outraged citizens of New Orleans, Old Hickory fires a pistol into the air upon bursting into the salon, with Mr. Peavey by his side and trusty squirrel rifle in hand.

“By the Lord God,” Jackson thunders, “I’ll kill the next man who moves!” Immediately, all eyes are upon Heston’s towering six-foot, four-inch frame. Who writes scenes like this anymore? One has to experience this sequence to believe it.

“I think I admired Andrew Jackson more than any of the other men of that [historical] genre I’ve played,” Heston went on the record as saying. Curiously, Heston had his first opportunity at portraying Old Hickory in Twentieth Century- Fox’s production of The President’s Lady (1953), a film more preoccupied with soap-opera hysterics than actual facts. Still, it led to his approaching DeMille for background information.

“DeMille had let me see his 1938 version of The Buccaneer to study the character. He also let me look at some research material. He was very kind about it … Five years later DeMille was planning to remake The Buccaneer. At the time I don’t think it was settled to what extent he was planning to involve himself in the production. I still had one picture left on the contract that Paramount had purchased from Hal Wallis. I asked to play Jackson in a cameo role to use up the remaining commitment. [Wallis] thought it was a fine idea. The intended cameo role, however, blossomed into a considerable part as the script developed.”

Indeed, Heston’s eccentric if slightly offbeat assignment saves the picture from permanent ruin. His makeup job was certainly convincing. And, as Prof. Wilentz points out, Heston seemed to have “just stepped off a twenty-dollar bill.” Well, not exactly. His Jackson moves stiffly and decrepitly, seeming much older than he would have been, historically speaking (in fact, Jackson was in his mid-40s, while Heston was 34). His counterpart, Sothern, in the 1938 release, though missing Heston’s imposing height and build, moves more naturally.

Who made the better Andrew Jackson? The choice is strictly to taste, but my vote goes to Heston for his physical presence, and that unmistakable voice.

In yet another connection to The Ten Commandments, the choice of composer for the film’s score turned out to be Elmer Bernstein, whose music for the earlier feature was much admired. Bernstein wrote a similarly-themed score for The Buccaneer. Listen closely to the title music played over the opening credits, and you will hear hints of leading motifs reminiscent of the 1956 epic.

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954): Bathing Beauty and the Beast

Kay (Julie Adams) over-reacts to the Gill-man’s “embrace” in ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954)

Though not part of Universal Picture’s original classic-monster contingent (i.e., Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and others), the titular Creature (aka the “Gill-man,” alternately played on land by six-foot, four-inch Ben Chapman and in the water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the 1950s generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker.

The story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (near the so-called Black Lagoon), where geologist Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and his assistants, Luis and Tomas, uncover a fossilized hand of something resembling a cross between a man and a sea creature — the missing link perhaps? Who can tell? Dr. Maia takes the object to a marine biology institute in Morajo Bay for further study, leaving his two assistants behind. No sooner has Maia gone, however, when the real-life Creature decides to pay a visit to the camp in order to spread a little panic. How dare these men invade his realm!

Upon his arrival at the institute, Dr. Maia shows his unusual discovery to former student, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), to Reed’s colleague and girlfriend Kay Lawrence (lovely Julie Adams, billed as “Julia” in the credits), and to their publicity-starved financial backer, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning). Both ichthyologist Reed and sponsor Mark are intrigued by the web-fingered fossil. Why, this could turn out to be the discovery of a lifetime! So where could they find the complete skeleton, they wonder.

David (Richard Carlson), Kay (Julie Adams), Mark (Richard Denning) & Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) examine the Creature’s fossilized hand

The farsighted scientist in David sees the infinite possibilities of deriving hidden secrets from this incredible find: how humans can adapt to hostile environments, and how they might be able to evolve in highly pressurized worlds dissimilar from our own. On the practical side of things, Mark can only ponder the real-world costs of such an endeavor.

“If I sound more like a banker than a scientist,” Mark relays to the team, “try to remember that it takes money to run an institute like ours.”

With that said, the group prepares to leave the following morning for Manaus, in northern Brazil. They charter a motor-powered boat, the Rita, captained by the gregarious, cigar-chomping Lucas (Nestor Paiva), to sail up the Amazon River. Lucas regales his passengers with tall tales about the local wildlife. “Like everything in this jungle, all killers.”

Arriving at the camp, the scientists, accompanied by Dr. Edward Thompson (Whit Bissell), along with skipper Lucas and his men, find the place deserted and the two assistants dead. “There’s only one explanation,” posits the literal-minded Lucas. “The country is full of wild animals. I think maybe jaguar. Jaguar’s claws, they rip like this.” A comforting thought.

Nevertheless, the group spends an entire week digging through the side of an embankment, only to come up empty handed. Giving the matter further thought, David reasons that if they sail to the end of the tributary, they might find the skeletal remains of the Creature they’ve been looking for. Mark is all for turning failure into success, without a thought to the dangers inherent in setting foot in unexplored territory — especially with a woman around.

Little do they realize that the Creature they are longing to unearth is very much alive, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast with a fairy-tale “happy ending,” but this will do for now. The men don their scuba gear (using the term “aqualung”) and go off to explore the area.

While David and Mark search for undersea rock samples, Kay decides to take a dip in the mysterious waters of the Black Lagoon, which becomes a major character in itself. Wearing a stunning white bathing suit no less (with stunt work provided by Ginger Stanley), Kay’s languid swimming strokes are mimicked by the pursuing Gill-man just out of her reach. Their dual motions, in the form of a balletic pas de deux, soon develop into a sinister undersea dance if not a mesmerizing mating ritual.

Kay enjoys a dip in the Black Lagoon, with the Gill-man following underneath

Suddenly, there’s a shout that something has been caught in their fishing net. It’s the Gill-man, who manages to escape detection, but leaves behind one of his claws. The scientists have been alerted to the Creature’s presence. Immediately, David mounts an effort to photograph the beast in its aquatic environment. However, Mark has other ideas.

“This thing alive and in its natural habitat is valuable to us,” David remarks. But Mark will have none of it: “Why settle for a photo when we can get the real thing?”

“You don’t sound like a scientist, but like some big-game hunter out for the kill.”

“We may not be back home, David, but you’re still working for me.”

The two men clash over their separate views (the theme of science vs. economics is ever-present) and the efficacy of their respective motives: David wants to study and learn from the Creature, while Mark wants to exploit it for monetary purposes. “We must have the proof,” Mark strongly voices later on. When they resume their underwater exploration, Mark manages to take a pot-shot at the Gill-man with his spear gun, but misses the target.

Undeterred, the men use a native substance derived from plant roots to drug the poor beast. As the Creature comes up for air, it falls back into the water. David and Mark swim out to where it disappeared to prevent it from drowning. Upon finding the Gill-man prostrate, Mark bashes it with the oar from their boat. “We got him! We got him!” gloats the money-hungry Mark.

“Don’t kill him!” David shouts, as he stops Mark from further harming the monster. Mark thinks only of bringing back evidence of their discovery, dead or alive (preferably dead). Still, the men agree to house the Creature in a wooden cage onboard ship while keeping the monster alive. But who is the real monster?

That night, Dr. Thompson is on watch. Kay comes out of her room to talk with Thompson. Unseen by either of them, the Gill-man escapes his confines and attacks Dr. Thompson. When Kay throws a lighted lantern at it, the Creature dives back into the water, leaving the terrified Kay and seriously-wounded Thompson behind. David insists they leave this place, but Mark is dead-set against it. “Without taking what we came for?”

David counters his arguments with a reasonable one of his own: “We didn’t come here to fight monsters. We came here to find fossils.”

After extensive back and forth, Captain Lucas gives the order to depart. But as the Rita tries to pull out of the lagoon, their way is blocked by strategically placed logs (the Gill-man has strong survival instincts as well as rational thought processes), thus preventing the little ship from maneuvering. Suffice it to say that Mark gets his comeuppance. The Creature abducts Kay and brings her to its lair. What its intentions are at this point are never made clear, mostly because David manages to free Kay as the remaining survivors, Lucas and Dr. Maia, shoot the Gill-man dead.

In a final burst of compassion, David tells the others to let the Creature go. The mortally wounded beast staggers back into the Black Lagoon from whence it came.

Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), Kay, David, and Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), after plugging the Creature with bullets

Great underwater photography and a terrific (but endlessly repetitive) film score by the trio of Henry Mancini, Herman Stein, and Hans J. Salter, who were Universal’s resident composers of science-fiction and horror thrillers, made Creature from the Black Lagoon a box-office hit.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, director Jack Arnold was a stage and screen actor before turning to directing and producing documentaries for the U.S. government and for private industry. His first feature-length documentary was With These Hands (1950) about the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. It was followed by Girls in the Night and his first science-fiction foray, It Came from Outer Space (both 1953) – see the following link for my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/it-came-from-outer-space-1953-strangers-in-a-strange-land/.

With a screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, the film was produced by William Alland (he was the reporter Mr. Thompson in Citizen Kane), who credited the original story to Orson Welles, of all people. The Creature design and concept art was the handiwork of the uncredited Millicent Patrick, with makeup design by Bud Westmore. And principal photography was provided by William E. Snyder.

Underwater photography was handled by the team of James C. Havens and Scotty Welbourne. Most of the indoor scenes were shot in Hollywood, but many of the outdoor and underwater sequences took place at Wakulla Springs State Park in the Tallahassee, Florida region.

Originally released in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, this now-classic monster flick was good enough to have spawned two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955) also directed by Arnold, with John Agar, Lori Nelson, John Bromfield, the returning Nestor Paiva, and a young Clint Eastwood in the minor role of a lab assistant; and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) under John Sherwood’s direction, starring Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason (both fresh from Universal’s This Island Earth), along with Leigh Snowden and Ricou Browning again (in wet water) and Don Megowan (on dry land) as the Creature. This one boasts a more Freudian interpretation of events.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017) was his modern-day homage to the original. In this fantasy-horror-cum-science fiction romance, the “Asset” (the director’s name for the Creature) is a benign and sympathetic protagonist, while the main female character, Elisa Esposito, acts as its guardian-protector as well as the object of its affection.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Recent Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part One)

Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the lady bullfighter, in Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy, here comes another one of those ‘Best of the Year’ surveys!” Well, yeah, but not exactly.

My thoughts in compiling this list are more in line with taking an off-center approach to a much abused topic. By that, I mean to jot down my impressions, good, bad or indifferent, of films I happened to have enjoyed (or not) in the venues in which they were originally shown: the movie theater.

As readers of my blog are aware, movies have been a major preoccupation of mine for a number of years now. And since nowadays most films can be viewed online or in the comfort of one’s home on a variety of platforms, I decided to give equal time to works that merit the wide-screen approach. That’s the way these films were meant to be seen — and that’s how I saw them. Up there, big as lights!

Another reason I decided to make this list was simple: due to time constraints, I have been unable to write a longer analysis. However, I do hope to remedy that situation in the near future. Indeed, many of these works require, no, DEMAND, a full-length commentary on their own. For now, though, I believe this year-end to mid-year wrap-up will serve the purpose.

The films are in chronological order by year. Happy 2018 everybody!

Maribel Verdu as the wicked stepmother Encarna in Blancanieves

Blancanieves (2012)

A Spanish gothic adaptation of Snow White, with hints of magical realism and the Grand Guignol, Blancanieves took me and everyone who watched it by total surprise and sheer delight. Much as I experienced with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when it was first shown in 2005, I found myself smiling all the way through while viewing this fabulous feature at the North Carolina Museum of Art — a most appropriate venue for this work. For indeed, this is a definitive example of film art, a pièce de résistance and labor of love for Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger and his cast and crew. The wind was nearly taken out his sails, however, when Señor Berger was informed that his silent-film project would be overshadowed by Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011), which beat him to the punch by almost a year. Seen on its own terms, Blancanieves is the more challenging of the two for audiences unfamiliar with Spanish culture. Filmed in glorious black and white by cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, with an unforgettably haunting music score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, the plot takes a few liberties with the accustomed “happy ending” of most fairy tales, much to the film’s betterment. Set in and around Seville, Spain in the early 1920s — in particular, the bullfighting arena (with emphasis on Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s 19th-century Tauromaquia prints) — this revisionist retelling of Snow White (or “Blancanieves” in Spanish) tells the tale of little Carmen (Sofía Oria) and, as the young adult Carmen, Macarena García, the orphaned daughter of a once famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Through various plot contrivances and twists of fate, Carmen finds herself in the care of a troupe of wandering circus dwarfs, garnering fame through her travels as a female bullfighter. Of course, there’s a wicked stepmother, Encarna (played with lip-smacking glee by Maribel Verdú), and a perfidious henchman who doubles as her chauffeur (Pedro Ponce). Told through purely visual and musical terms, the film pays homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with references to the silent-film oeuvre of Abel Gance (Napoleon, Le Roue) and Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc in Berger’s close-ups of the bizarre and the grotesque. The purposely ambiguous ending will have you scratching your head for days, but if you are attuned to the director’s vision it should satisfy the insatiable critic in all of us.

Director Guillermo del Toro (l.) and Charlie Hunnam (r.) on the set of Pacific Rim (Photo by Kerry Hayes)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim, Mexican-born director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget foray into the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world genre, has some captivating character studies, specifically the interactions between our hero, Raleigh Becket (British actor Charlie Hunnam), his literal sidekick Mako Mori (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), and the straight-talking General Stacker (tough-as-nails Idris Elba), their mentor and savior. If the ravings of Godzilla and King Kong are the ultimate in prototypical movie monsters that love to level your major cities around the globe, then the fantastic beasts of Pacific Rim will likely tickle your fancy. If not, then look elsewhere. Pacific Rim came out at time when a spate of dystopian pictures from World War Z, Oblivion, Battle: Los Angeles, The Avengers, and Edge of Tomorrow dotted the movie-going landscape. The gigantic sea monsters known as Kaijiu are indeed impressive, as is the interplay between secondary characters Dr. Newt Geiszler (a manic Charlie Day), the resentful Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), and black marketeer Hannibal Chau (the ever-reliable Ron Perlman, a Del Toro stalwart, in search of his missing shoe). In addition to which, the Jaegers, those humongous robotic machines built to combat the rampaging Kaijiu, are individually differentiated, if given less screen time than one would have liked. The story, however, has a “been there, seen that” quality to it, with an ending that can be telescoped a mile away and that calls to mind Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Still, Del Toro’s affection for these monstrous adversaries is never in doubt, despite his characters’ penchant for indulging in stereotypical screen behavior, i.e., macho posturing. With that said, Charlie Hunnam has become (or tries to become) the Heath Ledger of his day. The walk, the talk, the attitude, the look, and feel of the late Australian-born Ledger are certainly “there” in spirit. What’s missing, at least from this angle, is Ledger’s obsession with establishing a real onscreen persona, quirky as many of them were. One a side note, the film’s score was composed by Ramin Djawadi, noted for his musical contributions to the popular Game of Thrones series on HBO, along with the cable channel’s Westworld.

Godzilla taking a stroll along San Francisco Bay in Godzilla

Godzilla (2014)

The big, bad Japanese gorgon is back! He’s filled out somewhat, and that midriff has gotten a shade heftier with “age.” But he’s as fire-breathing mean as the old boy has always been. A fairly winning reboot of the old Toho Studios franchise (despite the cheesiness of their later film product), this latest reincarnation of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (originally titled Gojira in 1954, which was retro-fitted in 1956 with scenes in American English starring Raymond Burr) holds up fairly well against the competition. Directed by British-born Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), the plot of this newest exercise in urban bashing extends the chaos to San Francisco, where U.S. Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wages a one-man battle to save the city not only from Godzilla’s atomic-age belches but from some Rodan-like pterosaurs called “MUTOS.” The film starts off well, with a genuine air of mystery about it. For one, we learn the reason for those atomic bomb tests in the forties and fifties was to combat Godzilla’s growing menace. For another, the menace was never extinguished. Yikes! As Ford’s scientist father Joe Brody, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) acts rings around the other players. The intensity of his performance alone is what makes the first 20 minutes of the film so absorbing. The stunt guys in the monster suits are also believable enough, with some elaborate set pieces (i.e., Godzilla’s first entrance, and the destruction and mayhem surrounding San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge) earning kudos for realism and seamless integration into the whole. However, some of the main characters undergo little development. For instance, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who served an essential function in the original Godzilla, can only stare blankly at the ensuing carnage. He’s there as a cynical nod to the Asian market. More’s the pity! The same goes for his assistant Dr. Graham, the usually capable Sally Hawkins, left to mutter pseudo-scientific bromides while the single-minded Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn, whose talents are also wasted) ignores her and Serizawa’s warnings about the implementation of atomic weapons against the beasts. As you may have gathered, there are more than enough similarities between this picture and Pacific Rim (reviewed above) to warrant copyright infringement. We won’t go into that (and neither did the producers). Let’s say that when the focus is on the almighty Godzilla’s battles with the voracious MUTOS, all is well. There’s a side-story, too, about Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and his little son, juxtaposed against the opening sequence involving the loss of Joe Brody’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Beyond that, you may enjoy this FX exercise in technological gobbledygook.

Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s The Martian

The Martian (2015)

A middle-of-the-road, sci-fi adventure flick from director-producer Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, The Martian is about survival of the smartest and how a daily routine can keep you firmly grounded, even on as desolate a setting as Mars. Based on writer and ex-computer programmer Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, with hefty nods to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the film focuses on space explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon), accidentally abandoned on the angry red planet by his fellow crewmates. A botanist by profession, Watney uses what knowledge he has of the field as a way to increase his chances for survival, while hoping against hope that his crewmates will be able to rescue him before water, food, and oxygen give out. Meanwhile back on Earth, politics and monied business interests are at constant loggerheads with each other, as well as concern for the rescue crew’s safety. Eventually, international cooperation and humanitarian needs take precedent in this ultimately engrossing drama. You will be surprised to learn that there are no bug-eyed monsters in space (at least, not in this reality-based depiction), nor are there villainous saboteurs lurking behind the scenes. Just your normal, everyday human beings caught up in the business of rescuing a fellow space traveler from disaster, amid hyperbolic discussions about whether a single, supposedly expendable life is truly worth saving. The film shares a similar storyline with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), with lots of tech talk and thousand-dollar words. There are also many fine performances, chief among them by Damon as the titular “Martian,” whose ingenuity and instincts for self-preservation are stressed almost to the breaking point. Too, there’s a war of wills between NASA director Teddy Sanders (an implacable Jeff Daniels) and mission director Mitch Henderson (one-track-minded Sean Bean), in addition to numerous character vignettes by Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis, Kristen Wiig as NASA media director Annie Montrose, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor, Benedict Wong as director of the jet propulsion lab Bruce Ng, and Michael Peña as jocular mission pilot Rick Martinez. While botanist Watney is steadfast all the way through his ordeal, he does manage to lose his composure once he realizes the odds are stacked against him. His solution for preserving his sanity (and his own humanity) is in recording his feelings, hopes, struggles, and aspirations in video form. Of course, with such a big budget as US $108 million at risk, director Scott could not afford to let his hero perish. This gives the movie an atmosphere of inevitability and, if you will, futility. We know that Watney will be rescued in the end; that all will be well and the world will be made whole again. Still, despite the obviousness of the film’s chosen direction, my favorite sequence, implausible as it may seem, occurs towards the end of this elaborate sci-fi production. Sitting alone on a campus bench, Watney wordlessly contemplates his past exploits before stepping into the lecture hall. The survivor of a mind-boggling experience, he is now a survival instructor, about to teach a class of astronaut recruits the dirty business of keeping oneself alive. When practically all of his recruits raise their hands with questions, I wanted to raise my hand, too. Perhaps a sequel will come out of this lone and uniquely satisfying episode.

Amy Adams as linguist Louse Banks attempting to communicate in Arrival

Arrival (2016)

If you knew what the rest of your life would be like before anyone else did; if you had insight into your loved ones’ future prospects and, knowing what you knew, would you change anything about the outcome — or want to? These are the underlying themes of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, his low-key answer to present-day, slam-bang science fiction. Based on writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 “The Story of Your Life,” taken from his larger collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer takes a tried-and-true formula — the presence on Earth of beings from another planet shake up man’s preconceived notions of superiority — and overlays it with both an intellectual and profoundly emotive core. The story is a simple one, though less straightforward than you would expect: Earth is invaded by twelve enigmatic, stone-shaped spacecraft which harbor seven-armed, octopus-like creatures the scientists have dubbed “heptapods.” Unable to converse with the aliens by ordinary means, the U.S. military, headed by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with its counterparts in eleven other nations, enlists the aid of linguistic expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Remmer) in an effort to comprehend the motives behind the visitation. The immediate by-product is skepticism on the military’s part. However, by dint of a series of hours-long learning sessions, Louise mounts a heroic effort at personal outreach. Soon, she is able to communicate with two of the aliens (whom she nicknames “Abbott” and “Costello”) via their pictographic non-linear language. Amy Adams’ shining portrayal of linguist Louise is a joy to behold. Her emotional catharsis throughout her journey helps the viewer comprehend the pain and suffering of one’s life in ways that become clear later on. Beautifully crafted and excellently acted, the film revels in a newfound appreciation for mutual cooperation between the sciences and language arts. It’s the triumph of reason, introspection, and empathy over force and armed might; of understanding the “other” through communication and language (“the foundation of civilization,” as Louise describes it), and of learning to view the passage of “time” in a totally different light. Archways, doorways, ceilings, and textures (along with strategically placed “flashbacks”) provide visual clues to the story’s definitive conclusion. The late Jóhann Jóhansson is credited with the percussive sound-scape. But the film is bookended by the superb use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” for string quartet, an oft-employed piece found in several recent features, among them at the end credits of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where it is paired with a Dinah Washington song.

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two

The chariot race from William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!

When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”

Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is tested by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) aboard a Roman galley

Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.

Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.

But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”

If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.

The Way of the Cross

Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) washes his hands of Jesus (Claude Heater) at his trial

From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.

Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.

In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.

There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.

Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Miriam (Martha Scott) & Esther (Haya Harareet) witness Jesus’s walk to the Crucifixion

In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.

The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.

The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.

Christ carries his cross past Judah and his family

At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?

Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.

The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.

The Center of Attention

We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).

Simon the Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross to the Crucifixion, as Judah (in the background) crashes into a well

Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.

As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.

Judah recognizes the fallen Christ as the one who saved his life

Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.

From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.

Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.

The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.

The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.

Rain falls on the crucified Christ

In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.

Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.

Close-up of the “Creation of Adam” panel, used in Ben-Hur

A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes