‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters (Part Two): Dark and Stormy Nights

Period poster art for “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

A Gathering of Giants

From that notorious June 1816 gathering at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati off Lake Geneva came one of the most elaborate, incontrovertibly ground-breaking horror stories ever written, one that has stood the test of time.

A young and highly-educated girl named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the lover and future second wife of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, channeled a lively imagination (and her own tragic childbirth experiences of loss and suffering) into the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published anonymously in 1818.

Just to be clear, the name Prometheus, in Greek mythology, refers to one of the Titans — that is, the children of Uranus, god of the heavens, and Gaia, goddess of the earth. Prometheus was also the only Titan to have fought on Zeus’ side in the ten-year battle against the gods and other Titans.

His name means “forethought” and, of all the Titans, Prometheus was by far the cleverest. So much so that he is credited with favoring man with thought and crafts and, most significantly, with stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In many accounts, Prometheus is also ascribed with having created man out of clay, thus his significance in Mary Shelley’s story of Victor Frankenstein and his obsession with creating life.

Prometheus steals fire from the gods

For stealing fire and allowing man to master its use, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock (with a spear through his chest — ouch!), while each day an eagle would feast on his liver. But every night, the liver would grow back, only to have it eaten away again the next day. Eternal suffering and punishment for his “crime” was Prometheseus’ fate. In Frankenstein, God punished Victor Frankenstein for having taken lightning from the sky to give life to an artificial being by turning his creation against him and those he loved.

Besides the silver-tongued George Gordon Lord Byron, accompanying Mary Godwin and poet Shelley on their summer outing were Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s former lover and friend, Dr. John William Polidori (dubbed “Polly” by the bard). What with the dreadful rainy weather (due, we are told, to an overactive volcano that previous winter), the couples kept themselves entertained by engaging in the usual leisure-class pursuits: card playing, parlor games, and the reading of books and poetry were the order of the day. These were some of their activities, along with the imbibing of spirits and (ahem) related carryings on.

They were leading a typical self-indulgent lifestyle, as many in their station were wont to participate in. And to pass the time, the young people turned to telling one another ghost stories. Ah, but what stories!

So much has been written about this remarkable literary and historical encounter that, surely, someone somewhere would have attempted to make a film about it. And indeed someone did: two full-length features, at that. However, the earliest cinematic representations of Byron with Shelley and wife Mary can be traced to Universal Studio’s The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale’s masterful 1935 sequel to his original Frankenstein (1931).

In the witty prologue to the picture, which features a delightful opening minuet scored by composer Franz Waxman (and which, in many film historians’ opinions, takes place after that infamous Lake Geneva get-together), a powerful storm rages on. Trivia note: The servant girl leading the Russian wolf hounds off-camera is played by Una O’Connor, who appears in the movie proper as the strident-toned Minnie.

Inside a castle eerily similar to the one where Baron Henry von Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fashioned his creation from old dead bodies, a flowery Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), whose ornate upper-class accent flows trippingly off his tongue, faces Mary (the enchanting Elsa Lanchester), busy at her needlework, and introduces himself as England’s greatest sinner. He praises Shelley as England’s greatest poet, to which Shelley inquires, “What of my Mary?” To which Byron replies: “She is an angel.”

“You think so?” is Mary Shelley’s sly retort.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elsa Lanchester) at Villa Diodati, from director James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein”

Byron invites her to watch the storm, but she declines, claiming that lightning alarms her. “Astonishing creature,” he admonishes.

“I, Lord Byron?”

“Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark,” declares Byron. Nevertheless, he expresses admiration for the story, as well as astonishment that she, Mary, a charming and frail young woman, could have fashioned such a frightful tale, one to chill the bones. He admits that Murray, her publisher, would have a dreadful time releasing this fantastic novel to the public.

In defense of her work, Mary reminds Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), that her publishers did not see that the purpose of her story was to convey a “moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” Against Mary’s wishes, Byron eagerly recaps for his friends, and for the viewing audience’s benefit, the most harrowing sequences from Frankenstein: how the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein created his hapless monster, who itself was “killed” for having murdered and terrorized a village — altogether forgetting that Universal had anachronistically updated the story for modern times. (And, in fact, the studio had plans to resurrect the monster, so it behooved Universal to come up with a viable angle.)

In the instant that Byron approaches Mary to take into his hand the “fragile white fingers that penned the nightmare,” she accidentally pricks her finger with a darning needle. As Mary rises to her feet to show Shelley the blood, the friends form a triad, with Mary in the middle — the image of which will be repeated near the end of the picture, as the eccentric Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), with exaggerated pomposity and rolling his “r’s,” introduces Henry Frankenstein to their new creation, the nameless hissing Bride (Ms. Lanchester again, only not so enchanting as before).

Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Mary (Elsa Lanchester), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon)

Taking her delicate hand in his, Shelley declares it a shame that Mary should have ended her story quite so abruptly. “That wasn’t the end at all,” she insists. Mary then goes on to further embellish the tale, picking up the thread where the earlier film had left off, i.e., at the burning mill tower.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) & Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

The Literary Life, Literally

Author Jill Lepore, whose The New Yorker magazine article, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’” (originally published under the title “It’s Still Alive!”), is a brilliant synthesis and summation of Mary Shelley’s life and work, refers to the novel as “no minor piece of genre fiction but a literary work of striking originality,” one that helped to establish “the origins of science fiction by way of the ‘female gothic.’”

The term “gothic” and its loose connection to the above-named Romantic-era writers and poets also happens to be the title of a film by that most daring and baroque of British “out-there” filmmakers, the flamboyant movie and television director Ken Russell. His 1986 Gothic, released by Vestron Pictures and produced by Al Clark and Robert Devereux (with a soundtrack by New Wave musician and performer Thomas Dolby), is a fictionalized and (let’s say it and be done with it) over-the-top recreation of that Villa Diodati gathering of imaginative minds.

Russell’s previous screen work, among them the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969), based on D.H. Lawrence’s ribald novel of the same name; The Music Lovers (1970), about the ill-fated life of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky; The Devils (1971), adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, which concerned the sexual shenanigans of 17th-century nuns at a convent in France; Mahler (1974), probably Russell’s most sedate composer picture from this period; the rock-opera Tommy and another composer “biopic,” Lizstomania (both 1975), both starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey; the mind-bending science-fiction feature Altered States (1980), from the novel by playwright Paddy Chayefsky; and the sexually-themed thriller Crimes of Passion (1984), with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, are worth noting for their offbeat nature and subject matter, as well as their uninhibited (and self-destructive) attitudes toward sex, free love, and religion.

All of these films served as mere lead-ups to Gothic, his most outlandish visual production on the timeless story of Mary Shelley (a sensational motion-picture debut by the fresh-faced Natasha Richardson) and her soon-to-be-betrothed Percy Shelley (Julian Sands, typecast as the troubled poet), traveling to Lake Geneva in order to spend time with the ravenous, neck-biting Lord Byron, marvelously portrayed in hangdog, rock-star-like fashion by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. Byrne and Byron must have shared one of those out-of-time Vulcan mind melds: the two figures, actor and poet, complement each other’s ravings like a hand in a custom-made glove.

Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, l.) greets Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) in Ken Russell’s “Gothic” (1986)

Canadian-born actress Myriam Cyr is well cast as Claire Clairmont, who is much too obsessed with Lord Byron; and character player Timothy Spall portrays a fey Dr. John Polidori — he, too, is obsessed with Byron, but in all the wrong ways. Still, history records that Polidori went on to write the first documented vampire story, entitled (quite naturally) The Vampyre, wherein he modeled his lead character, Lord Ruthven, after Byron himself. (See the following link to my previous entry: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/children-of-the-night-celluloid-creatures-and-other-movie-monsters/).

Needless to say, there are shocking images of spooks, skulls, and witches’ Sabbaths; devil worship, blood-letting, and after-births; leeches and body horror; nasty trolls and hallucinatory visions; naked heathens and heaving bosoms — anything and everything the viewer (or the director, for that matter) would likely associate with the gothic style and aesthetic. However, the actual encounter among these so-called literary types is treated as the result of drug-induced mind trips. Nothing in the near-contemporary output of the Brontë Sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre), or that of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), can equate to the perversity of Gothic’s “shock ending.”

After the evening’s horrors are over and done with, a semblance of normalcy returns to Villa Diodati, along with pleasant weather. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin serenely descends the long staircase, her face frozen in a steady gaze. But her mind has been set ablaze with inspiration from what she has learned and experienced.

She joins Lord Byron and Polidori at a picnic on the Villa’s grounds. Polidori offers her some tea. Byron, puffing on a cigar, reassures her, “There are no ghosts in daylight. You’ll get used to our nights in Diodati. A little indulgence to heighten our existence on this miserable earth. Nights of the mind, the imagination. Nothing more.”

“What about your ghost story, Mary?” Polidori cheerfully quizzes.

“My story … my story is a story of creation,” she calmly muses, “of a creature who’s wracked with pain and sorrow and hunger for revenge, who haunts his mad creator, and his family and his friends … to the grave.”

Shelley (Julian Sands), with his betrothed Mary (Natasha Richardson) & Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), in “Gothic”

Suddenly, we are transported to the present day. A guide, discoursing though a loudspeaker on board an offshore vessel, takes the viewer on a tour through Lake Geneva and the Diodati estate. As he speaks, the guide announces that eight years after their time at the Villa only Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont remained alive. Byron died of a fever in the Greek war, Shelley drowned in a boating accident, and Polidori, Byron’s biographer, took his own life in London.

“But something created that night, 170 years ago, lives on, still haunting us to this day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

The camera turns away from the vessel and pulls back down to reveal an object in the water, which comes floating up to the surface. It is the naked body of a stillborn creature — a horrid, ugly, misshapen creature. A creature wracked with pain and sorrow. An ungodly child!

Less is More, More or Less

Two years after Gothic bowed in movie theaters (or bowed out, as the case may be) the same theme was taken up again and filmed as Haunted Summer (1988). Directed by Czech movie-maker and screenwriter Ivan Passer (a longtime U.S. resident), and scripted by noted director Lewis John Carlino, Haunted Summer presented a more sedate (and, ergo, less memorable) reading of the story behind the mixed couples’ mid-June foray.

Unlike the tempestuous Russell, Messrs. Passer and Carlino wanted nothing better than to present the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori as, yes, hot-blooded Brits, but also as young people in their passionate “summer of love.” Where both Russell and Passer emphasized their connection to 1970s flower children, screenwriter Carlino dwelled on the Shelley’s concern for the poor and downtrodden (they were also die-hard abolitionists, as were Mary’s parents) — historically accurate, if truth be told, but hardly digestible screen fare.

Still, the cast was promising: Eric Stoltz (Mask, Lionheart) as Percy Shelley, Philip Anglim (The Elephant Man on Broadway, The Thorn Birds on television) as Lord Byron, Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire, Ghost Story) as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) as Claire Clairmont, and Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) as John Polidori. Good actors all, with plenty of stage and film experience between them.

Byron (Philip Anglim), Claire Clairmont (Laura Dern), Mary Godwin (Alice Krige) & Shelley (Eric Stoltz) at Villa Diodati, in “Haunted Summer” (1988)

Where the story lets them down and unfortunately veers off course is in its emphasis on the men — Byron, Shelley, and “Polly” — instead of on the women. It is Mary Godwin’s association with Shelley and the pleasure-seeking Lord Byron, along with the classic output they produced as a result, that fascinates us, not the foreplay and sex drives of Claire for Byron (and Shelley, if we may be so bold), or Shelley for both Mary and Claire.

In our opinion, Anglim’s stiffly-acted Byron lacks presence and charm, if not sheer sexiness. He’s not nearly as threatening (or as positively dashing) in these departments as what Gabriel Byrne brought to the part. As for Eric Stoltz, his Shelley speaks in a high-pitched squeal, which grows more and more irritating as the story (and his temper) progresses. On another trivia note, both Byrne and Stoltz were reunited earlier for the low-budget epic Lionheart (1987). In that vehicle, Byrne played a malevolent character known as the Black Prince (perfect typecasting, to say the least).

While we’re on the subject of biopics, I have two other features in mind to share with readers: the recent Mary Shelley (2018) with Elle Fanning in the title part and first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen, directed by Saudi-Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour (so far unseen by yours truly); and an earlier one, Gods and Monsters, released in 1998 by director-screenwriter Bill Condon, about the last days of James Whale, the openly gay British auteur of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man (1933), and other movie classics. Whale was wonderfully portrayed by Ian McKellen, himself a gay actor. He is best known to today’s audiences as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbitt film series, and as Magneto in The X-Men flicks.

That intriguing title, Gods and Monsters, derives from a scene in The Bride of Frankenstein, whereby the pseudo-scientist and mad necromancer, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, an old theater colleague of Whale’s), proposes that he and Baron Frankenstein drink a toast to their new-found partnership.

The mad Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in a toast to “gods and monsters,” from “The Bride of Frankenstein”

“To a new world of gods and monsters!” Pretorius chuckles, as he downs a glass of gin, his only weakness. “The creation of life is enthralling,” he boasts afterwards, “distinctly enthralling, is it not?”

Indeed, it is — especially when it leads to the creation of memorable horror stories such as these.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Two)

“Lust for Life,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh

The troubled artist and the work he or she produces, or attempts to produce, are favorite themes of motion pictures devoted to their lives and loves, and to the sacrifices they’ve made for their art.

Those who are not blessed with the God-given talent for creating art are frequently puzzled as to what drives these artists to dig so deep down into their souls that they damage their physical health — or what little of it they had to begin with. Hand in hand with these ailments, their mental faculties are oftentimes disturbed, much to their detriment and to irreversible effect.

When these ailments are transferred to the silver screen, viewers can’t help but feel as though they are voyeurs partaking of these cinematic re-enactments. This brings us to the next batch of features about the artistic life and its consequences.

Lust for Life (1956)

One of the prime examples of the artist who suffered, deliberately and repeatedly, in order to produce great art (or any art, for that matter) involves the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (pronounced “Hawh” in the original Dutch, with an emphasis on the guttural, hard “H” sound).

We are all familiar with van Gogh and the stories of his obsessive-compulsive behavior and explosive temper. The well-told tale of how, unable to sell his work or make a living from his paintings, the harried Vincent ended up committing suicide after countless bouts of depression, psychosis, lead poisoning, alcohol, and such. How he sliced off an earlobe after arguing with the equally intractable Paul Gauguin. And how, after his death, his works were eventually “discovered” and made famous the world over.

From such a story, more stories arose and took hold of the reader-listener. One of them, writer Irving Stone’s 1934 biographic book Lust for Life, formed the basis for a motion picture of the same name. MGM’s widescreen Metrocolor® production of Lust for Life (1956) featured a talented lineup headed by the scorching Kirk Douglas as van Gogh, Anthony Quinn as fellow firebrand Paul Gauguin, James Donald as Vincent’s art dealer brother Theo, Henry Daniell as their rigid father Theodorus van Gogh, Everett Sloane as Dr. Gachet, Noel Purcell as Anton Mauve, and Pamela Brown as Christine, with Niall MacGinnis, Madge Kennedy, Jill Bennett, Lionel Jeffries, and Laurence Naismith in other roles.

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) paints furiously while Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), standing over him, fumes at his efforts

Stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, with a jarringly powerful film score by Miklós Rózsa, the movie follows a familiar trajectory of events leading up to Vincent’s premature passing. (Stone also authored the 1961 historical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the High-Renaissance sculptor and artist Michelangelo’s struggles with Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the subject of our previous post.) The outstanding cinematography was provided by Russell Harlan and Freddie Young, with superb recreations of many of van Gogh’s magnificent portraits, still-lives, and landscapes.

The screenplay, by former radio broadcaster and writer Norman Corwin, emphasized van Gogh’s growing mental instability and mounting frustrations with his lot in life, sometimes in straight dramatic displays, other times coupled with over-the-top histrionics. Take, for instance, the notorious “hand-over-the-lit-candle” incident, a legendary trope among movie buffs that has been savagely mocked ever since its initial introduction (especially by impressionist Frank Gorshin, who perfected Douglas’ clenched-jaw, gritting-of-teeth acting style).

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) with Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) in Arles, France

Starting out as an itinerant minister, the film portrays van Gogh as an abject “failure” in this regard, but as an individual with a social conscience and an immense capacity for work and personal sacrifice. He was also an extremely lonely, boorish human being. Rejected outright by one of his female cousins, van Gogh runs off to Gay Paree (at his brother Theo’s suggestion) where he takes up painting. By the way, his art-dealer sibling, as compassionate and accommodating a soul as one would ever hope for, provides Vincent with monetary assistance whenever possible.

Unfortunately, van Gogh is rejected as well by the academic art world for his undisciplined working methods, primitive painting skills, and skewed proportions (ironically, the very things he would be most known for). Vincent’s dependency on his brother only aggravates an already explosive situation.

Consequently, both Vincent and his newfound friend, the self-absorbed, bullying painter Gauguin, retreat to Arles in the south of France (again, the idea was Theo’s) where, for a time, they bolster each other’s work (and ego). Soon, Gauguin realizes that Vincent is unstable, while the impatient, restless van Gogh — as much of a control freak as he is an obsessive-compulsive — nags Gauguin to drink. The two men argue incessantly, which ends badly for van Gogh. The scene of the slicing off of Vincent’s ear, shot off-camera but within an excruciatingly descriptive sound design (bolstered by Rózsa’s sharp-edged music), is memorable more for the self-loathing it suggests rather than what is actually shown of the self-mutilation.

The performances throughout are commendable, however, with Kirk taking the acting (or, rather, OVER-acting) honors, although Quinn as Gauguin copped a Best Supporting Actor Award at the Oscars. Still, this is Douglas’ show all the way. The fact that he spoke fluent French (the film was shot on location, as depicted in the copious exteriors) and bore an impressive likeness to the real van Gogh (with red beard and straw hat intact) only added to its so-called “authenticity.” Douglas played on the audience’s sympathy, which works for a time but can get downright cloying when he (in character) constantly grasps his head and runs his hands through his cropped hair for the hundredth time. Sadly, this is what 1950s Hollywood took for its depiction of mental illness.

Publicity shot for “Lust for Life” of Vincent van Gogh and Kirk Douglas, side by side

Not quite as authentic as well was Scotsman James Donald as Theo. Donald is a tad too rigid and refined, with a typical Anglican reserve to his bearing that was not out of place in such later military fare as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). But here, one longed for him to open up the floodgates, to show some fire and spirit. Historically, under the upstanding, above-board exterior Theo was just as volatile and driven as his older brother. This is hardly explored at all; what we get instead is sympathy, sympathy, and, oh, yes, more sympathy.

Vincent’s controversial suicide and bedside death are also shown, albeit to suit the dramatic purposes of the story. (And there is no mention of Theo’s own passing six months later from dementia and paralysis, an inexcusable oversight.) Modern research has shown, however, that Vincent may not have taken his own life after all, as previously thought, but could have been shot quite by accident by some mischievous teenagers in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise where he lived and worked.

Besides the aforementioned gorgeous photography, the best thing about Lust for Life is Douglas’ uncanny, spot-on portrait of the artist, the quintessential case study of bipolar affliction.

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

Herbert Marshall (l.) speaking with George Sanders as Charles Strickland, a stand-in for Gauguin, in “The Moon and Sixpence”

We move on from Vincent’s emotional foibles to a movie about Paul — Paul Gauguin, that is, the Parisian-born Post-Impressionist and purveyor of primitivism. Did you know that Gauguin’s life was dramatized long before van Gogh’s (in a highly romanticized manner, of course) and by another actor? Yes, the Russian-born British citizen George Sanders portrayed Monsieur Gauguin — or rather, an artificial version of the same.

The film was entitled The Moon and Sixpence (1946). Released independently by United Artists and directed by Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the movie was based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham, first published in 1919.  Both the novel and the movie are fictionalized accounts of the author’s friendship and acquaintance with the reclusive, egomaniacal yet world-renowned artist, painter, and sculptor Gauguin.

In this black-and-white feature (the restored print has some amber-tinted Tahitian scenes, along with a brilliantly lit Technicolor finale), Gauguin is renamed Charles Strickland, a bored London stockbroker who longs to leave the dull confines of British domesticity and bourgeois respectability in order to paint his innermost desires. Sanders gave the artist in question a cautiously hulking, brooding quality. He also dies of leprosy, another fictional slant to the story (by way of punishment for his sins?). The real Gauguin was suspected of having (and spreading) syphilis. As Strickland nears his own end, he orders the natives to burn his final masterpiece, so that little to nothing of his life’s work is left behind. What was all that about suffering for one’s art?

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

The real-life Gauguin was a staid, middle-class financier (if at a lower hierarchic level) who, when the bottom fell out of the market of his life, turned to painting as a full-time livelihood. He left his solidly middle-class wife and family to eventually make his way to Paris, then to Martinique and eventually to faraway French Polynesia, where he doted on the local flora and fauna, to include the lovely young Tahitian lasses who figured so prominently in his work.

In the movie, the author Somerset Maugham is called Geoffrey Wolfe and was portrayed by London native Herbert Marshall, who appeared in the same role, and in the same year (but under the author’s real name), in a Tyrone Power-Anne Baxter vehicle for Twentieth Century-Fox called The Razor’s Edge — a later Somerset Maugham narrative about a soul- searching angry young man looking for meaning in his life, and in the lives of his filthy rich society friends.

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Tim Roth as van Gogh in Robert Altman’s more faithful “Vincent & Theo”

Directed by the independent-minded auteur Robert Altman (M*A*S*H*, Nashville, The Player), this two-hour feature starred the versatile Tim Roth as van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother Theo.

It’s basically a Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau re-evaluation of Vincent and Theo’s perpetually intertwined relationship to each other, documented (or not) in those hundreds upon hundreds of letters they wrote. Many, if not most, of Theo’s correspondence to Vincent were destroyed by Vincent himself. Although art historians and the public in general have access only to Vincent’s side of the exchange, one can still get a more than complete picture of their association via the circumstances in which the brothers addressed their thoughts and related to one another.

In a word, they were inseparable. Director Altman, in a making-of mini-documentary, mentions that they were very much like the Corsican Brothers, i.e. if one got sick, the other threw up. When Vincent died, Theo died, too. They shared a commonality of interest in art, due to two uncles who worked in the art field. Consequently, Theo became an art dealer and, as noted in many accounts, introduced his brother to the leading art figures of the day, among them Cézanne, Rousseau, Pissaro, Seurat, and, of course, Gauguin.

Equal time is given to both brothers’ predicaments and to the respective, symbiotic parts they played in one another’s lives. The closeness, fierceness, mutual admiration, rivalry, and out-and-out disgust they displayed are more fully explored in Altman’s film than in Minnelli’s standard Hollywood biopic.

Vincent’s coarseness and slovenliness are emphasized as well, sometimes for contrast against the clean-shaven and dignified Theo’s appearance, but more often to place the artist within the context of his art (which, we are told pictorially, served as a projection of his inner torment). Vincent lived as he wanted, and his dirty, disheveled, dissipated lifestyle, stained clothing and teeth, abrasive behavior, and poverty-stricken habitation became the manifestation of what viewers generally suspected an unappreciated artist’s life to be.

Theo (Paul Rhys) is approached by brother Vincent (Tim Roth) in “Vincent & Theo”

Credit for this outstanding personification goes to Tim Roth, who literally becomes the suffering artist Vincent. There’s nothing likable about this individual at all. We see Roth eat his paints; he even drinks the turpentine he uses to thin out those paints — heck, right out of the canister, mind you! If obsession is the key to this character’s turmoil, then Roth has earned his keep. This is as close to the way the real van Gogh may have behaved as one is likely to get — maybe too close for the audience’s comfort.

In contrast, Paul Rhys as Theo is the exact opposite of his brother. Tall, slim, and oh-so-proper and prim, Rhys wears his respectability on his sleeve. He also loves his older brother to death with an unending verve and passion, and will do anything to help him. Theo tries, mostly in vain, to find a buyer for Vincent’s work, yet Vincent accuses him (rather unfairly) of not doing enough to aid him in that respect. Is Theo his brother’s keeper? No matter how much Theo tries to prop his brother up and get him to stand on his own two feet, Vincent plops back down to wallow in self-pity and self-hate.

Neither brother comes off well in this showcase. After two hours of this (the feature was originally intended as a four-hour-long miniseries for television), viewers are ready to throw up their hands and yell, “Enough, already! We get it, we get it! Artists suffer for their art!”

Theo (second from right) gazes at an art work, while Gauguin (second from left) watches at back

In sharp contrast to the above, the mincing portrait we get of Gauguin (French-Bulgarian actor Wladimir Yordanoff) is an unfortunate misstep. Unlike the lustful, violent, boastful, larger-than-life Anthony Quinn figure, here, Gauguin is played as more of a wimp, as personality-less putty in Vincent’s manipulative hands and utterly lacking in energy and vibrancy. No “lust for life” in this guy? Hmm…. I guess not.

The score by Gabriel Yared is another huge letdown. While it’s true that Rózsa’s very film-noir influenced themes tend to spotlight the painter’s intensity a bit too obviously, they do serve the underlying emotional purposes quite appropriately. Yared’s music, however, goes nowhere. It fails to do what film scores were intended to do: which is, to sonically add to the general understanding of a picture’s aims. Something by Erik Satie, or Claude Debussy, would have been a better way to capture the moodiness and melancholy of the era, as well as the essence of van Gogh’s fabulous output.

In general, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is a warts-and-all (and then some) study of two brothers — a much closer real-life assessment of their star-crossed lives — while Minnelli’s Lust for Life is your standard Fifties grin-and-bear-it struggle for fame and fortune, a one-sided essay on one artist’s failure to make good.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part One)

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” poster art

Artists and their works …. These have been much on our mind of late. In fact, how often have we heard the phrase “Artists are such temperamental creatures?” Perhaps you may have said it yourself — at one time or another — to a friend, to a colleague, or to no one in particular. To me, the natural follow-up question would be: How true is this statement? With the next logical query being: Do all artists suffer that much for their art?

There’s only one way to find out, though, and that’s by looking at various film depictions of artists and the artistic life — mostly painters in general, but a few other dedicated “craftsmen” set aside for this purpose.

Let’s try to establish, once and for all, if their suffering has impacted their work to any noticeable degree — noticeable, that is, to us film buffs. Maybe then, and only then, can the above questions be answered.

So let’s proceed chronologically, if that’s all right with you?

 The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Bramante (Harry Andrews), Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) & the artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston)

Based on the 1961 novel by Irving Stone, who wrote the earlier Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarrotti, the high-minded High-Renaissance artist, poet, and sculptor par excellence; his lively battles with the obstinate Pope Julius II; and his long-term commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The novel was turned into a dryly verbose, dramatically inert but effective enough motion picture.

With a sonorous film score by Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith, and superb wide-screen photography by Leon Shamroy (it was shot simultaneously in Todd-AO and CinemaScope), the film version, released in 1965, starred the finely-chiseled American Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, El Cid) as Michelangelo and a veddy British Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, Dr. Doolittle) as the so-called “Warrior” Pope Julius, with Diane Cilento as the Countess de’ Medici, Harry Andrews as Bramante, Alberto Lupo as the Duke of Urbino, and Adolfo Celi as Giovanni de’ Medici.

The movie’s pace is somewhat static. And the main argument, based on the artistic principle that an artist — even one of Michelangelo’s rarefied caliber — may not show Adam and Eve without their clothes, may go over the heads of most of laypeople. Another, equally telling aspect was Michelangelo’s unwillingness to dabble in paint. He insisted, quite rightly, that sculpture was his true calling, and struggled valiantly to come to terms with his desire to do justice to the Sistine Chapel assignment.

Michelangelo chisels away at one of his sculptures

As the actor personifying the artist, Heston was known for his voracious reading habits and assiduous background research into the lives of the historical individuals he was portraying. Not only did he study the methods used by Michelangelo to achieve his main purpose (i.e. the wielding of a hammer and chisel), but he practiced lying on his back for hours in order to master the art of fresco painting. All of which, it must be said, amounted to a believable if somewhat trite representation of the all-suffering artist.

However, one of the key scenes, if not THE key scene, in the picture is the moment when Heston’s quest for a viable theme for the project manifests itself atop a mountain overlooking the marble quarry where Michelangelo is at work. According to author Jeff Rovin, in The Films of Charlton Heston, “It is sunset, and as day wanes the sky becomes the ceiling and the clouds form God, Adam, and the other focal points of the mural while Heston recites [the Creation of Adam section from] Genesis.” Corny, yes, but quite inspiring! The music provides just the right emotional counterpoint to this episode.

The Creation of Adam sequence from “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Produced and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), the film does have its moments — especially when Heston and Harrison go at it tooth and nail (they feuded in real life on and off the movie set). Still, there’s that excellent score by North and picturesque location scenery (it was filmed in and around Italy, but not in the actual Sistine Chapel, which was recreated at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome).

An ersatz feminine “love interest” (the Diane Cilento character) is pure fiction. As history has recorded for us, the unpredictable Michelangelo (much like his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as several other artists around that time) was homosexually inclined.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Written and directed by the Russian-born Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev (pronounced “Roo-blyov”) concerns the ambiguous fifteenth-century icon painter and the mysterious workings of the Middle Ages and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other matters.

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Filmed in glorious back and white — except for the epilogue, which was photographed in stunningly vivid color — and divided into seven parts, this is a ponderously labored, winding and winnowing, difficult to grasp feature. In general, Tarkovsky’s films are a hard slog to wade through. Irrespective of standard movie lengths or plot lines, the writer-director’s body of work relies more on mood and tone; sounds are employed and magnified not so much for aesthetic merit but for their narrative value.

Tarkovksy also eschews his compatriot Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory of cinema. Instead, he provides the viewer with a multiplicity of images, many of them painstakingly staged and lasting many minutes of screen time. The term “texture” has often been cited to describe his unique visual style.

“Andrei Rublev” courtesy of Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel

A true original, Tarkovsky took great pains to avoid emulating any of his predecessors. If anything, he would modify his carefully constructed scenes so as not to call attention to the work of others. (Note: Tarkovsky DID learn the value of silence and extended takes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the release of his sci-fi drama Solaris in 1972; incidentally, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used many of Tarkovsky’s continuous-motion techniques in both Birdman and The Revenant).

With Andrei Rublev (only his second picture), Tarkovsky reached what might be termed his full maturity. This close to four-hour production, then, is an unmatched introduction to his cinematic universe. It is technically proficient, as are all his films, and visually compelling as well. The lead character (played by a morose Anatoly Solonitsyn) is moodiness personified. Rublev goes through as much inner turmoil as mental and physical deprivations. As a matter of fact, so do all of the individuals in the story.

Actor Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

The theme of the artist as both participant and observer in the drama of life is carried through from beginning to ending. It starts off with a seemingly unrelated prologue of a man flying in hot-air balloon fashion over a church and open field — symbolic, of course, of the artist trying to take flight but crash-landing moments later despite his efforts. Episodic and sadistic, gritty and grim, with scenes of mayhem, rape and animal torture, along with eye-gouging and similar wartime atrocities, the violence quotient in Rublev’s world remains high, as one would expect from a tale that takes place in medieval times.

Curiously, for a film about a painter of religious icons, the artist Rublev is rarely caught in the act of painting. There’s a point, too, in the drama where he ceases talking altogether (a vow of silence in penance for murdering a man), which only infuriates his friend Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). Another remarkable incident occurs near the end with the casting of a church bell by the novice bell-maker Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev). Will the bell ring out or not? If it doesn’t, then the Grand Prince (Yuriy Nazarov) who commissioned the casting will kill them all. Although he later admits that he knew nothing about casting bells, Boriska represents the artisan who lacks confidence in his own abilities, yet nevertheless manages to complete a given task — either by his mastery of the field or by sheer dumb luck!

End of Part One

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Battle of Wills and Wonts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

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

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

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

Though not part of Universal Picture’s original classic-monster contingent (i.e., Dracula, Frankenstein, the 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

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