Adventure

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

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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

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

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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

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

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Ce-le-brate Good Times, Come On!

Poster art for Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered (1947)

A happy and belated July 4 to one and all!

Since that date marks the start of our country’s struggle for liberty and independence, the focus of today’s post (and future ones thereafter) will be the theme of patriotism and how it is represented in such varied forms as motion pictures, the Broadway stage and — believe it or not — the opera house.

Let’s begin with a few selected works from the days of silent and sound cinema.

In point of fact, silent films depicting the American Revolution and/or the Founding Fathers were few and far between. Scarce is the word I would use to describe the relative lack of footage from the silent era that depicts the forging of our nation, or any other nation for that matter.

One of the main reasons for this shortage is the incontrovertible truth that many movies have simply deteriorated over time due to their having been made on nitrate or other perishable stock. Film preservation, as an acknowledged and accepted practice, was practically non-existent.

Beyond that reality, there are several silent features that have depicted such prominent figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and various others. For starters, famed silent film director David Wark (D.W.) Griffith was noted for such gargantuan presentations as Intolerance (1916), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and especially The Birth of a Nation (1915).

D.W. Griffith (center) with his favorite photographer Billy Bitzer (left)

An early example of long-form storytelling and narrative build-up, the bulk of Birth of a Nation takes place during and after the Civil War, in the so-termed Reconstruction period. Against this backdrop, such historical personalities as President Lincoln (played by Joseph Henabery), his assassin John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh), and Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) are juxtaposed against fictional protagonists Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), Col. Benjamin Cameron (Henry B. Walthal), Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), and Gus (Walter Long) in a romantic tale of two families on opposite sides of the conflict.

In many respects, Griffith’s epic production is a forerunner of the no-less-compelling (and lengthier) Gone with the Wind a full generation later, with GWTW  boasting a less overtly racist premise. Despite Birth of a Nation’s association with controversy vis-à-vis its questionably “heroic” portrait of the Ku Klux Klan “riding to save the South from black rule,” as well as the outrageously stereotypical treatment of African Americans throughout (played by white actors in “blackface”), the film remains a landmark in the cinematic arts for its groundbreaking photography and its use of close-ups, crosscutting and editing.

But as far as it can be connected to this article’s main theme, any mention of the role that “patriotism” had in the development of the screenplay and story line of Birth of a Nation can be deemed misguided.

Griffith was also responsible for America: or Love and Sacrifice (1924), a fictional tale involving colonial patriots (among them, a pre-Batman TV series Neil Hamilton as the coonskin hat-wearing Nathan Holden) battling their British red-coated occupiers near and around the sites of the Revolutionary War.

There are moments in the picture that recall James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (filmed as a silent in 1920, and remade with sound in 1936), particularly the Native American-Indian raid on Fort Sacrifice. Certainly, actor Lionel Barrymore’s over-the-top performance as corrupt British Captain Walter Butler (a historical personage) tended to skirt the limits of melodramatic villainy by using the Native Americans for his own mercenary purposes.

Still from D.W. Griffith’s America (1924)

In sum, more historical figures are present in this picture than in The Birth of a Nation. Welcome appearances in the movie’s first half by the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, William Pitt, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and King George III were only the tip of the iceberg. And why not? After all, the aim of the project, as stipulated in Cotton Seiler’s article “The American Revolution” for The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, was “to stir the patriotic hearts of the nation as … no other picture has ever done.” Too, it may have been done to make amends for Griffith’s blatantly biased take in the earlier film.

There is also a Romeo and Juliet lover-story angle attached to America, best left explored to more literary-minded readers, but prevalent in the name of one of the feuding families, the Montagues. As a matter of fact, one of their member, Nancy Montague (played by Carol Dempster), is the daughter of Justice Montague (Erville Alderson), a Tory supporter and loyal follower of the British Crown. That Nancy and Nathan fall in and out of love, only to be reunited at the end, is indicative of Griffith’s tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.

Where the film is most impressive, however, is in its mythical interpretation of George Washington (Arthur Dewey) at Valley Forge. We all know the fable from our grade-school days: how the harsh winter of 1777-78 took an incalculable toll on the fledgling revolutionary forces; how Washington and his men withstood hunger and deprivation in order to maintain courage in the face of ever-mounting odds. Despite their “pain and suffering,” Washington and his men overcame the wintry blasts to fight again another day — and eventually win out over superior British forces. The end!

Most historians have discounted this retelling of events. Indeed, according to Washington authority Willard Sterne Randall, “It was not an unusually cold winter: in fact, it was one of the warmest in memory.” So much for historical accuracy! True to form, Griffith went on to capture that self-same frigid ambiance (now a warmed-over cliché) of the prayerful Father of Our Country at Valley Forge, PA, kneeling on sacred ground to ask the Lord for guidance in his hour of need — a surrogate Moses speaking to the Burning Bush (or icy frost, in this instance).

At the time of the film’s release, it was commented on by reviewers that Griffith had attempted to recycle the winning formula he invented for Birth of a Nation into this costly production; that the director had substituted Native Americans (i.e., the “Iroquois”) for African Americans as the “enemy” that needed to be tamed and vanquished; that in Griffith’s rationale, the colonists were not traitors to King George but rather “rebels” or Confederates (his deliberate choice of words was indeed revealing) with high ideals, fighting for a just cause. Whatever!

But never fear, all’s well that ends well. In the final scene, at his inaugural Washington takes the oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City, where his statue still stands to this day.

Griffith turned once again to the Civil War period in his first talkie: the biopic Abraham Lincoln (1930), a creaky, late-career outing that starred Walter Huston as Young Abe and later as President Lincoln, with Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge, Kay Hammond as Mary Todd Lincoln, E. Alyn Warren as both Stephen Douglas and General Grant, Hobart Bosworth as General Lee, Oscar Apfel as Secretary of War Stanton, and Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth.

Huston was praised for his understated portrayal of the titular sixteenth U.S. president. Lincoln is presented here as having been foreseen (by Divine Providence, no less, in the manner of his Old Testament namesake, the prophet Abraham) as the reluctant father of his country, a unifying figure at a time of great division. The same can be said for Huston’s admirable performance: from beginning to end, Walter is the sole unifying factor in a somewhat stolid and stagey production.

It’s not what one would call a warts-and-all rendering of the Great Man, but a far more complicated and discerning one. Lincoln’s lingering depression and ever-present sadness over the burdens of high office are carried with him for much of the film’s 97-minute running time.

Walter Huston as our 16th president in Griffith’s biopic Abraham Lincoln 1930

You could say that this was D.W. Griffith’s final hurrah as far as future film work was concerned. He would direct one last feature, The Struggle, in 1931. Based in part on Émile Zola’s novel, The Drunkard, the plot concerns a young alcoholic (Hal Skelly) hooked on bootleg liquor, an obvious criticism of the prevailing Prohibition law. The film mirrored Griffith’s own personal problems with alcoholism, which may have contributed to his death, at age 73, of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948.

Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille

One of the most popular and staggeringly successful producer-directors of his time — one who had traversed both the silent and sound eras with equal skill and deftness — was the inexhaustible Cecil B. DeMille. Considered one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, the Massachusetts-born DeMille was an early proponent of patriotically-themed and/or religiously-based screen epics.

Among the more noteworthy examples from the vast scope and breadth of his oeuvre are The Squaw Man (1914), one of the first films to be made in Hollywood proper and remade several times by DeMille himself; The Viriginian (also from 1914); The Girl of the Golden West (1915) after David Belasco’s play; Carmen (1915) with soprano Geraldine Farrar, based not on Bizet’s opera but on the original Prosper Mérimée novella; the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923); The Volga Boatman (1926) with William Boyd; and the independently produced The King of Kings (1927), the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

It was during the sound period, then, that DeMille came into his own as a purveyor of the Protestant work ethic as a means toward achieving the American dream. After watching one of his films, viewers, too, may come away with the same feeling, one that pervaded many of his historical productions: the idea that a busy, industrious America is a happy America (at least, according to C.B.).

Such rousing recreations of frontier life as The Plainsman (1937), with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok, Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane, James Ellison as Buffalo Bill, and John Miljan as George Custer; the War of 1812 in The Buccaneer (1938), with Fredric March as privateer Jean Lafitte, Franciska Gaal as his ladylove Gretchen, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, and Hugh Sothern as a crotchety Andrew Jackson; and the building of the transcontinental railway in Union Pacific (1939), with Joel McCrea as Captain Jeff Butler, Barbara Stanwyck as the Irish-brogue spouting Mollie Monahan, Brian Donlevy as the villainous Sid Campeau, and Francis J. McDonald as General Dodge, all depict a young nation at work, keeping physically strong and mentally sharp by a division of labor between those who toil and those who govern.

Workers laying down track in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939)

DeMille’s heady mixture of historical luminaries and nationalistic fervor, blended with hard-working fictional protagonists that audiences could seemingly relate to, reaped huge box-office rewards for Paramount Studios’ coffers.

Looking northward, DeMille turned out (in vividly stunning Technicolor) a nostalgic ode to our Canadian neighbors in Northwest Mounted Police (1940). His pièce de résistance in this regard, however, was the later Unconquered (1947), which revisited similar terrain as Griffith’s America and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Pure hokum and a potboiler supreme are one way to describe the picture; a “barnstormer rooted in Victorian theater,” as quoted by film critic David Thomson, and “shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting twentieth-century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it.”

It was back to the frontier and the hearty folk who populated it. An all-star lineup of talent was assembled for Unconquered, headed by lanky Gary Cooper as Indian fighter Captain Christopher Holden, Paulette Goddard (who co-starred with him in Northwest Mounted Police) as indentured servant girl Abigail Hale, Howard Da Silva as illegal gunrunner Martin Garth, Boris Karloff as Seneca Chief Guyasuta, Ward Bond as John Fraser, Victor Varconi (a DeMille stalwart) as Captain Ecuyer, Henry Wilcoxon (another DeMille favorite who appeared as Major Heyward in the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans) as Captain Steele, Richard Gaines as a dark-haired Colonel George Washington, and a cast of thousands if not hundreds.

Abby (Paulette Goddard) & Chris (Gary Cooper) meet up with Bone (Mike Mazurki, left) in Unconquered

The impossible-to-follow plot is a ludicrous assemblage of old, discarded bits from The Last of the Mohicans (in the Indian attack on Fort Pitt), to include, but not limited to, Capt. Holden’s stupefying rescue of Abby to prevent her from being roasted by the warring tribesmen. Both he and Abby manage to elude the pursuing braves by going down a studio-bound river in a raft and over a poorly projected waterfall. Nor is the inane dialogue any better, a common complaint in DeMille’s pictures. C.B. wasn’t interested as much in what his actors were saying as he was with what they look liked in costume.

The film’s title could just as easily have referred to the unconquerable “Abby” Hale as to its wilderness setting. In an article about George Washington by John D. Thomas, found in The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past, there’s a scene early on in which Captain Holden and Col. Washington are both privy to “an auction of white indentured servants brought over from Britain,” to include the scrappy Ms. Hale. “Washington ventures this bit of personal information: ‘One of my teachers was an indentured convict, Chris, a fine man, but he never could teach me to spell.’”

Thomas pointed out that historically, the indentured convict belonged to Washington’s father, and that Washington himself had owned numerous slaves (as did other Founding Fathers), as many as 350 or more after he married Martha. For DeMille, such a historically accurate revelation in Unconquered would have detracted from audiences’ enjoyment of his film, as well as clouded the issue of celebrating the fictionalized account of our freedom-loving ancestors.

Be that as it may, DeMille’s involvement with his 1956 Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments would address the slavery question head-on. Only this time, it would involve the tribulations of the put-upon Hebrew slaves of the Old Testament, intertwined with the rise of their Deliverer, Moses, and the flight from Egypt, known as the Exodus (see the following link to my post about the background to The Ten Commandments: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).

(End of Part One)

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

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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

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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

‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) and ‘The Thing’ (1982): Who Really Goes There?

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The iceman Cometh: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)
The Iceman cometh and went: Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)

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)

"Keep watching the skies" - The Thing From Another World (1951)
“Keep watching the skies” – 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.

It's the little "Things" that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington's findings
It’s the little “Things” that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington’s findings

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 Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)
The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)

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)

Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter's The Thing
Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter’s The Thing

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.

A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing
A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing

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.

Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)
Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)

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

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

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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