Action

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

Posted on Updated on

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

Advertisements

‘Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id’ — The Brave New World of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Part Two): Confrontations with Oneself

Posted on Updated on

Scene from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – the Big Machine

Complications, Complications — Always Complications

It is night at United Planets Space Cruiser C-57D’s base camp. Wary crewmen Strong (James Drury) and Grey (Bob Dix) hear the sound of heavy breathing around them. Slipping by the two sentries, the unseen threat surreptitiously boards the craft. Opening one of the heavy-duty hatches, the invisible being enters the communications area where, it is soon learned, the cruiser’s Klystron frequency monitor has sustained enough damage as to be inoperable.

The next day Commander Adams chews out the two crewmen who inadvertently allowed the menace to invade their ship. He raises his voice at Youngerford (Jimmy Thompson), the poor fellow asleep in his bunk, for having had a dream. “A dream!” the incensed commander incredulously repeats. Yes, indeed, one that will eventually turn into a nightmare. Chief Quinn comes over to inform the commander that, if he skips breakfast, he can repair the Klystron frequency monitor in due course. Adams’ mood lightens at this jocular jibe.

Meanwhile, Lt. Jerry Farman is ordered to stay with the ship while Adams and Doc board the tractor for Morbius’ abode. Farman doesn’t take too kindly to being left behind (especially since he’s certain that Adams will pay a call on the attractive young Altaira), but he obeys his superior’s directive. Both Adams and Doc believe that Robby the Robot may have been behind the break in, although the artificial being’s presence was never reported. That leaves one other suspect to grill.

No sooner do the two officers ride off, when we cut to a shot of Robby playing housemaid. The robotic servant hits a meddling monkey with one of his laser beams, which drives the pest away. Upon the officers’ arrival, Robby alerts them that Morbius is in his study, “never to be disturbed.” The skipper tells Ostrow to wait for Morbius in the living room while he goes to meet Altaira at the pool near the back of her home.

Altaira, or Alta for short, is swimming in something, but it isn’t your typical bathing gear. We can tell she’s wearing a skimpy see-through outfit, with just enough material to cover some strategic body parts. There was no way a major movie studio like MGM, in mid-20th-century America, could get away with having a woman swim in the raw. Again, there’s a mindless 1950s mentality to this sequence (call it false modesty) of an obviously “embarrassed” Commander Adams forced to deal with an attractive young lady in the altogether.

Altaira (Anne Francis) dresses herself behind a red bush

Thinking that she’s dressed only in her birthday suit, Adams is coy about his intrusion and evades looking directly at this vision of loveliness. Alta rises from the pool to get dressed behind a patently fake red-colored bush. Adams takes advantage of the situation by apologizing for his brashness of the previous day. He turns around to find her in a ravishing white gown (the “virgin bride”) with a stunning emerald necklace wrapped about her neck.

Adams finally makes his move as they engage in a deeply satisfying embrace topped by prolonged kissing, certainly a more fulfilling encounter than the one Alta experienced with the overeager (and over-sexed) Lt. Farman.

Out of the blue, Adams and Alta are interrupted by the roar of a ferocious feline (a nice segue to MGM’s logo, Leo the Lion). Not to worry, it’s only her pet Bengal tiger, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting couple. Adams is forced to vaporize the leaping carnivore with his trusty blaster (with animation provided by Disney’s Joshua Meador). Alta is oblivious to the tiger’s reaction. She honestly has no idea why it was about to attack them. Adams takes her in his arms to protect her from further harm. He instinctively senses, as many in the viewing audience do, that the tiger saw him (and now her) as a threat to the peace and tranquility of its world.

Adams (Leslie Nielsen) repels the Bengal tiger attack (animated by Joshua Meador)

In the spring 1979 double issue of Cinéfantastique, devoted almost entirely to the making of Forbidden Planet, authors Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin cite several sources for Irving Block and Allen Adler’s original story treatment (adapted by Cyril Hume for his screenplay). Among them is the legend of the guiltless damsel — in this instance, “the chaste and pure Altaira” who “enjoys an Edenic rapport with the transplanted Earth creatures who roam the lush, forested grounds of [her father’s] home, yet when she kisses Commander Adams for the first time, a change transpires in her relationship with the beasts and her pet tiger nearly kills her.”

This goes back to the fable of the maiden and the unicorn, “which states that only a pure virgin can tame a unicorn” — represented here by a savage tiger (or maybe, in the long run, by the Id monster itself!).

In the early going, when Adams, Ostrow and Farman first visit Morbius in the comfort of his home, the cagey Professor claimed immunity from the destructive forces that once threatened Altair-IV’s surface. Later on, Alta will claim to Adams the same impervious ability to the fiendish creature that still lurks about. Adams doesn’t believe it, and rightly so. For the simple reason that, from here on end, Alta has lost that golden glow of purity, no thanks to him.

Alien Nation

When he re-enters the house, Adams admits to Ostrow that he is quite taken with the girl. Who wouldn’t be in his position? Hmm, this complicates their assignment somewhat. After he and Doc are caught snooping around the Professor’s study by the philologist himself, they report a sabotage of their communication equipment — with Morbius as their prime suspect.

Caught in his own maze of deceit and denial, Morbius finally comes clean about the Krell, the race of intellectually superior beings that once inhabited the planet two thousand centuries before man. He plays a sample of their music and shows the visitors an example of their architecture, i.e. the characteristic doorway and arch. He also informs them that this “all but divine race perished in a single night” to causes still unknown.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in his study, explains the origins of the Krell

The Krell once visited the Earth, he tells them, and brought back many biological specimens, which clarifies the existence of the tiger, deer and monkey. But what were they like? “No record of their physical nature has survived,” Morbius comments, which is just as well. Better to imagine what the Krell might have been like than try to recreate the unimaginable.

This is one of the picture’s finest aspects, the fact that the screenwriters left it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the missing portions of the narrative. It also saved MGM studios some beaucoup bucks, since Morbius maintains that nothing of the Krell’s architecture or industry has survived on the planet’s surface. “Even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair-IV and nothing, absolutely nothing remains above ground.”

Morbius takes the two officers inside one of the Krell laboratories (just one of their remaining artifacts), and introduces them to a teaching tool, the so-called “plastic educator,” a futuristic contraption once used to instruct their young (the atomic-age equivalent of “finger-painting,” as he describes it). Morbius delves into the incredible depth of knowledge the Krell had in their possession, which led to his tinkering together of a cultivated companion, Robby the gregarious Robot. He demonstrates the capabilities of the educator by creating a three-dimensional image of his daughter — “Aladdin’s lamp in a physics laboratory,” in Doc Ostrow’s words.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) creating a 3-D image of Altaira, with Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) & Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) by his side

Today’s digital technology would be easily employed in carrying out the above process, what with the availability of such modeling software as Maya®, Autodesk®, Cinema 4D®, and others. However, back at the dawn of big-screen, science-fiction moviemaking the techniques used to visualize the 3-D description of Altaira (Ostrow’s “Aladdin’s lamp” analogy) was cumbersome and time-consuming in the extreme. “What you see on the screen, as far as the horizontal effect, is only a bare outline of what we could have done,” grieved draftsman Bob Kinoshita in the 1979 Cinéfantastique article. “It was very frustrating.”

Morbius nonchalantly invites the officers to take the Krell test of their intelligence. Of course, the men have no idea that Morbius’ own intellectual capacity has been doubled as a result of his taking the test a second time (his first attempt knocked him out for a day and a night). Doc is surprised that he is unable to raise the machine’s indicator above the halfway mark, despite his relatively high IQ.

Adams meets the same fate, to which Morbius inartfully observes that a “commanding officer doesn’t need brains, just a good loud voice” (which comes to mind when we recall that Adams became angry with Altaira for her revealing attire, and when he chewed out his men for allowing an intruder into their ship). When Adams endeavors to create an image, Morbius stops him dead in his tracks, insisting he’d never survive the ordeal.

Sensing their mistrust of his motives, Morbius changes tactics somewhat. He discloses that he has recently “turned up some rather puzzling indications that in those final days before their annihilation, the Krell had been applying their entire racial energies to a new project, one which they actually seemed to hope might somehow free them once and for all from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.” What this meant is that they would no longer be reliant solely on their machines in seeking further knowledge of the universe.

To movie-goers of the 1950s, Morbius’ disclosure might have seemed as incredulous and earth-shattering as it sounded, a giant leap of the imagination — maybe even more so. But in our time, with the arrival of Web-based systems and the daily usage of wireless products and myriad forms of satellite communication, it leaves modern-day audiences with the impression of quaintness and dull routine.

Morbius now draws their attention to the gauges, whose calibrations “are set in decimal series,” with ten times as many amperes as those preceding them; in other words, “the number ten raised almost literally to the power of infinity.” Seeing his visitors’ startled reaction to this bit of information, Morbius casually inquires if they’d like to see more of the Krell “wonders.” Silly question! Of course they would. Wouldn’t you? It’s what us kids, enamored in our youth of the marvels of good science fiction writing, looked forward to.

Matte painting of Krell ventilator shaft from Forbidden
Planet (1956)

Stepping into a claustrophobic shuttle car with Adams and Ostrow, Morbius suggests they prepare their minds for a mind-boggling “new scale of physical scientific values.” He takes them on a guided tour of such breathtaking wonderment and unimaginable complexity that it must have impressed the hell out of George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, to name but a handful of well-known future filmmakers, to new heights of science fiction fancy.

“A single machine, a cube 20 miles on each side,” he adds, emphasizing the opening and closing of nonstop circuitry, along with their immensely impressive ventilator shafts. Adams asks what the big machine’s intended use was. Morbius avoids a direct answer. Instead, he shows them a section of one of the power units, “the harnessed power of an exploding planetary system” — the face of the Gorgon, another reference to Greek mythology.

The enormity of the sets (mostly airbrushed matte paintings, cycloramas, double exposures onto meticulously detailed miniatures and painstaking optical effects) and the dazzling display of gee-whiz gizmos, circuits and doodads, all tuned to Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities must have left audiences aghast at the vastness of the proportions on CinemaScope’s wide-screen.

We cut to the men setting up and testing the force field around the perimeter of their base. Cookie approaches Lt. Farman. He’s itching to get out into the boondocks, in search of “wild radishes or something.” In truth, all he wants is to pick up his order of hooch, all 60 gallons of the stuff. In no time, Cookie gets smashed on the booze. “Genuine Kansas City bourbon!” he raves. Fortunately for him, Robby is standing guard close by.

Robby the Robot & Cookie (Earl Holliman) examining the 60 gallons of bourbon

The Robot is alert to a presence nearby, but does not raise alarm bells. It’s the Id monster on the prowl, crossing the freshly activated force field. We can make out the blue outline of a massive form as it traverses the beams. As the monster gets closer and closer to the space cruiser, it leaves some horrific footprints in the ground, coupled by those eerie electronic tonalities. Slinking up the gangplank and onto the ship itself, the Id monster’s bulk makes the stair steps bend and groan under its weight.

Without warning, a deathlike scream pierces the nighttime silence. Lt. Farman immediately reports in to the skipper that Chief Quinn has been murdered; his body splattered all over the communications area. (Yuck, shades of an interplanetary Jack the Ripper!)

Prior to Farman’s call, Adams has been arguing with Professor Morbius about his refusal to divulge any of the Krell’s secrets to the more “responsible” inhabitants of Earth. Morbius feels, as the keeper of the Krell flame, that “mankind is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power,” which only he is capable of administering (in dribs and drabs, of course). He’s the watchdog, the self-appointed family retainer and the executor of what’s left of the Krell estate. Doc Ostrow sarcastically seconds Morbius’ claim. Only Morbius, with his “artificially expanded intellect … is ideally suited” to the task at hand. The irony of Doc’s crack is not lost on either Adams or Morbius. Indeed, the officers get no argument from Morbius. He is his own judge and jury, in that order, which makes him a most formidable opponent.

Upon receiving the news of Quinn’s slaying, a dark shadow falls over Morbius’ features. At this stage in the story’s outline, about the only thing the philologist can muster is a stifled “It’s started again,” a muted reference to the mass murder of his Bellerophon colleagues two decades prior. His words are seconded by the same eerie tonalities that accompanied the Id monster’s attack on Chief Quinn.

Altaira stands in the doorway, looking intently at her father. What must she be thinking! Is there any truth to the rumor that her lover, Commander John J. Adams, suspects dear ole dad of slaughtering his former shipmates? Could he be at it again?

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Six): ‘The Empire Strikes Back, Episode V’ — Finding Your Roots

Posted on Updated on

Poster art for Star Wars — Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Stuck in a Rut

Inside the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon and its passengers appear to be safe from the Galactic Empire’s battle cruisers and search vessels. Still experiencing problems with the hyperdrive, Han Solo tells Chewbacca to take the garrulous C-3PO, whom he flippantly calls “professor,” out back to uncover what the problem is with their spacecraft.

Rocked by violent shudders, Princess Leia falls into Solo’s lap. He seems to be enjoying the ride. On the other hand, Leia continues to toss curt comments at him.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Han remarks (in a lighthearted, Humphrey Bogart moment). “We haven’t got time for anything else.” As if all that’s on Leia’s mind is to sit and chat with the “space scoundrel.”

A few scenes later, the Princess is in the midst of repairing one of the valves on the vessel, when she strains her hand trying to turn a lever. Luckily for her, big strong Solo is there to give her aid and comfort. Taking her dainty palm in his, Han makes his move. He plants a kiss on her mouth and the two are locked in a passionate exchange. The space pirate and the Princess, together and alone at last! Or are they?

A kiss in time saves nine: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is wooed by Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

“Sir, sir!” cries 3PO. “I’ve isolated the reverse power coupling!” Great news indeed, but not to Han: “Thank you. Thank you very much …” He shows the “professor” the door, but keeps his eye on Leia as she retreats.

In the next scene, we are on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Admiral Piett enters to inform Darth Vader they are receiving a transmission from the Emperor himself. And Vader’s presence has been requested. Vader orders the Admiral to pull out of the asteroid field for a clear transmission.

Lord Vader (Voice by James Earl Jones, body by Dave Prowse) receives a message from the Emperor

In the revised “Special Edition” of The Empire Strikes Back, the scene with Lord Vader and the Emperor is different from that of the original 1980 screening. For one, the actor who embodied the Evil Emperor in the earlier version (Elaine Baker, with the voice of British-born Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played the bug-eyed, pock-marked Emperor in Return of the Jedi and in the three subsequent prequels. For another, the dialogue has been extended to include the lines, “Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true,” which, depending on your point of view, either foreshadows Vader’s entreaties to Young Skywalker as he dangles for dear life from one of the destroyer’s walkways, or gives the game away entirely.

Some may feel (as this author does) that echoing those lines at this stage of the drama destroys the power of Vader’s speech later on. The original encounter was more cryptic, more subtle, and less overt, while this bit of dialogue is way too specific. Searching for continuity, perhaps executive producer George Lucas (who assigned the directing duties of Episode V to Irvin Kershner) decided to substitute McDiarmid after the fact. There’s another reason that I can think of, namely his obsessive compulsion to tinker with the product. He just can’t leave well enough alone.

Lord Vader (Voiced by James Earl Jones, body by Dave Prowse) plots with the Galactic Emperor (Ian McDiarmid)

Verily, I tell you, there is indeed “a great disturbance in the Force.”

Bring Out the Welcome Mat

There is a screen wipe to the next scene of the interior of the little creature Yoda’s house. (Luke does not yet realize who this tiny figure is). Puttering about his living room, the wrinkly green alien with the fuzzy exterior and wizened expression tries to distract Luke’s mind from his quest by plying him with chow. But Luke keeps insisting that he take him to meet Yoda. And how does this little fellow know so much about him, anyway?

In exasperation, Yoda lets it escape that because of his lack of patience he cannot teach the boy the ways of the Force. A portentous voice now makes its presence felt. It is Obi-Wan Kenobi, back from the dead. His disembodied tone reverberates inside Yoda’s hut.

“He will learn patience.”

“Much anger in him,” is Yoda’s reply. With every thrust that Obi-Wan makes, Yoda counters with a riposte of his own. “He is not ready. He is too old,” et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. Luke, of course, will have none of this. Why, the very reason he’s on the bog planet Dagobah is to learn all about the Jedi. But after Yoda’s tirade, he appears to soften his stance against Luke.

Luke thinks he can sway the Jedi Master into accepting him as an apprentice.  “I won’t fail you,” Luke persists. Then he adds, “I’m not afraid.” To this Yoda narrows his squinty little eyes before he responds with, “Oh, you will be …. You will be …..”  His voice trails off.

Fear is the ultimate teacher of the young and the naïve.

Luke (Mark Hamill) learns the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz)

Back at the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon’s crew is perturbed by a mynock invasion — large bat-like creatures that chew on the power cables. Exploring the crater’s surface, Han and Leia realize they are on unstable ground and without delay flee the asteroid. Just in time, too! For lo, this is no cave, folks, but a gigantic space slug or worm beast! Shades of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, which Lucas must surely have paid belated homage to in this brief FX sequence.

On Dagobah, Yoda has Luke going through his Jedi training routine — mostly, the physical aspects of same: running, jumping, dodging. You know, a makeshift obstacle course in the bog. In between flips, Yoda fires off a series of sagacious observations about the dark side being quicker, easier, and more seductive. “Anger … fear … aggression.” All that negative “bad” stuff. Luke pesters him with queries, which Yoda brushes off, telling him to clear his mind of questions.

Suddenly, a strange feeling overcomes Luke. The bog grows cold. Death is in the air. Phantoms from the past begin to gnaw at both Master and student. Yoda warns his pupil about this place, which is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is,” in that reverse cadence of his. He also cautions Luke to go in and explore it.

“What’s in there?” Luke inquires.

“Only what you take with you.”

In this extraordinary sequence George Lucas, along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, have successfully recreated that mythological moment where the hero’s journey begins. He must leave the safety of his abode and face up to his greatest fears. It’s Mime telling the young Siegfried to go slay the dragon Fafner. It’s St. George riding to the rescue on his white charger (well, not exactly). The forest is the symbol of the unknown, which is the precise place where Luke must confront his demons — his inner self, to be exact — before his training can continue.

The atmosphere is thick with a primeval mystery. Jungian archetypes prevail and abound. There are huge slithering snakes on branches. A monitor lizard flicks its forked tongue at us. In the episode that follows, Luke enters a dark cave and beheads the formidable figure of Lord Vader. As the smoke clears, it is HIS face that we see, not that of the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith. What does this say about where the saga is going? And what does it reveal about Luke himself?

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) confronts his other self in the cave on Dagobah

A quick cut to Jedi Master Yoda, a solitary figure, alone with his thoughts. What must he be thinking? Yoda sighs audibly.

Money for Your Troubles

In a flash, we are back on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Vader gives a pep talk to a gathering of bounty hunters, including the inexorable Boba Fett. A “substantial reward” awaits the person who can find the Millennium Falcon. You will note that Boba Fett (originally portrayed by Jeremy Bulloch, with vocals by Jason Wingreen) is now voiced by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, the same fellow who physically embodied Boba’s poppa, Jango Fett, in Episode II: Attack of the Clones (and the model for all those clones), as well as Commander Cody in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Emerging unscathed from the asteroid field, Han, Leia, Chewie and 3PO find that their ship still lacks light-speed maneuverability (what gives with that darn hyperdrive?). Still, through some clever tactics Han is able to avoid detection by hiding the Millennium Falcon behind one of the huge Star Destroyers.

Chewie (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Leia (Carrie Fisher) & Han Solo (Harrison Ford) aboard the Millennium Falcon

Alas, the skipper of the Star Destroyer, Captain Needa, has to “apologize” to Lord Vader for losing track of the craft. He meets the same sorry fate as Admiral Ozzel did. Oh, and Vader has “accepted” his apology. What a sweet guy!

Switching back to Dagobah, Luke has resumed his Jedi training, to include levitating the surrounding rocks and other objects (R2 among them). When he attempts to float his downed X-wing fighter out of the muddy lake, Luke loses his concentration and the fighter sinks ever deeper into the slime.

Yoda berates Luke for his defeatist attitude. “Try not. Do. Or not do. There is no try.” The Master’s words are lost on young Skywalker. There’s only one thing to do, and that’s for Yoda to show the boy how it’s done. He brings the fighter out of the swamp and onto dry land (or as dry as this mud-hole can get). The Force is strong with this one! Yoda’s characteristic musical theme resounds prominently on the soundtrack.

Luke cannot believe his eyes. “That is why you fail,” answers Master Yoda, after taking a long, drawn-out breath. “Judge me not by my size,” Yoda scolded him prior to achieving this nearly impossible feat. The jig is up, as it were. Luke now recognizes, from here on end, that he must put up or shut up. If this puny pint-sized runt can do what he just did, then there is hope for this disbelieving whippersnapper. There had better be, or the saga will end before it has begun.

Master Yoda (Voiced and handled by Frank Oz) shows Luke the power of the Force

As the Imperial Fleet begins to break apart, Han and Leia calculate their next move, which is to accompany the discarded trash and float away into deep space. They are unaware of Boba Fett’s craft, which follows the Millennium Falcon as it whisks off to the Bespin mining colony. Han is (or was) friendly with the administrator of the colony, one Lando Calrissian, a fellow scoundrel and shifty space pirate who may provide them with safe haven.

“Can you trust him?” asks Leia pointedly.

“No,” claims Solo. “But he has no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.” Satisfied with himself, Han leans back in his command chair. Leia plants a kiss on the side of his face, sealing the bargain.

Is there true honor among thieves? We’ll soon find out ….

(End of Part Six… 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 © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes        

‘King Kong’ (1933): The Monster that ‘Aped’ New York

Posted on Updated on

Bright lights on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933(
The lights are bight on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933)

A giant killer gorilla escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the streets of 1930s New York. What a premise for a story about a down-and-out film producer pining for his next big hit! Known as the picture that saved a movie studio — RKO Radio Pictures studio, to be exact — King Kong is the granddaddy of all those big-bad-stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics. And it is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be.

Labeled box-office poison by the press and hounded by insurance investigators and fire marshals alike, restless mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his upcoming project. Upon a chance meeting with the impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), Denham impulsively decides to star her in his yet-to-be-announced adventure flick.

Cryptic and secretive to a fault, the wily producer nonetheless convinces Ann to trust him enough (“I’m on the level. No funny business!”) to accompany Denham and his shoestring crew as the only female member on board a ship “with the toughest looking mugs” anyone has had the misfortune to be associated with.

In the blink of an eye, they’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to … who knows where? Darrow and Denham are accompanied on their journey by salty seaman Captain Engelhorn and his lantern-jawed first mate, Jack Driscoll. Once our adventure seekers arrive on Skull Island, however, all hell breaks loose — quite literally. After unknowingly interrupting a native ceremony whereby a young girl undergoes elaborate preparation as the newly christened bride of “Kong,” Denham and his crew come face-to-face with the titular deity: an enormous anthropoid dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) conferring with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) in King Kong
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) confers with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) on Skull Island

Amid the ceaseless pounding of native drums, Kong runs off into the jungle with Ann clutched safely in his arms. It’s love at first fright! But, as Denham prophetically warned, the danger lies when the beast allows himself to turn soft where the girl is concerned. In fulfillment of the prophecy, Kong comes to his bride’s defense by fighting off various prehistoric creatures, including incredibly thrilling battles with a vicious T-Rex (or Allosaurus, according to some sources), a slithering salamander, and a flying Pterodactyl. He also disposes of most of the crew members, leaving only a band of sailors guarding the gate, with Denham and Driscoll at opposite ends of a huge precipice.

Denham finds his way back to the village, while Driscoll follows Kong’s trail in order to rescue Ann. With Kong distracted by the local fauna, Ann and Driscoll brusquely make their escape by plunging down into the river bed below Kong’s lair. They manage to flee for their lives into the thick underbrush, with the raging Kong in hot pursuit.

After the giant beast has terrorized the village by munching and crunching the native population, he is knocked senseless by one of Denham’s gas bombs. But instead of coming to HIS senses, the publicity-minded producer can only see the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in the history of Broadway. He decides to ship Kong’s massage body back to Manhattan, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets — and atop its tallest building.

Top of the world: Kong meets his match
Top of the world: Kong meets his match

One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of this or anyone’s time, King Kong did for the Big Apple what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single-handedly destroyed it — in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights of visionary fancy, breaking attendance records at every showing.

This box-office champion of champions was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an idea conceived by Cooper and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. David O. Selznick was the executive producer. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX expert Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout the picture.

Back and front projection and traveling matte shots were extensively employed, in addition to grisly close-ups of Kong’s denture work. His full-sized bust took 40 some-odd bearskins to cover! Not all of the effects shots were filmed perfectly to scale, mind you, nor did they blend seamlessly into the frame. Still, this picture was destined to become a landmark in the annals of horror fantasy films. It remains the lone monster flick from which all others need be measured.

King Kong: Ready for his closeup
King Kong: Ready for his close-up

The sturdy cast is headed by the rambunctious Robert Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character’s ambition and drive. He’s both FDR and Horatio Alger: crippled by his inability to have audiences take him seriously (“Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at”), his ego refuses to admit defeat; this is one overwhelmingly optimistic venture capitalist. His is the unquenchable spark (and, by design, that of the film’s real-life producer-directors) that ignites the audience’s interest and imagination, particularly in the way he sums up the misadventure to its final, philosophical conclusion:

Police lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the planes got him.”

Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Fay Wray is the all-time champion hog caller (or, in this case, “scream queen”), but don’t let that fool you — she’s as full of pluck and spunk as they come. The softness and beguiling femininity she brings to the story’s ebb and flow make Ann Darrow an appealing contrast to the unbelievable horrors she’s forced to confront. Wray never had a better part,  even though she also appeared in the equally shocking The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Her peak period of popularity spanned the 1930s to the mid-1940s.

Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong's clutches
Love at first fright: Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong’s clutches

Lankily-built Bruce Cabot is crusty sailor Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann upon snatching her from Kong’s humongous clutches. On the “strength” of his acting, though, he’s no match for the King. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the wisecracking theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor, Roscoe Ates as a press photographer, and Lesley Mason as a theater patron.

Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. Film historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Cooper back in 1964. During that interview, Cooper denied there were any “symbolic” or “phallic” overtones in the movie’s depiction of the Kong-Darrow relationship. According to Cooper, there were no “hidden meanings, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything resembling intellectual ‘significance’ in the film. King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” Cooper insisted. “A more illogical picture could never have been made” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1976, foreword by Rudy Behlmer, p.13).

That may be. But for years, the film was shorn of many of its most, ahem, “revealing” sequences, the prime example of which finds Kong delicately peeling away most of Ann’s dress, leaving only her dainty negligee. An obvious vestige of the pre-Code period, this and other “politically incorrect” snippets (i.e., Kong tossing a woman he mistakenly takes for Ann out of her apartment window; scenes of Kong’s rampage at the native village; the odious connection of the wild and crazy natives with their skin color) were, for die-hard fans of the film, re-inserted in the mid-1970s. For better or worse, most movie prints include these once-severed sequences.

It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. Although dimly recorded, the picture would never have achieved the worldwide notoriety it deservedly merited without Steiner’s magnificent music. One of the most typical elements of which involved the split-second timing of the score with the action on the screen. This was known in the industry as “mickey-mousing,” in the way that music for animated cartoons always seemed to follow the characters’ movements.

None of the other remakes, including Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 effort, has come close to toppling RKO’s original from its throne. And no home theater should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — Hero with a Heart

Posted on Updated on

Christopher Reeve as the "reel" Man of Steel in Superman (1978)
Christopher Reeve as the “reel” Man of Steel in Superman (1978)

What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Give up? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent flyboy features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the superhero action flick.

In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001) whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” a deeply distraught Clark Kent (played by Jeff East — excellent, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of foster père, Jonathan Kent (dependable old Glenn Ford):

“All those things I can do, all those powers … And I couldn’t even save him.”

It’s a heartbreaking moment for the troubled youth, especially after his dad had, in the previous scene, given the lad a morale-boosting pep talk. But Clark’s words come back to haunt him later on when the now mature Mr. Kent (a beefed up Christopher Reeve, in a star-making turn), in his normal form as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss.

Will the Man of Steel be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? And will Superman be able to reconcile the warning his scientist father, the apocryphal Jor-El, gave him not to interfere in Earth’s history?

Is the pope Catholic? Do bears hibernate?

Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his forster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)
Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his foster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)

Superman’s dilemma is eventually resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama — done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like — in what surely was a head-on challenge for director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke) and his talented crew.

What struck most viewers the most about Superman: The Movie was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Mr. Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a terribly long and tedious shoot.

In addition to which, one must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous! — acting assignment as the Kryptonian native and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing, and delineating, the differing attitudes and temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely exhausting endeavor.

The film divides the superhero’s tale into three distinct sections, the first of which takes place on the distant planet Krypton. It is there that we meet the brilliant scientist Jor-El, who tries to convince the skeptical ruling counsel their planet is in danger of being destroyed by Krypton’s giant red sun. Ignoring his pleas and branding Jor-El an alarmist, the counsel cautions him to keep silent. Despite his seeming acquiescence, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space — and on a direct course for a tiny blue planet called Earth.

Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman

After Krypton is destroyed (convincingly, despite being shot entirely in a studio), we then follow the young Kal-El (now christened “Clark Kent” by the husband and wife who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the sleepy Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by his fellow classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but continues to be disturbed by his inability to reveal his incredible abilities. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.

With little choice left, he tells his elderly mother that a neighbor has volunteered to watch over the family farm. Torn by his decision, he resolves to leave mom behind (in a highly emotional farewell sequence, buoyed by John Williams’ powerful score) to take up a career as a reporter for The Daily Planet (!) in the teeming capital of Metropolis, a stand-in for the Big Apple (filmed on the streets of New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, satisfying climax.

Scrappy as a badger Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as the paper’s ace news hound, Lois Lane, who feels a rivalry brewing with the bashful but talented Mr. Kent. Although it was rumored that Reeve and Kidder clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Chris hit it off like brother and sister, or so we are told.

Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) striking an inquisitive pose
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) strikes an inquisitive pose

Genial Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on that evil genius Lex Luthor, who has self-aggrandizing plans of his own, while inept cohorts Valerie Perrine as his buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. It’s great to see Jackie Cooper on screen again after so many years. Here, he plays tough-minded editor Perry White (“Don’t call me sugar, I mean chief!”), with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building — just prior to Clark fainting dead away in defending Lois from a typical Manhattan street mugger.

Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando makes for a most impressive Jor-El (he should, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the part), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran as Non, whose stories are told in Superman II — shot simultaneously, but released two years later under Richard Lester’s direction. Others in the large cast include Maria Schell, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Larry Hagman, and (look quick or you’ll miss ’em) Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill on board the speeding locomotive. They are credited as the first Superman and Lois to star in the original Columbia movie serial way back in 1948.

Author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) wrote the screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. And who could forget that memorable John Williams music, from a composer who’s provided moviegoers with countless screen classics. Its driving, pulsating title theme sets the tone from the picture’s get-go. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind?” with lyrics by songwriter Leslie Bricusse, spoken in hushed voiceover by Ms. Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie, a truly magical moment:

Can you read my mind?

Do you know what it is you do to me?

Don’t know who you are

Just a friend from another star

 

Here I am, like a kid at the school

Holding hands with a god or a fool

Will you look at me, quivering,

Like a little girl, shivering,

You can see right through me.

Can you read my mind?

Lois & Superman in the Flying Sequence
Lois & Superman on a date, in the Flying Sequence from Superman

Lois Lane, as tough as nails around others and completely absorbed in her work and career, melts like a winnowed cocoa bean whenever she’s around the blue-suited adventurer. Her knees start to shake, and her heart goes all-a-flutter, at his mere presence. The Flying Sequence pictured above cements their blossoming relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most fabulously orchestrated interludes of any sci-fi fantasy picture.

Lois’ strong connection to the mighty Man of Steel is the exact opposite of the one she shares with newspaper colleague Clark. Ditto for Superman, who as the klutzy Kent is all thumbs and left feet whenever Lois approaches, but who sticks out his chest and rises to his full height the minute he reverts to his true guise. Today, we might term this type of behavior as indicative of bipolar disorder.

After almost four decades, Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our own favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: simple, straightforward, and beautifully realized by East, Ford, and Thaxter. They’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life (filmed in Alberta, Canada, by the way) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. Too, one must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by a “reconstituted” Jor-El when he reveals to young Clark, in that icy Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only son. What a nice Christmas present!

The expanded edition on DVD and Blu-ray adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family. And it could not have come at a better time, when true heroes with a heart are so desperately needed (and in short supply).

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1940) — Robin Hood of the West

Posted on Updated on

Don Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)
Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)

Fancy sword-play, above-average horsemanship, dashing derring-do, a fair damsel in distress, padres and peasants in open revolt against their Spanish oppressors — all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too! These are just some of the fabulous goings-on in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the adventure genre as few others from that period have.

This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery Sr.’s 1920 silent feature is superior entertainment all around. Stylishly helmed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina and Blood and Sand, which also paired Tyrone Power opposite a saintly Linda Darnell and vampish Rita Hayworth), the director concentrated his efforts on atmosphere and flair, thereby giving the movie a touch of class. In addition, The Mark of Zorro boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind music score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end.

Poised and handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree caballero by day; and the masked bandit Zorro (“an angel with a flaming sword,” as described by the excitable Fray Felipe), a devil-may-care swordsman and good-guy avenger by night. The script was adapted from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in. Darnell plays the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero.

Basil Rathbone takes over for Beery as bad-guy soldier Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with the youthful Power (thrillingly choreographed and doubled by Belgian fencing-master Fred Cavens). Ironically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba while filming a sword duel in Madrid, Spain, with the nefarious George Sanders.

Bullfrog-throated Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his fawning wife Inez, right-minded Montagu Love (a silent cinema star in his day) as Don Diego’s stern father, Don Alejandro Vega, Janet Beecher as Señora Isabella Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova in minor roles.

Promo ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)
Promotional ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth at a military academy in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis (Bromberg) and the abusive Captain Esteban. Peasants are being provoked and tortured into paying their taxes, while the captain’s soldiers run roughshod over the populace. Conferring with his father, the former well-intentioned alcalde, as well as the revenge-seeking friar, Diego realizes he must take action, but decides instead to hide his true intentions in order to operate under cover of darkness.

Slowly but surely, Don Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of the bellicose padre, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords by performing daring night raids on their purse-strings — sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. The Robin Hood angle is played to the hilt, with the obvious casting of Rathbone, formerly the malevolent Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Warner Bros.’ The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), as well as the rotund Mr. Pallette, who costarred as Friar Tuck.

In a comparison of the two films, there are many scenes in which the actions of Errol Flynn’s upstanding Robin of Locksley are mirrored in Tyrone Power’s bandito: his despoiling of the rich to give to those in need; the use of a knife to replace Robin’s skill with a bow and arrow in putting up so-called “special notices”; their wooing and winning over of an unconvinced love interest; the climactic sword fight at the end; the revolt of the downtrodden with the aid of a champion do-gooder; and, of course, the many bold escapes.

Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)
Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)

One in particular is especially exhilarating, as Zorro plunges his black Andalusian steed over a bridge and into a stream, while the military takes wild potshots at their form — and missing them both by a mile. In the meantime, Diego throws the suspicious Esteban off the scent by flirting with Don Luis’ wife, the social-climbing Doña Inez, while simultaneously attempting to charm the highborn Lolita (and everyone else) with distracting magic tricks. Diego manages to fool even his own parents up to a point, until such time as he reveals himself.

Considered a lightweight when he first came on the movie scene, Power earned praise for his performance as the effete Don Diego and his suavely sophisticated alter ego, Zorro. Power’s previous experience in the theater gave him an edge in the way he managed to smoothly switch from one character to the other, never overplaying the dandified aspects to the detriment of Diego’s scheme. Viewers should pay close attention to the sequence in which Diego (as Zorro) hides out in Fray Felipe’s chapel, while the soldiers are searching the grounds outside. His back-and-forth dialogue with the troubled Lolita Quintero, where Zorro’s physical features are all-but covered in shadow by a monk’s habit and cowl, is wonderfully clear and cleverly delineated by voice and figure alone — Power is especially effective throughout their banter.

The movie was remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately languid and polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as a scowling Captain Esteban, and old standbys Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents. There’s also a 1975 French adaptation with romantic lead Alain Delon as Zorro and Welshman Stanley Baker. In 1998, The Mask of Zorro appeared, starring the athletically-inclined Antonio Banderas as the man behind the mask, and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones as the vivacious female lead (deadly with a rapier), along with Sir Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Diego. Earlier, a spoof of sorts, entitled Zorro, the Gay Blade, was released in 1981, with lounge lizard George Hamilton as both Don Diego and his fey twin brother, Ramon.

Guy Williams in the Disney series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)
Guy Williams as Don Diego in the Disney TV series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)

As far as Zorro himself was concerned, most of my generation was heavily weaned on the popular Walt Disney TV series (1957-59), which starred the mustachioed Guy Williams (pre-Lost in Space) as a debonair Don Diego. He basically played the role straight, with no foppish mannerisms or effeminate flourishes within eyeshot. Williams was supported by comic foils Henry Calvin as Sergeant Garcia and Gene Sheldon as the mute servant Bernardo. The TV series was also a haven for veteran bit players Don Diamond (F Troop), Jay Novello, Eduard Franz, and Everett Sloane, as well as fresh faces, including that of ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

Here’s an interesting bit of Hollywood lore: Fred Cavens, who trained Doug Fairbanks, Flynn and Power in their respective parts, also served as Guy Williams’ fencing master for Zorro. Power’s version, however, is still the best of the breed by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed in gorgeous black and white by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 93 minutes what it took the other versions hours to complete, but never quite made the big leagues. A winner in every way!

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Produced by Raymond Griffith for Darryl F. Zanuck; directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by John Taintor Foote, adapted by Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth from the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley; photographed by Arthur C. Miller; costumes by Travis Banton; music by Alfred Newman; starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Eugene Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg, Montagu Love, Janet Beecher, Robert Lowery, Chris-Pin Martin, George Regas, Belle Mitchell, John Bleifer, Frank Puglia, Eugene Borden, and Pedro de  Cordoba. Released by Twentieth Century Fox, 93 minutes.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Five): ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (and How)

Posted on Updated on

Chewie, Leia, C-3PO & Han Solo onboard the Millennium Falcon
Chewie, Leia, C-3PO & Han Solo onboard the Millennium Falcon

Once More unto the Breach!

Having helped Luke Skywalker out in the Rebel Alliance’s plan to rid the universe of the evil Galactic Empire — amid the whizzing of laser-blasters from a swarm of dedicated TIE fighters — Han Solo and Chewbacca step forward with young Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 to receive their prize from a beaming Princess Leia in the sequence that closes Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. THE END.

So that’s it? Is there nothing else? Well …. yeah!

We know from the decades of merchandising and over-exposure that George Lucas, the saga’s originator and one-track-minded filmmaker, had a sequel in mind whereby the characters and situations he originally conceived as a USC film student would continue to undergo new challenges in this fanciful sci-fi world.

Most fans are aware that the full title of the initial Star Wars story, if I may be allowed the privilege of repeating it, was The Adventures of Luke Skywalker as Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga One: The Star Wars. That’s a meal and a mouthful in itself! One can hear the studio heads at Twentieth-Century Fox clamoring for a shorter working title; so Star Wars it became, albeit with Episode “X” or “Y” appended in.

The first sequel, known officially as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, is darker in both tone and mood than its immediate predecessor. The color palette, made up primarily of grays, blues, and blacks, is maintained throughout. Indeed, this shadowy ambiance can be found in the picture’s shifting mise en scène, whether it be in caves, tunnels, corridors, storage rooms, or walkways, or the interior of a runaway asteroid.

More internalized than the earlier feature, Empire is much more preoccupied with re-familiarizing the viewer with its iconic characters than in grinding out the mechanics of the plot. At its core, Episode V is the most organically structured chapter in the entire series in that the characters develop according to the requirements of the constantly evolving story line.

As well, there is a noticeable improvement in the level of understanding between one individual and another. For instance, Han Solo, that tall and handsome rogue of a smuggler — a man who lives by his wits — is utterly taken with Leia’s feisty personality and ability to stand up for herself.

For her part, Leia is equally captivated by the “scruffy-looking” scoundrel, but is reluctant to admit her interest in him, even to herself — a typical Hollywood formula where “hate” means love at first fight. Granted, Han’s lowly station as a brigand may have been a hindrance to the development of a more permanent relationship, as if that mattered in their particular set of circumstances.

In contrast to this squabbling duo (the space-age equivalent of Ralph and Alice Kramden), our hero Luke has begun the process of realizing his full potential via the ability to move objects at will. He desires above all to become a Jedi Knight like his father, Anakin Skywalker, before him — a notion planted into his cranium by none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi.

C-3PO & R2-D2 in the underground rebel base
C-3PO & R2-D2 in the underground rebel base

The subsidiary cast of C-3PO and R2-D2, and, in a comparable sense, both Chewie and Han (and later Lando Calrissian), continue to play the comic relief: manservant and maid, skinny and fatty, what-have-you; an ersatz vaudeville team without the song and dance. Their verbal patter, a running joke throughout the series, is mildly suggestive of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” yet saturated with high-pitched squeaks, garrulous techno-babble, and inarticulate snarls. In sum, they each take turns playing Laurel to the other’s Hardy (and vice versa).

Another Classic Film-Score Moment

As the picture begins, we hear the Oscar-nominated John Williams fanfare on the soundtrack. This and other motifs were based in part on themes taken from the golden age of Hollywood movie-making, among them Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Kings Row, the opening “Mars” movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Miklos Rozsa’s Entrance of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur, and Elmer Bernstein’s music for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Words scroll above the screen, the influence of Flash Gordon and Saturday matinee movie serials: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker have established a secret base on the ice planet Hoth …” Lord Vader has become obsessed with finding young Skywalker who he knows to be strong with the Force. As a consequence, “Vader has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space” in order to uncover the boy’s whereabouts.

With that, a number of probes are launched from below the Imperial Star Cruiser. One of them crash lands on the surface of the ice planet. At that same instant, Luke appears. He’s riding a tauntaun — sort of a ram-horned camel crossed with a kangaroo, an excellent example of traditional stop-motion animation perfected by the late Ray Harryhausen (see the following tribute to the artist: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/ray-harryhausen-the-last-voyage-of-an-fx-master/).

Luke Skywalker on his tauntaun, calling into Rebel Base
Luke Skywalker on his tauntaun, calling into Rebel Base

In the process of investigating, Luke and the tauntaun are attacked by a vicious Snow Creature who drags him inside its lair. The extended scenes in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-ray show the beast greedily devouring a bloody meal and, to be honest, are pure overkill. To escape the same fate, Luke uses the Force to grab hold of his lightsaber which is just out of reach. When the Snow Creature advances, Luke slices off its arm, much as Obi-Wan Kenobi did to that unruly troublemaker at the Cantina Bar in Episode IV. Incidentally, the Snow Creature is nothing more than a humongous Muppet (portrayed by Des Webb).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Meanwhile, Han returns to the rebel base on Hoth (in reality, the Scandinavian country of Norway). He and Leia have an obvious attraction for one another, but resist it at every turn. Han knows there is a price on his head, placed there by the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. One would think, after being handsomely rewarded for coming to the Alliance’s aid, that Han would have paid the debt off by now. But noooo!

He bids adieu to the Princess, goading her on with sarcastic asides and false deference to her authority (“Your Highnessness,” “Your Worship,” and so). She, on the other hand, is perturbed at his leaving in the middle of a revolt. They engage in the first of many quarrels. However, underneath the bickering we hear a love theme which telegraphs their true feelings for one another. It will sound again at the end of the picture in full symphonic glory.

Han & Solo have a "lovers" spat
Han & Solo have a “lovers” spat in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

After Han is informed there has been no communication from Luke, he resolves to look for him in the subfreezing storm. Right on cue, we see Luke running off into the icy blizzard. It’s at this point that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit appears, when the boy is most in need of his services (remember that Ben was “killed” by Lord Vader in their last encounter). We expect the old geyser to go on spouting New Age advice. Instead, Ben charges Luke with a new task: he’s to go to the Dagobah system and seek out Jedi Master Yoda.

Obi-Wan’s image fades away into that of the approaching Han Solo on his tauntaun. With Luke left blinded by the snowstorm and delirious after his vision, Han slices open the frostbitten tauntaun and exposes him to the warmth of its innards. Offhandedly, Han remarks that he was under the impression tauntauns “only smelled bad on the outside.” Whew! Was he ever mistaken!

Fortunately, our adventure seekers are found — how could it be otherwise? There wouldn’t be a series to speak of if these two had perished so soon after the start. Luke’s scars from his encounter with the Snow Creature are clearly visible. In fact, they were the result of actor Mark Hamill experiencing a serious car accident prior to filming. Coincidentally, as a young man Lucas had been the victim of his own near fatal racing-car crash. Taking his star’s condition to heart, Lucas took advantage of the bit with the Snow Creature (he denies the script was altered in any way) in order to utilize the very real disfigurement on Hamill’s face.

We Kiss in a Shadow

While recovering in sickbay, Luke is visited by Han and Leia. To make Solo jealous, she plants a kiss on Luke’s mouth. In fairy tales, it’s usually the prince who gets to kiss the princess, not the other way around. No matter. Chewie chuckles to himself at Solo’s discomfort as Han bolts from the room in pursuit of the Princess.

Leia kisses Luke, while Han & Chewie look on
Leia kisses Luke, while Han & Chewie look on

Alerted to the rebels’ presence by another probe, the inhabitants of the base make final preparations to abandon their stronghold. After saying his farewells, Luke mounts one of the X-wing fighters as he and the other pilots get ready to help the rebels escape.

The battle to end all battles now takes place, with ground troops, fire arms, Imperial walkers (giant mammoth-like land rovers), and Star Destroyers participating left and right and at breakneck speed.

Back on board Vader’s flagship, General Veers (Julian Glover, a dead ringer for rocker Sting) reports they have emerged from hyperspace a tad too soon, thus tipping off the Alliance. Vader is not amused by the news. By the way, the miniature work here and in the battle on the ice is exemplary.

An interesting side note: rebel pilot Wedge replaces Biggs Darklighter, who perished after being fired upon by Darth Vader. As R2-D2 is lifted aboard Luke’s X-wing fighter, his robotic pal, C-3PO, takes the opportunity to express a little motherly concern for the droid and for Master Luke. They do care for each other, you know, but in a most “humanly” fashion, despite being preprogrammed automatons.

The battle rages on! Luke blows up one of the walkers. At the same time, General Veers blasts the power generators to smithereens. Finding themselves trapped below ground Leia, Han, Chewie, and 3PO have no choice but to board the Millennium Falcon in order to make their escape. One thing leads to another, when at last Vader makes his entrance in grand style (in pretty much the same manner as he did in Episode IV) by blasting through an impregnable door (well, not so impregnable). Storm troopers attempt to shoot it out with them, but they manage to avoid annihilation. Their world now comes crashing down around them.

On board the Millennium Falcon, the frustrated 3PO can’t seem to get a word in edgewise, or rather (from Solo and Leia’s viewpoint) he won’t shut the hell up. And that damn hyperdrive can’t seem to function at all, another running joke. To escape the pursuing TIE fighters, Han resolves to lose them in the asteroid field, to wit the chances of successfully navigating are “3,720 to 1.” Luckily for the crew, Han and Chewie are able to maneuver the fast-moving vessel into one of the many craters on the largest asteroid.

R2-D2 & Luke are surprised by Master Yoda
R2-D2 & Luke have a visitor: Master Yoda (right)

Meanwhile on Dagobah, we find Luke and R2 stepping cautiously along the moss-drenched swamp that covers the planet’s surface. This scene may remind viewers of a similar one in Ridley Scott’s Legend, which came a few years later —it certainly seems likely that both scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios in England. There’s even a swamp thing lurking just below the water’s surface that tries to swallow poor R2. He becomes a flying projectile when the creature decides to spit him out. A muddy mess!

One can’t say if this sequence refers to an earlier one in Episode IV, but it definitely calls it to mind. Luke, Leia, and Han are trapped inside a trash compactor. With the walls about to close in, Luke is abruptly sucked down into the compactor’s watery bottom by a tube-like, one-eyed serpent. Thanks to Han’s blaster, he escapes in time to contact R2, who happens to be locked on to a computer mainframe. Good work, R2!

Back at the swamp, out of the blue little Yoda decides to make his long-awaited bow. He’s a most curious and ill-tempered intruder. And he sounds suspiciously like Fozzie Bear, and why not? He happens to be voiced by master puppeteer Frank Oz, the same fellow who gave life to Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and numerous other denizens of Sesame Street.

Yoda is more comical here than elsewhere in the series, so enjoy it while you can, folks: it is only an act. You see, Master Yoda is a most studious follower of the Force. He may pretend to be cranky and irritable, but his purpose has been well defined by the screenwriters. He’s the High Lama of the Jedi Order, charged with teaching young Skywalker the ways of the Force.

Rising in the Ranks

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lord Vader has a completely different set of priorities. He too may appear to be calmer and more resolute in this episode than he was in the previous one. Nevertheless, Vader’s displeasure at the ineptitude of the Imperial Cruiser’s crew has grown by leaps and bounds.

Having botched the surprise attack on the rebel’s base on Hoth, Vader handily disposes of the “clumsy as he is stupid” Admiral Ozzel in the same way he tried to teach Commander Motti from Episode IV a thing or two about the Force’s power: by making him choke to death.

Admiral Ozzel & Captain Piett have a face-to-face with Lord Vader
Admiral Ozzel & Captain Piett have a face-to-face with Lord Vader

In that earlier encounter, Governor Tarkin prevented Motti’s demise with a sharp rebuke, but not here. There is no Tarkin to restrain Vader’s wrath: he was blown to kingdom come, if you recall, along with the first Death Star. In this sequence, however, the ambitious Captain Piett is forthwith promoted to admiral in Ozzel’s stead. And, in a later scene, Captain Steeka falls to the floor to breathe his last after losing track of the Millennium Falcon. “Apology accepted,” Vader notes in a contemptuous aside.

No matter how one takes this kind of action, the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith delivers an ultimatum to the recently promoted Piett: “Don’t fail me again,” he intones, all the while pointing a gloved finger at the admiral. Wow! How’d you like to work for a boss like that? Vader makes Donald Trump’s tossing off of his signature “You’re fired!” phrase on The Apprentice seem like child’s play.

All we can say is this: the revolving chain of command on board an Imperial Star Cruiser was plenty tough during those long ago and far away Empire days….

(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 © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes