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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
One is an old Cold War relic, the other a modern-esque tale of paranoia run rampant. Which is “better”? And which is the more “relevant,” in terms of translating the original source material into a viable shocker for present-day movie audiences?
These are good points to ponder, but do we have an answer? No, but it’s worth spending a little time on the relative merits of these two equally effective science-fiction classics: RKO Radio Pictures’ The Thing From Another World released in 1951, and Universal’s The Thing from 1982. Both pictures address the theme of overly-aggressive visitors from outer space; both attribute their themes to issues prevalent at the time of their release; and both require their ensembles casts to come up with ingenious solutions to the problems presented by unfriendly aliens.
In addition to the above criteria, there is the presumption throughout that science, for all the sanity and wisdom it has imparted to explaining the unexplainable, is simply incapable of overcoming the complexities that humanity will face when confronted by factors beyond their knowledge or control.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
The premise: A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of American research scientists, along with various military types, head out to the icy tundra in order to intercept and retrieve it.
In attempting to free the saucer from the permafrost, the military accidentally destroy the ship, only to discover that the alien passenger onboard has been flung into the ice. Instantly frozen by the subzero temperatures, the alien is rescued, in a manner of speaking, and brought to the scientists’ compound, with an around-the-clock guard keeping close tabs on the block of ice.
Unfortunately for the guard on duty, he places an electric blanket over the block so as not to gaze at the loathsome visitor’s creepy eyes, not realizing that the blanket’s warmth melts the surrounding ice. Within hours, the creature escapes the compound and goes on a violent rampage in order to preserve its kind.
A quintessential fifties sci-fi thriller, The Thing From Another World eerily mirrors the gathering Communist storm — and existential threat of that era — by echoing the American response to it. In addition to which, it took into account the increasingly frequent UFO sightings made after 1947. The film is in director Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., abounding in overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, spoken by a predominantly male cast and the lone wise-cracking female scientist (now there’s a modern angle to boast of). Although the direction is credited to Hawks’ assistant, Christian Nyby, the style is unmistakably that of the veteran of such classic pictures as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, and Red River.
The film provides a fair amount of suspense — the creature’s nighttime attack, and its being doused with flame throwers and gasoline buckets, as well as the claustrophobic surroundings, are major assets —but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills.
Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the alien invader is an egregious faux pas. The Thing, played by six foot seven inch James Arness (Them, Gunsmoke) in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” and how it’s described on the screen. Apparently, the less one sees of The Thing, the scarier and more intense things get (no pun intended).
The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, for example, along with their testosterone-fueled tendencies toward combating the wily creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity in addressing the impending peril. Just the thought of a blood-sucking alien vampire on the prowl, turning humans and sled dogs into lifeless carcasses in order to sustain a growing brood of “super carrots,” was enough to send movie audiences into a tailspin.
Carlos Clarens, in his An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, came up with a novel theory regarding his interpretation of The Thing from Another World: with reference to the creature’s intellectual superiority over his human counterparts, Clarens postulated that “omniscience does not mean human feelings, generosity, or understanding. In this respect, the film is something of a parable: superior science unencumbered by moral scruples will bleed us to death” (Clarens, p. 124).
He cites the example of chief scientist, Dr. Carrington (he’s very “caring,” if you know I mean), who argues for opening up communications with the alien being, only to be brushed aside not only by his fellow scientists and those itchy-trigger-fingered military men, but by the creature itself (violently so). As a matter of fact, the military treat Dr. Carrington a helluva lot better than The Thing does, which only proves the point.
The great ensemble cast mentioned earlier features many familiar faces, among them the reliable Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry, Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob, Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, George Fenneman as Dr. Redding, James Young as Lt. Dykes, John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman, William Self as Corporal Barnes, Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern, Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees, and Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the jocular newspaper man, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces.
The eerie theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is in a category all its own. Although in our opinion it’s not the “classic of classics” some critics have made it out to be, I regard it as being very much like Puccini’s opera Tosca: it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a tremendous wallop — when the titular Thing is out of plain sight, that is. And remember this, folks: Keep watching those not-so-friendly skies…!
The Thing (1982)
With Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters, doomed crew members, and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) undertook to remake that old fifties staple The Thing — this time with modern cinematic elements.
Carpenter returned to the original idea (the script was written by Bill Lancaster, actor Burt Lancaster’s son) of a shape-shifting alien being, suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). It told a terrifying tale of paranoia and loss of identity, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would “bug” us out.
However, after the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War, the ensuing Watergate scandals, and the revved up military spending spree vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the 1982 remake of The Thing spoke solemnly to audiences of the mistrust inherent when individuals, charged with the responsibility of working together as a functioning unit, drop all semblance of so-called “civilized” society (see William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies for a similar viewpoint) to let mindless fear, panic, and isolation seep into their existence.
The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility (scene of the original tale, by the way), where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby abandoned Norwegian installation. An Alaskan malamute appears to be the only survivor. Taking the dog back to their compound, one of the scientists, Clark, pens it up with the other sled dogs — but they sense this is not one of their own. Before long, the Thing they have brought back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. In no time, the researchers turn on one another until in the film’s final frame only two “survivors” are left to toast their troubles away.
While faithful to the original work in cast and story line, and besides possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (using stop-motion techniques and animatronics), the film is so enamored of gore and viscera that it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The elements of fear and suspicion are present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters (and little if any background to them) that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase, i.e., those amazing transformation sequences.
Indeed, the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the hit musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity.
Despite this mild handicap, in recent years the film has taken on the status of a cult favorite. At the time of its release, The Thing was in direct competition with the more benign E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Blade Runner. Movie critics eviscerated the work, which while tailored to mature audiences, is really an FX connoisseur’s dream come true (more like a nightmare).
The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell, at his swaggering best, as R.J. MacReady, Wilford Brimley sans his walrus mustache as the paranoid Blair, Richard Dysart as Dr. Cooper, Donald Moffat as Garry, Keith David as Childs, David Clennon as Palmer, Richard Masur as Clark, T.K. Carter as Nauls, Charles Hallahan as Norris, and Peter Maloney as Bennings. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a dynamic, pulsating electronic score by composer Ennio Morricone, are the main pluses. The final confrontation between MacReady and Childs leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. It’s one of those truly nihilistic endings.
Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects, the Howard Hawks-produced version was much more fun than this deadly-straight, coldly distant, starkly dark rendition. But be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
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?
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
The familiar and faintly comforting sound of Leo the Lion — MGM’s symbol of quality and excellence in motion picture arts and science — opens what was to have been a formula-B programmer. Instead, the Hollywood studio that gave larger than life presence to such icons as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and dozens more had wisely invested its money (and know-how) in an out-of-this-world science-fiction epic.
The forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator, and other big-screen spectaculars, 1956’s Forbidden Planet (the original title was Fatal Planet) emerged head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie of the fifties. Though not the first of its type to be released — 20th-Century Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, RKO’s The Thing (from Another World), and Universal’s This Island Earth preceded it by several years — Forbidden Planet was certainly the most prestigious in terms of budget, size, sets and production values. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s premier excursion into the realm of outer space.
Based on characters found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story was conceived by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Novelist and scriptwriter Cyril Hume shaped the effort into a satisfying screenplay, combining elements of classical mythology, Freudian pop psychology, and author Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics (from his collection of I, Robot stories, first published in December 1950) in order to relate an interplanetary tale of man’s hubris in the face of forces beyond his control.
Forbidden Planet formed its core narrative around Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a brainy philologist who has been “stranded” on the planet Altair-IV for the better part of two decades. Left to his own devices (and with the aid of a so-called “Big Machine” left there by its former inhabitants), Morbius has learned to harness the planet’s elemental force so as to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), or Alta for short.
When an investigating United Planets Space Cruiser, headed by the straight-laced Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), invades his pet paradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his not inconsiderable will, Morbius unleashes this planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion.
Followers of the genre have marveled at the film’s depiction of the Krell, an advanced alien civilization that, technologically as well as intellectually, was a million years ahead of humankind. Morally and ethically, however, they were as burdened by secreted bouts of lust, power and revenge as man himself had been. Despite never being seen, viewers came away from the picture knowing as much if not more about the wonders of this incredible race of beings as they did the all-too-fallible humans.
Roar of Approval
Starting things off with the lion’s roar — a harbinger of the bellowing Id monster that will take center stage as the story progresses and unfolds— is a masterstroke of foreshadowing and anticipatory plot devices. Movie critics and industry insiders have long pointed up the similarity between these two creatures. When the film is glimpsed in one uninterrupted sitting, Leo and his Id counterpart provide a neat “bookend effect” to the inevitability of events as they begin to take shape.
The creepy “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron, standing in for what would have been a full-blown orchestral score, distinguish this feature from earlier low-budget entries. It may even have been the first documented instance of cinematic “white noise.” Nevertheless, the use of the exotic-sounding theremin in the soundtracks to Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, the aforementioned The Thing, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein no doubt cleared the path for studio head Dore Schary to green-light the Barron’s avant-garde sound project for admission into Forbidden Planet’s world.
Les Tremayne, a mainstay of many a sci-fi outing from the genre’s peak period, provides the introductory voice-over lauding the discovery of hyper-drive and light speed technology, which led to the inevitable “conquest and colonization of deep space.” This line of thought, of man extending his reach outside his current capacity and into the farthest regions of the universe, would be incorporated into visionary producer Gene Roddenberry’s idea for the TV series Star Trek and its crew of intrepid explorers.
Speaking of which, the C-57D space cruiser’s all-male crew — “eighteen competitively selected, super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years” — has been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days, not exactly the kind of circumstance that would be conducive to the presence of a long-legged blonde gamine, but there you have it.
Just as the cruiser enters Altair-IV’s oxygen-rich atmosphere, science officer Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson) receives a radar transmission from the cryptic Professor Morbius. As the only surviving member of the Bellerophon expedition of 20 years prior, Morbius talks in evasive circles around the insistent Commander Adams. Indignant at first with the officer’s stated purpose, Morbius grudgingly agrees to provide landing coordinates for the craft. At the same time, he washes his hands of all culpability for what might befall its crew, a vague allusion to something far more sinister.
We discussed at the outset the so-called mythological aspects of the plot, which start to make steady inroads at the mention of the name Bellerophon, the ship that brought Dr. Morbius, his future wife, and the other members of his party to Altair-IV in the first place.
In Greek mythology, Bellerophon was a mortal who had once been favored by the gods. He slew the dreaded Chimaera and even tamed the fabled winged horse Pegasus. But pride and arrogance took over his persona, so much so that he attempted to gain immortality by riding Pegasus straight up to Mount Olympus, the playground of the gods. Zeus, the head god, sent a gadfly to sting the steed, causing Bellerophon (à la Icarus) to fall ingloriously back down to Earth. He spent the rest of his days as a wandering cripple in the manner of King Lear.
With this back-story in mind, the cruiser lands on a barren wasteland; its surface bereft of “cities, ports, roads, bridges, dams” — in short, any recognizable structure indicative of a thriving society. No sooner does the crew disembark when it is confronted with the sight of a distant vehicle hurtling at supersonic speed. The driver of the vehicle is none other than Robby the Robot, a paradigm of man’s impulse to manage his surroundings by creating an artificial being — a mechanical Guy (or Gal) Friday, if you will — with extraordinary intelligence and superhuman strength, as well as highly refined social skills.
Robby’s soothing voice (belonging to actor Marvin Miller) and cultivated air of sophistication give Commander Adams the impression that all will be well. Agreeing to be escorted to the doctor’s residence, Adams boards the vehicle, taking with him Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lt. “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens). As the men approach the abode, they are coldly greeted by Morbius, who stands in shadows inside the doorway — an elusive, solitary figure determined to plow on with his research despite the intruders. His intention is to show how safe and secure he’s been without the aid of outside interference.
After lunch, Morbius decides to demonstrate a bit of the Robot’s abilities, including his “absolute selfless obedience” to orders — except, of course, when they clash with Robby’s built-in safety mechanism whereby he is forbidden to harm a human being.
When pressed for details as to the whereabouts of his shipmates, Morbius explains their absence: one by one, they succumbed to an interplanetary force, “some devilish thing that never once showed itself.” He and his wife, the late Julia Marsin, remained immune to its influence. The others, however, were torn limb from limb and the Bellerophon vaporized upon takeoff.
Despite Morbius’ earnest yet awkward attempts at reassurance, the men remain jumpy and ill at ease, particularly when he activates the steel shudders that loudly surround his home.
The Pause that Refreshes
It’s at this point in his remembrances of bygone times that a graceful gazelle named Alta appears. Standing motionless in the entranceway, she calls to her father in a seductive tone. Immediately, Alta commands the undivided attention of the three visitors, one of whom (Lt. Farman) stumbles over himself in offering her some refreshment. Even though story-wise we are three centuries into the future, the men’s actions around this vision of loveliness — especially that of Lt. Farman — is typical of 1950s male behavior. One should mention his over-eagerness to be of assistance.
Since this is Alta’s first (ahem) experience with others of her race, Farman’s conduct goes completely over her head, which both amuses and perturbs her parent. Morbius admits to Adams and Ostrow the need to take his daughter back to Earth for her “natural development.” Ostrow agrees: “I should say fairly soon too.” The philologist’s patriarchal realm, a virtual Mount Olympus in miniature, has been encroached upon by these three “very fine exceptions” of Homo sapiens, only one of who will get to first base with his virginal child.
Stepping away from the others, Farman tries to get a leg up on his commanding officer by convincing Alta that Adams is a notorious space wolf “known throughout seven planetary systems.” Shaking his head and wagging his finger at her, Farman warns that, “Any girl or woman who lets him get her alone, anywhere,” is asking for trouble. Alta is intrigued, but concurs with his findings by catching the fire in Adams’ eyes. No such fire in Farman’s eyes, of that she is sure. Farman takes offense at this slight and insists he’s not entirely harmless.
At that moment, Quinn checks in to view the surroundings. A wolf whistle escapes from his lips as he spots Alta’s mini-skirted form. “Knock that off,” orders Commander Adams. It’s apparent to dad (and to us) that Alta is as enchanted by these “unbelievable” specimens as they are with her. She falls especially hard for Adams, the de facto leader of the group. When the officers take their leave, Alta gives the commander a long, hard look.
Until now, the conversation has been informal and routine, albeit tense — that is, if one takes into account the commander’s quite natural suspicions about the fate of the Bellerophon’s crew. The few references to the lady of the household come from Ostrow, who inquires as to whether she’s at home today. Morbius offers a rather dry response: his wife died six months after the others, only of natural causes. Ostrow then remarks that he thought Robby evinced some “very charming feminine touches,” hence our Guy/Gal Friday designation and sci-fi’s first ever asexual/bisexual artificial being.
The introduction of Alta into this all-male equation, a transitory disruption to the status quo, changes the balance of power from Morbius to his daughter. The discussion promptly shifts from domesticity as a topic — already touched upon in Ostrow’s observation about the Robot, and in Morbius’ demonstration of the handy “dispose-all” unit (“A housewife’s dream,” in Ostrow’s words) — to playfulness and innuendo, taken one step further by Farman’s libidinous interjections.
Through visual and verbal cues, i.e., sideways glances, whispered asides, and furtive gestures, the atmosphere becomes charged with sexual tension; the temperature in the room has been elevated, too, by several notches. The sense we have of the situation is that a conflict will arise by Alta’s attendance — a conflict that will bring about a cataclysmic cost to all concerned.
Love Ain’t Such a Splendored Thing
If possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, then Adams may be out of luck. For, in the ensuing scene where Alta visits the cruiser’s landing site and casually wanders off with Farman behind some jagged rocks, the commander can’t take his eyes off her. He is barely able to carry on with his duties as skipper, much less pay attention to Quinn and the others.
In the meantime, the Cook (Earl Holliman) provides some comic relief with his mechanical straight man, Robby. He has the Robot sample his last bottle of bourbon, a potable token of an “advanced” culture wallowing in the most basic of human weaknesses. Robby promises to run off 60 gallons of the “stuff,” thus contributing to Cookie’s habit of imbibing while off-duty.
This sequence highlights one of the many nods to a once-acceptable social practice of the 1950s, that is, of getting smashed at all costs. Later, when Cookie is reported as having been “falling down drunk” on the hooch that Robby provided him, his excuse is that he and the Robot were together the whole time the ship was being attacked, a tidy alibi.
Returning to our couple, we find Farman locked in an embrace, trying to instruct Alta in the healthy art of kissing and hugging. “All the really high civilizations go in for it,” he insists. Just the thing to stimulate the system, and earn the envy of his commanding officer! After several attempts at getting a rise out of the girl, a frustrated Farman (I would add, a sexually frustrated Farman) turns to her and asks if she’s giving him the “treatment” — in other words, “don’t brush me off, kid.”
In Farman’s company, she’s as cold as a mackerel. That’s about to change when Commander Adams re-enters the picture and decides to pull rank on his subordinate. A flustered Lt. Farman is dismissed, leaving the commander to sharply scold the oblivious Altaira for allowing a “space wolf like Farman” (branding the lieutenant with the same pejorative label Farman had earlier used on him) to take undue advantage of the situation, especially when she’s so scantily clad. “For Pete’s sake, go home and put on something … anything.”
Poor innocent Alta has a great deal of difficulty comprehending the cause of the commander’s anger. Her wits and childlike naiveté, which served her well in the preceding episode and in the comfort of her father’s living room — surrounded, as she was, by her “friends” (two white-tail deer and a full-grown Bengal tiger!) — have abandoned her under this new set of circumstances. To add to her turmoil, she has no idea what to make of Adams’ reaction, or how to deal with the newly-discovered emotions brewing inside her.
Equally disconcerted as well, Adams sends her off in even harsher language than he used on Farman. “Get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard,” he barks, “and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Back at the house, Alta repeats the commander’s rude comments to her father, who listens calmly to her outburst. He hears about how much she dislikes him, the look he gave her, and how he raised his voice at her. “What about?” Morbius inquires. She hasn’t a clue. “I was only trying to be nice about kissing the lieutenant,” she explains. Morbius raises an eyebrow. “How did the commander react to that?” Why, he was furious, is her reply. She never wants to see him again, ever! (Famous last words, or there would be no rest of the picture.)
The best she could do now, Morbius counsels her, is to go to bed. Claiming he has some unfinished business in his study, he kisses his daughter on the brow and departs.
Alta then beams for Robby the Robot, who, as we probably know, is busy preparing those 60 gallons of booze for the soon-to-be-besotted Cook. When he finally does appear, Alta demands that he make a new dress for her, one with nothing showing. No long legs, no curvy waist, no perfect ankles, nothing but a nice, boring gown. “Radiation-proof?” Robby quizzes her. “No, just eye-proof will do.” Oh, and while you’re at it, spiff it up with some diamonds and emeralds. Gotcha!
Brimming with joy and excitement, Alta hugs the Robot as if he were TV’s Hazel, the maid with all the answers. She saunters off to bed, with nary a care in the world as to whether she’ll have a good night’s rest or not.
A Few Words to the Wise
When I was an adolescent, those silly smooching episodes would annoy me to no end. Like most kids my age and younger, I wanted the actors to get on with the show; to move past these nonsensical time-wasters and get to the good parts, i.e., the business with the mysterious Krell and, of course, the Id monster’s nighttime “visitation.”
Today, I am fortunate to have acquired a healthy dollop of patience where it concerns my movie viewing. In doing independent research for this film I learned that during the time of Forbidden Planet’s release and, afterward, when it was reissued to second-run cinemas, the “kissing scenes” were snipped for the kiddie matinees and, as luck would have it, for local television viewing where my family and I first caught it.
Had I known it at the time, I would surely have realized that these and all the early scenes, which take up the first third or so of the picture’s running time, provide the missing keys to understanding the story’s plot and theme: that of man’s inability to tame his bestial nature — his baser instincts of hate, lust, bias, greed, carnal desire, want, need, and survival at any cost; eventually, to rise above the specie’s’ intrinsically destructive nature, that of “the beast, the mindless primitive,” and one day ascend to the heights the Krell had risen, only to fall back down again (like Bellerophon) as all mortals are wont to do.
In Altair IV’s paradisiacal Garden of Eden, Commander Adams could be considered the “first man,” i.e., after his namesake Adam. He’s got a bad disposition, but that’s acceptable considering the pressures he has to face as commander. Young Alta, an offshoot of Altaira (the name itself derived from the planet on which she was born), could be the “first woman,” but one who has attained the “highest position” in the evolutionary cycle (ergo the name “Alta,” meaning the “highest”).
On the opposite end of the scale, Professor Morbius, the loving father and authority figure, is a deeply flawed individual. At this stage in the story, he seems a benign character — intelligent, yes, and by all means brilliant; but secretive and enigmatic, purposely withholding of vital information that, during the course of the picture, will be divulged to his visitors only at crucial intervals.
Later in the movie, Morbius will state his personal credo “that man is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” His scholarly opposite, “Doc” Ostrow, counters this argument with one of his own: “Whereas Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, is now ideally suited to administer this power for the whole human race.”
That remains to be seen …
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
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.
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/).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A vagrant in a battered hat, raggedy clothes and unshaven visage comes up to a tall lean man in a white suit and matching white hat. The tall lean man, who is smoking a stogie and has a long inquisitive face, is reading a newspaper as he pauses to get his dusty shoes shined. Begging the man’s pardon, the shabbily dressed vagrant screws up enough nerve to ask the tall lean gentleman if he could help a fellow American who’s down on his luck.
Three times the vagrant pesters the tall lean man for a buck. After the last time, the tall lean man gives him two coins instead of one and simultaneously charges him with the responsibility of finding his own way in the world, but without his monetary aid.
As luck would have it, the vagrant runs into another fellow American down on his luck. Knowing full well that misery loves company, the twosome join forces to pool whatever wits and resources they still have to try and make a go at it in Tampico, Mexico.
The mysterious B. Traven’s 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre about three prospectors panning for gold in the rugged Mexican backlands served as the basis for this classic Warner Brothers motion-picture depiction.
Produced by Henry Blanke, the film was written and directed by Academy Award winner John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who lived for a time in Mexico and appears as the white-suited American continually hit upon for assistance. Co-starring Huston’s veteran actor father, a toothless Walter Huston, in an Oscar-caliber performance as the lanky old-timer Howard, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an epic morality tale about the dangers of too much greed and too little foresight.
Desperate for dough, the two down-and-outers, Fred C. Dobbs (a mean and ornery Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best “rabid dog” roles ever) and Bob Curtin (a stocky but game Tim Holt), team up with the aforementioned Howard, an expert on past prospecting ventures, upon hearing him talk up a storm about his exploits in a Tampico flophouse. Howard knows a thing or two about prospecting, and even more about human nature.
After Dobbs gets lucky with a winning lottery ticket, the trio sets off for the Sierra Madre mountains. Seeing the agile old geezer traverse steep terrain with precious little effort, Dobbs wonders if he isn’t part goat. With Howard’s help, they hit pay dirt; but soon after, the men are forced to confront other crises, among them a fourth vagrant named Codie (Bruce Bennett), who’s just itching for a piece of the action. When Codie is killed by bandits and Howard gets whisked off by the locals for saving a boy’s life, Dobbs and Curtin are left to fend for themselves.
Eventually succumbing to gold fever, Dobbs tries to eliminate the competition in typical delusional fashion. He meets his fate at the hands of those same Mexican bandits, one of whom, a nervous fellow known as “Gold Hat” (newcomer Alfonso Bedoya — forever fidgety, thanks to Huston’s non-direction), earlier uttered the famous line about not having to show “any stinking badges.”
The movie is hard to classify. Basically, it’s part Western and part film noir. For an action-adventure yarn, however, this adult drama emphasizes (wonder of wonders) character development over elaborate special effects – in particular, that of the reckless Dobbsey. His descent into a hellish, fiery furnace is a trifle too literal at times, but otherwise this is fine entertainment the whole family can enjoy. It’s amazing what the talented Bogart could do with this two-dimensional creature. By humanizing Mr. Dobbs, one almost feels sorry for the man, which is probably the right feeling to have in these circumstances.
Tim Holt, so easily affronted and forceful in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is equally memorable for revealing Curtin’s warm and tender side (the touching letter reading episode, for instance). He’s joined by his old man, veteran cowpuncher Jack Holt, who can be seen briefly in the flophouse sequence.
And last but not least, there’s the great Walter Huston, sounding off with that infectious laugh of his, as well as doing that funny little dance that Billy Crystal so admired (and stole from) for his comedic version of the story (see City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). Huston is the picture’s moral center, the iron rod thrust into the dirt and the fellow you want by your side when the going gets tough — and brother, does it ever get tough!
One can’t fail to mention composer Max Steiner’s powerful film score, a major character in itself. Others in the strong cast are Barton MacLane as McCormick, young Robert Blake as the boy who sells Bogie the winning ticket, Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente, Manuel Donde as El Jefe, José Torvay as Pablo, Margarito Luna as Pancho, Pat Flaherty, and (most controversially) Ann Sheridan as a streetwalker, who had allegedly participated in the production, but which has never been confirmed with absolute certainty.
The ending is a masterpiece of cinematic irony and the film is noteworthy, too, for not having the spoken Spanish subtitled. Regardless, you can figure out what they’re talking about through their actions and gestures.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes