Classic Films

‘Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id’ — The Brave New World of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Part Three): The End of All Things

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Portion of lobby poster for Forbidden Planet (1956)

Casting About for Excuses

Back on board the space cruiser, Doc Ostrow hauls over a heavy plaster cast of one of the footprints found outside the grounds. Commander Adams takes one look at the gruesome object and cannot believe his eyes. If THIS is what did Chief Quinn in, Adams posits, well, then, it’s highly conceivable, in his rational skipper’s mind, that he could have beaten this creature to a pulp with a club, or certainly killed it with one of their blasters.

Not feasible, replies Doc. In his view, the plaster footprint “runs counter to every law of adaptive evolution.” He indicates the varying structural components, which point to a four-footed animal. However, the thing that attacked Quinn left tracks of a biped (that is, a two-legged beastie). And that disgusting-looking claw that sticks out? Why, it’s got to belong to a burrowing creature of some kind, “some impossible tree sloth” or other. No rational explanation exists for this thing — at least, not yet. Doc is perplexed, and so is the commander. Surely, somebody would have noticed this walking nightmare.

Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) & Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) inspect the plaster cast

Lt. Farman ushers in the cook, who, contrary to the skipper’s belief and conviction, provides Robby the Robot with an airtight alibi: the mechanical being was with the besotted Cookie the entire time he was imbibing. Great! That leaves only one prime suspect left, the same one that they (and any reasonably intelligent viewer) have suspected all along, namely Professor Morbius.

Adams hints that he and Doc should swing by that old Krell lab and take the test of their IQ abilities for themselves, damn the consequences. The commander’s eagerness to do so, which would betray a trust, no doubt was fueled by: (a) his desire to complete his mission; but more importantly, (b) to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this Forbidden Planet.

In the succeeding scene, Morbius and Altaira observe the burial detail of Quinn’s funeral from afar. Even out here in space, a million or more miles from home, the C-57D’s crew keeps their earthly observances intact with a brief bible reading by the officer in charge (in keeping to their religious affiliation, of course, the last vestige of humanity in a so-called “civilized” society).

The Professor warns Adams of more deaths to come. But how does he know this? What is it that gives the philologist such insight into the unknown? Morbius pauses before he answers. He calls it a “premonition” of disaster. But to the skipper, it smacks of an ultimatum, i.e., the same kind of provocation that Morbius issued upon their approach to Altair IV. Only this time, it is spoken with purpose and deliberation.

That night, the skipper and his anxious crew make preparations for a possible attack. They test their alarm system by activating the main batteries. In the midst of the test, the commander calls Lt. Farman over to say that he’s sorry to have been so hard on him. Farman stops him in his tracks by admitting that Alta “picked the right man” after all. In other words, let bygones be bygones. All’s fair in love and war, right? The two rivals smile knowingly at each other. Good thing, too! For brother, these guys are in for a REAL battle!

No sooner have the men mended their frazzled friendship, when word comes that radar has picked up something on the horizon. A huge blip on the screen, “Big as a house,” now materializes. The skipper has his batteries fire full blast into the arroyo, and for a moment there’s a deathly silence, except for those electronic tonalities that mimic the Id monster’s footsteps. Suddenly, and without warning, the Id monster attacks, a dazzling showcase animated by Joshua Lawrence Meador, one of Disney Studios’ best effects men. At nearly four minutes’ duration, this is the film’s centerpiece and main action sequence.

The Id Monster attacks while it appears visible between the beams of the force field

The Id monster’s outline emits an eerie blue light when it first crosses the beams. When confronting the crew, however, its blue glow turns bright red with fiery rage — an irate fiend (much like the Bengal tiger before it) that roars and hollers its lust for vengeance to the winds. Doc yells out the obvious: “The blasted thing’s invisible!” That’s right! Now they know how it gained access to their ship.

The Id’s loathsome mouth is agape. It would seem that the jaws of Hell itself have been pried open, standing ready to maim and destroy — a horrifying apparition of dread and foreboding.

Original concept art for the Id monster gave it an insect-like appearance. The bug idea transmogrified into “a bulky, creeping mass … meant to be a literal nightmare, the physical equivalent of the warped, primal urges of Morbius’ subconscious mind from which the Id monster sprang” (Clarke and Rubin, “Making ‘Forbidden Planet’,” Cinefantastique, p. 35, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1979). When that too was rejected, the producers turned to Meador, who hired freelance animator Ken Hultgren, someone outside MGM and Disney, “to get a fresh approach on the problem. Hultgren, whose only assignment was to come up with a workable Id concept, developed the image of a roaring beast’s head with piercing eyes” (Ibid., Cinefantastique, p. 35).

The resemblance of the Id monster to MGM’s Leo the Lion trademark has been noted and accounted for. In our estimation, however, there is an uncanny likeness to Morbius himself (down to the hairs on his chinny-chin-chin). This makes perfect sense through purely psychological terms. After all, we are dealing with the Professor’s internal state of mind, one he has kept under wraps for almost the entirety of the picture. Moreover, Morbius will soon be revealed as the “man behind the curtain,” the manipulator of the act that led to the death of so many of his former shipmates — and possibly the demise of the C-57D.

Speaking of which, the space crew’s handheld blasters have no effect on the beast. One crewman gets crushed by the Id monster’s giant claw. Another crewman gets swatted to the side like an annoying fly. Seeing his hearty shipmates go down all about him, Farman bravely (or recklessly, depending on one’s perspective) steps before the thing and takes dead aim at its evil eyes. Adams shouts for his crew to hold their fire. Unfortunately, the Id monster grabs hold of Farman in its vice-like grip and casually hurls him aloft to his death.

Adams gives the order to continue firing at the target. The monster is still enraged, its menace unabated. But it makes no further attempts at mayhem.

The Sleep of Reason

Professor Morbius, asleep at the wheel of the Krell Laboratory

Morbius, asleep in the Krell laboratory, fidgets in agitated slumber, with the gauges of the Krell’s plastic educator machine blinking on-and-off and at full tilt. In direct imitation and remembrance of Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s famously suggestive lithograph, “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” Morbius is roused from his nap by daughter Alta’s piercing screams. She bursts into the lab, relaying to Morbius her terrifying vision of the creature as it attacked the space camp.

Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters”

As Morbius awakens, the Id monster mercifully disappears. Alta continues to relate her dream to her consoling father. “Now, now,” Morbius reassures her. “You know a dream can’t hurt you.” Alta tries her best to exact a promise from Morbius that he will protect her lover Adams from any harm. But the crafty philologist can give no such guarantee. “I’m completely helpless,” he wrongly tells her, “as long as he remains here so willfully.”

Back at the camp, Adams tries to lift his men’s spirits with a pronouncement that the ship’s main battery stopped the monster’s forward motion. Doc shoots down his statement with a terse, “You believe that?” Not really, is Adams’ comeback. He knows it will be back. But he turns to Doc for an adequate explanation of what they witnessed before them: Is it possible an invisible being can survive a blast of atomic fission, and not get disintegrated in the process? A scientific impossibility is Doc’s reply.

“Hypnotic illusions don’t’ tear people apart!” Adams retorts. But then we have Doc’s educated estimation of the situation: “Any organism dense enough to survive three billion volts would have to be made of solid nuclear material. It would sink of its own weight to the center of this planet.” He goes on to press his case by insisting the beast “must have been renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.” Meaning, it cannot be destroyed by either conventional or advanced means. Something else must be propelling it.

Adams calls for the tractor and tells Doc that they will take Alta and Morbius back with them by force, if necessary, citing regulations. However, Doc throws another wrench into the works by reminding his commanding officer of what happened to the Bellerophon when it tried to escape the planet. Adams has a snappy rejoinder to that one, too: “Which makes it a gilt-edged priority that one of us [meaning himself, naturally] gets into that Krell lab and takes that brain boost.”

Adams gives the order to abandon the planet the second their force field starts to short circuit. The bosun (George Wallace) relays his order to the crew as Adams and Doc take off. Upon their arrival at Morbius’ home, Adams insists to Doc that HE will be the one to take the Krell mind test, no questions asked. Doc plays it dumb for the time being (clearly, the audience is on to the ploy that Ostrow will be the one who gets the jump on Commander Adams — a bit of foreshadowing of events).

Finding their way barred by Robby the Robot, the duo manages to sneak back into the house with Alta’s interference. While the skipper tries to alert the girl to the dangers of staying put, Doc sneaks off to take the mind boost. Barely alive, he is brought in by Robby (we can perceive the “invisible” strings that hold him up). Robby deposits the doctor onto the living room couch. Egged on by the skipper, Doc boasts of his “new mind. Up there in lights. Bigger than his now.” Adams admonishes him to take it easy, but Doc knows he is done for.

Robby carries Doc to the couch, while Alta & Adams observe

Ostrow blurts out that the big machine was the Krell’s crowning glory: “A true creation.” However, that all-but divine race forgot one key factor. Giving his last order, Adams forces the truth out of his wounded comrade: “Monsters, John, monsters from the Id!” With those words, Doc dies in the commander’s arms. Adams is clueless as to what the doctor meant, so he will solicit Morbius’ views for clarification.

Just then, Morbius bursts in. He sees the couple entwined in a tender embrace. But his only reaction is to the man who defied his orders not to toy around with the Krell machinery. “The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell.” Way to go, Prof! Alta tries to reason with the old man by pointing out that Doc is dead. Have a little sympathy for the deceased, will you? But his only consideration is that Doc was warned. He paid the price for (chuckle, chuckle) tampering in God’s domain, something Adams himself will echo in the last line of the story. “Let him be buried with the other victims of human greed and folly,” Morbius declares.

For the first time in her short life, Alta sees her “loving and caring” father for what he is: a malicious, unfeeling being. She reminds him that Morbius wanted her to make a choice (this is a snippet of dialog that refers to an earlier excised scene in the original script). Alta has chosen to runaway with the handsome commander, come what may. She darts off to get her things. But Morbius is on a different wavelength altogether. “My daughter is planning a very foolish action, and she’ll be terribly punished,” he solemnly invokes.

In the middle of this family feud, Adams presses the Professor for the meaning of the term “Id.” Morbius, obviously perturbed, rattles off an explanation which the commander repeats to himself: “Monsters from the subconscious. Of course!” Though the skipper’s intellect is nowhere near the philologist’s capacity for knowledge and understanding (as we learned from early on in the feature), nor is it close to the late doctor’s “bigger than his” brainwaves, Adams is able to reason out the facts from the limited number of possibilities.

He applies the principles of critical thinking in order to arrive at the only logical conclusion to their and the Krell’s dilemma: “Creation from mere thought,” which Morbius picks up on as well: “The beast, the mindless primitive!” So that’s what killed the Krell. According to Adams, they had “access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet, all set free at once to loot and maim, and take revenge and kill!” Yikes!!!

Morbius is impressed but unmoved by this line of reasoning, due mostly to his observation that too many centuries have passed since the last Krell kicked the planetary bucket. Yet there is still a living, breathing monster on the prowl. How does one explain that? Adams starts to lose patience with the Professor.

We Interrupt This Program

Adams argues with Professor Morbius, as Alta watches and Robby stands guard

Robby interrupts their colloquy with a grave warning that something is approaching. “It is quite near.” Morbius charges Robby to stop the menace that this way comes, but the robot is unable to carry out his instructions. “That thing out there,” Adams insists. “It’s you.” But isn’t the fair Altaira immune to its power? Not a chance! “She’s joined herself to me!” Body and soul, we reckon!

Morbius hurls his frustrations at the pair. “Say it’s a lie. Let it hear you! Tell it you don’t love this man!” Altaira remains defiant. Alert viewers may also have picked up on the incestuous implications of a father-daughter-lover triangle, another jab at the analyst’s couch. This nod to 1950s pop psychology was one of several indicated in the script. In fact, you could say that Freud’s oedipal complex enjoyed free reign in this production.

“Stop it, Robby!” Morbius cries. “Don’t let it in! Kill it!” Regrettably, Robby’s circuits give out and shut down. (This was previously indicated in the scene where Morbius instructs Robby to fire Adams’ blaster between his eyes.) You see, Morbius himself is outside the door. And, by the Three Laws of Robotics (as established by visionary science-fiction author Isaac Asimov) Robby is prevented from harming another human being — in this instance, the hapless Professor. The robot knows that his evil self is out there.

The trio manages to flee into the Krell lab (the wrong spot to seek shelter at a time like this), with the Id monster in literal hot pursuit. Adams jumbles the combination to the entranceway so as to thwart the approaching brute. With the two men wrestling for control of the situation, the disclosures come fast and furious: that Morbius had inadvertently sent the Id monster out to seek and destroy his crewmates. Worst of all, he’s “whistled up the monster again” to punish Alta “for her disloyalty and disobedience.”

As if to illustrate his point, Adams tells Morbius to look at the gauges supplying the Id monster with whatever power it needs to reach its target. Next, he motions to the red-hot Krell-metal door that separates the pursuer from the pursued (a gesture that visionary filmmaker George Lucas paid homage to in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace). The door starts to melt away, allowing the monster access to the laboratory from whence it hailed.

Who’s that knocking at my door? The Id Monster arrives at the Krell Lab

In the riveting climax to the drama, Morbius realizes that he is the guilty party; that he was complicit in the murder of his shipmates; and that his evil self is tapping (to quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven) at their chamber door. But what can he do to prevent that evil from entering? Not much, I’m afraid! Even though the beast is supposed to be unseen, according to the Cinefantastique article, “it was always planned to make the Id visible eventually because … you can’t tease an audience forever. The original screenplay also called for the Id to become visible … after it breaks through the Lab door.”

This is patently nonsensical. The monster can’t possibly be seen at this juncture because that would require the presence of a force field (as proven in the Id monster’s nighttime attack). Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the idea was abandoned, since “the screenplay provides no real explanation for [the Id monster’s] visibility,” even though “its appearance at this point makes the scene much more dramatic and less confusing.”

Well, “confusing” to some individuals incapable of following along with the plot, but not to those who have been paying attention. The fact that it was brought up at all as a viable option shows how even experienced writers such as Irving Block and Allen Adler could be on the wrong side of storytelling.

In order to save his daughter and her lover from the same fate, Morbius confronts the terrible presence and shouts his defiance at it: “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!” Without delay, the big machine comes to a noisy halt as the evil menace is thwarted. The lab falls silent.

“I deny you! I give you up!”

Alta turns away from the spectacle of a parent wrestling with his demons. The battle won, Morbius lies helpless on the floor. Alta cradles him in her lap (repeating the same image as before of Adams with Doc Ostrow in his arms). With his last breath, the Professor charges Adams with throwing the switch. The couple must be a million miles in space before the Krell’s blast furnaces set off a chain reaction — an irreversible course that will consume what’s left of the planet and the Krell’s advanced technology. With that, Morbius expires, his daughter’s name on his lips.

Once United Planets Space Cruiser C-57D has attained the mandatory safe distance, a blinding light envelops the scope that Alta and Adams are viewing, signaling that the brave new world of Altair IV is no more. On board the ship, Robby the Robot has been brought back to working life (with the same soothing tones of actor Marvin Miller), indicative of man’s ability to repair his machines for future implementation.

The scene of Alta and Commander Adams’ wedding, which was part of a working print and is of instructional interest to film historians, scholars, and students of sci-fi, was edited out of the release print. We can assume the lovebirds have joined hands in outer space. As Alta buries her head in Adams’ arms, the wise commander delivers a fitting epitaph to the memory of the late Professor Morbius. He reminds her, and the audience as well, that we are not the Creator.

One might add that we are only His stewards, safeguarding the planet from outside forces, and from our own destructive natures. In Forbidden Planet, the brave new world our intrepid adventurers had discovered on Altair IV was doomed to extinction long before they or Morbius, or the crew of the Bellerophon, set foot on its surface.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This thing alive and in its natural habitat is valuable to us,” David remarks.

But Mark will have none of it: “Why settle for a photo when we can get the real thing?”

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

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

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

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

“We got him! We got him!” gloats the money-hungry Mark.

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

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

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

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

In a final burst of compassion, David tells the others to let the Creature go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The 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

‘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

‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters

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The Count (Bela Lugosi) welcomes Renfield to his castle in Dracula (1931)

The Fear Factor

Like many individuals of my generation both before and after me, I grew up with movie monsters. Horrifyingly repulsive creatures (or so I thought), as well as fantastically winged dragons and unidentified flying objects — all of them, thank goodness, brought to our family’s living room courtesy of the medium of television.

Since I wasn’t given much of a spending allowance to go to the local cinema, I was forced to gratify my precocious urges for the bizarre and the unconventional, not to mention those elaborate special effects, through old movies and first- and second-run TV shows.

Credit for keeping my probing eyes under the bed covers was due to such local programming as Million Dollar Movie, Creature Features, and The 4:30 Movie. They provided sufficient grist for my movie-mania mill. These and other programs, i.e., The Late Show, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Twilight Zone, and The Time Tunnel, kept my natural curiosity about the supposedly grotesque world around me at full tilt.

My older cousin and his friends, knowing of my fascination with movie monsters (and my equal fear and loathing of said beasties), had the nasty habit of flashing monster playing cards at me — one more outrageous and disturbing than the other. They would get a tremendous kick out of my revulsion at the black-and-white images of despicable demons, eerie human skulls, and maniacally cackling witches. ARGH!!!!

Not satisfied with that, I remember pleading with my mother to buy those outlandish Aurora Monster Model kits, where, in the safety and comfort of our apartment I could exorcise those personal demons by creating my own fleet of sinister fiends.

As I matured, I realized these photographs and model kits were nothing more than mere advertisements; that “reel” monsters and their ilk were not “real” after all, only figments of some eccentric filmmaker’s wild-eyed imagination. Only then did I realize that horror was rooted in the psyche — a psychological explanation for the unrealized fears buried deep inside our subconscious thoughts. There was no logical rationalization for them.

Consequently, therein lay the reasons for why we fear the unknown: one, as a projection of real-life issues and concerns; and two, as the underlying cause for those same fears. If we could but confront and conquer our fears, they will be removed (or so the theory goes).

Years later, while still in high school, I came across one of the qualified classics of the academic genre, Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, a superbly written survey of movies from the late nineteenth century up to the mid-1960s (the so-called “classic” period) covering this same aspect. It was this very book, with its concisely edited and elaborately conveyed text, that finally brought me out of the darkened room of my qualms and into the light of discovery.

Carlos Clarens’ classic study An Illustrated History of the Horror Film

Clarens’ cogent yet discerning commentary convinced me that horror, fantasy, and science fiction were a viable art form, one to be closely studied and admired, but never from a distance. The genre could be tailored and shaped to aptness and precision by a talented team of dedicated artisans and supremely skilled craftsmen of the highest order.

With this newly-acquired awareness in hand, I set out with a slight degree of unease — a holdover from my youthful trepidations, I suppose — to revisit as many of the films that had once fueled my dreams and nightmares; to face my childhood fears, and by facing them, to end them. The experience of watching these vintage motion pictures with a fresh outlook and perspective, and in an entirely new light (sorry, Count!), was one I had long wished to share with likeminded readers.

Though not necessarily in strict chronological order, I have modified this list to contain films that have exuded a profound influence and sway on me personally. There is no conceivable way this list can be as all-inclusive as I would like, or encompass the full range of cinematic possibilities that are available to film buffs.

Therefore, with that caveat in mind please accept my apologies beforehand to those films that could not be reviewed.

Bites and Howls

One of the most popular and trendiest of the many horror-movie categories that have captivated viewers, and the one with the longest so-called “lifespan” (vide the Twilight, Blade, and Harry Potter series, to mention only a few), is the vampire and werewolf genre.

The first documented mention of vampirism in literature came from writer and physician John Polidori’s work of fictional prose, The Vampyre, published in 1819. This lurid tale’s cast of protagonists concentrated on a mysterious Lord Ruthven, a minor aristocrat of dubious ancestry (modeled after the poet Lord Byron), and his traveling companion Aubrey, based on the author himself. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Ruthven is one of the undead: a ruthless creature with an unquenchable thirst for human blood.

Left to right: Mary Godwin Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron & John Polidori

This was one of several yarns to have emerged from the vivid imaginations of a June 1816 gathering at Villa Diodati, a stately mansion off Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was here that Byron and Polidori, along with English romantic poet Percy Shelley and his betrothed, the eighteen-year-old Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Shelley), reputedly passed the time by reading ghost stories and telling one another fantastical tales of the unnatural.

Among the stories spun over a three-night-period were the rudiments of Mary Shelley’s classic science-fiction/horror novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), a work that itself has fueled countless permutations and movie spinoffs.

From this beginning, other vampire potboilers began to circulate, including the serialized “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood  by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest (1845-47); and especially Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (published in serial form in 1871-72), about a lusty female vampire who preys upon “lonely young women” that served as inspiration for another fellow Irishman, the Dublin-born theater manager, writer, and lawyer Bram Stoker.

Told in a combination of letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, ships’ logs, and individual accounts, the Gothic novel Dracula (1897), while not an immediate publishing sensation, nevertheless met with critical favor. The book eventually took off just as the advent of silent cinema came into being.

Count Orlock (right) in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)

Stirred by the success of Stoker’s Dracula, German-born film director Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau decided, in 1922, to make Nosferatu (“The Undead”). This first recorded vampire flick has stood the test of time as an undisputed masterpiece of peculiarity, and of horrifically bone-chilling sequences; a veritable sonata of scary moments filmed in naturalistic surroundings near the German port city of Wismar. Since the original title happened to have been Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (“A Symphony of Horrors”), this description is more than apt.

Some may find the movie silly or quaint, or even old-fashioned and out of style. But seen in its proper element — i.e., on a large screen and in a darkened theater — the picture’s ability to shock and provoke audience reaction is still very much alive. Although Murnau failed to secure the rights to Stoker’s book (the author’s widow sued him for copyright infringement), he was still able to transmit the key ingredients to the silver screen that made the figure of Count Dracula so menacing. This silent film remains a work of mesmerizing potency.

Renamed Count Orlock and played by German actor Max Schreck (whose surname in English means “fear”), that repulsive rat-shaped head, those gloomy sunken eyes, and claw-like appendages that serve as fingernails (sometimes seen in shadowy silhouette) pummeled early movie audiences into frightened submission.

Count Orlock creeping up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922)

The style of the film has been described as expressionistic, which isn’t entirely accurate since the term itself is supposed to eschew realism in favor of a projection of intense inner emotions or feelings. Still, that look of unvarnished evil, the accelerated time-lapsed cinematography, and the final image of Orlock slowly fading away to nothingness as the sun rises will remain in viewers’ minds for a long time to come.

There was nothing inherently sexy about this beast, of that we are certain, even though the object of his bloodlust, Nina (a variant on Stoker’s Minna Harker), a pure and “virtuous woman,” sacrifices herself to this monster in order to destroy him, thus saving the city from an infestation. In addition, this was the first indication that the vampire’s blood could be the cause of a countrywide plague.

Call Me Dracula

When Universal Pictures finally decided to film the sound version of Dracula in 1930 (itself based on a successful Broadway theater adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston), the studio contracted with director Tod Browning to assume the project after their first choice, German filmmaker Paul Leni, had died. It was also rumored at the time that famed silent horror-movie alumnus Lon Chaney would be tapped to star as the lead, which made sense from a practical standpoint.

Chaney and Browning had previously worked together on a variety of features, including such macabre outings as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) with Joan Crawford, and the long-lost London After Midnight (1927), Browning’s initial attempt at a hybrid vampire-cum-murder mystery. Incidentally, the film was remade by MGM in 1935 as a talkie and re-titled Mark of the Vampire. Headlined by Lionel Barrymore, it co-starred a heavily-accented Hungarian stage and film veteran named Bela Lugosi.

With Chaney’s unexpected passing to cancer in August 1930, the way was cleared for other actors to assume the mantle of Universal’s king of horror. After the Broadway run of Dracula, the play went on tour with its principal performer intact. Bela Lugosi, whose real name was Béla Ferenc Dezso Blaskó, just happened to have been born in the city of Lugos, not far from the same rural Transylvanian district and Carpathian mountain range as the bloodthirsty Count (how’s that for a coincidence?).

Publicity photo for Dracula (1931) with Helen Chandler & Bela Lugosi

After two years on the road, Bela decided to put down stakes (no pun intended) in California where he started appearing in early silent and sound productions. Lugosi even co-starred in a Tod Browning picture, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), with Conrad Nagel and Leslie Hyams, which may have kept him in the director’s mind once the Dracula project took flight.

I can’t tell you what made this early sound venture so shocking to audiences of the time, except to say that it grabbed startled viewers from the outset. To our modern-day sensibilities, Dracula seems hopelessly stilted and outdated, especially in its stagier second half. Released in February 1931, it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to the theater.

Despite these lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime the formidable figure of Count Dracula, played by Lugosi, is on the prowl — quite apart from that of his predecessor, Max Schreck. Bela’s darkly sinister mien, unblinking stare, and imposing aristocratic bearing and height (he stood six feet and one inch tall) were his most prominent features. And contrary to what most producers might have imagined, his thick, deliberately-paced Hungarian accent was an added bonus in defining the character’s “other-worldliness.”

One of my favorite scenes is the clash of wills between Dracula and Professor Van Helsing (whose lines are woodenly but sternly delivered by character actor Edward Van Sloan). As the two arch-enemies glare at each other in defiance, Dracula breaks the silence with the enigmatic words, “Your vill is strong, Van—Hel—zing!”

Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) “reflects” on the situation with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi)

Another memorable episode occurs early on in Castle Dracula, where the lugubrious Count greets the unsuspecting Mr. Renfield (played by the pop-eyed Dwight Frye): “I—am—Drac-ula,” Lugosi pronounces. “I bid you—welcome.”

Then, as they slowly mount the massive staircase, the howling of wolves interrupts their upward motion.

“Listen to them. Children of the night!” Dracula’s voice cracks momentarily. “What mu—sic they make!” As Dracula reaches the top of the stairs, he walks straight through the cobwebs — without disturbing them in the least! Talk about creepy; this sequence will chill you to the bone.

Other scenes involving Dracula’s stalking of his female victims were said to have driven ladies in the movie theater to distraction. This brings up a question I’ve always wanted to ask: What made Dracula so attractive to women?

Writer James V. Hart, who was responsible for the screenplay to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation Bram Stoker’s Dracula, found that one scene in Stoker’s book was so “intensely erotic and diabolically evil that I passed out right in my foie gras … Eventually, I caught up with … the Bela Lugosi standard that caused people to faint in the aisles.” Hart was “also impressed with Frank Langella’s interpretation on Broadway, which brought a sexual energy to the character never before seen.”

In addition to which, Hart hinted that “Women more than men have tended to read Dracula and other vampire stories, and to understand the vampire’s attraction. Vampires,” he went on, “offer a delectable alternative to the drudgery of mortal life and the promises of religion.”

Artist, animator, and film director Tim Burton may have gotten it right when the late Martin Landau, in his Oscar-winning performance as the older Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994), voiced a casual aside to maverick eager-beaver filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp). As the two walk up to his broken-down apartment, Lugosi makes the following observation:

“The women … the women preferred the traditional monsters. The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is the horror” (Ed Wood, from the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski).

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) listens to Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) expound on vampirism in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

This hokey diagnosis may have been nothing more than armchair analysis, but it nonetheless helped to explain the vampire’s enduring legacy and popularity. On a side note, it may also have been an indication of Lugosi’s libidinous attitude toward women, as documented in his five recorded marriages.

The excellent camera work in Dracula was provided by Bohemian-born émigré Karl Freund, who was Fritz Lang’s principal photographer on the science-fiction screen epic Metropolis (1927) and who also went on to direct several stylish productions of his own, including Universal’s The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff, and MGM’s Mad Love, aka The Hands of Orlac (1935), with Peter Lorre, as well as numerous episodes of I Love Lucy in the 1950s.

The misty atmosphere no doubt heightened the Gothic mood, at least in the film’s first half. The original plot was modified somewhat, however, in that the young clerk Jonathan Harker (stiffly enacted by David Manners) was the fellow who visited the Count at the start of the novel, not Renfield. As far as we are concerned, the only thing missing was a decent music score. Unfortunately, the opening snippet, derived from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, along with wisps of the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are about all we get.

(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

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956): No Sleep for the Weary

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Becky (Dana Wynter), Jack (King Donovan), Teddy (Carolyn Jones) & Miles (Kevin McCarthy) are speechless in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.

Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.

The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.

In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.

Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.

From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.

But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?

This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.

The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) meets up with former lost love, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), early on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.

The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.

After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.

A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…

While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.

Becky & Miles enjoy a rare moment of repose on the dance floor

Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.

There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.

More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.

Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.

Nurse Sally (Jean Willes) holds on to little Jimmy Grimaldi, who takes his medicine from Dr. Bennell

At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).

And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:

“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.

“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”

“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.

“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”

“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Not yet she hasn’t.

That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.

Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.

“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.

One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.

The “developing” seedpod turns into Dr. Miles Bennell

Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.

A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.

We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?

Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.

The walls start to close in on the romantic couple as Miles & Becky leave his office

Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.

Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.

Miles tells his story to two disbelieving doctors (Richard Deacon & Whit Bissell)

Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.

The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.

While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.

Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.

More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!

Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.

Miles’ look of shock and awe in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”

This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes