History on Film

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles

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Liz (Cissy Spacek) & Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in their living room, in JFK (1991)

“Quo Vadis, Domine?”

Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.

“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.

As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.

In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.

“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill and Lou, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. It’s the ravings of a lunatic.

David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) wigs out big time in JFK

The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.

In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.

Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.

The enigmatic “X” (Donald Sutherland) tells all to a disbelieving Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, left) during his trip to D.C.

“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”

He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”

After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.

“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.

At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.

“Quo vadis, Domine?” Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way by Annibale Carracci (1601-2) Photo: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.

Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.

As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

Dramatic music is cued up.

Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom

Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.

Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.

“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight, far right) in the press conference scene

He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.

There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.

Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.

Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”

Garrison (Costner) presiding over the Kennedy “Apostles” late in JFK

“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.

The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone

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President Kennedy & First Lady Jackie in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963 (Photo: AP)

So Let It Be Rewritten

Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.

That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.

In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.

What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.

The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.

The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.

Chief Justice Earl Warren (Jim Garrison) grilling Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) in Oliver Stone’s JFK

In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.

Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.

The Christ Connection

As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.

Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.

One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.

President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.

In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.

Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.

To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.

Oliver Stone writing JFK (Photo: Elizabeth Stone)

One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).

Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.

Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.

Jim Garrison & his team of lawyers (Wayne Knight in foreground) in the law library

The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).

Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.

The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Lou (Jay O. Sanders) meet at Lafayette Square, New Orleans, in JFK

The Greatest Story Never Told

During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.

After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.

This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.

In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.

Kennedy & Jackie, with Texas Governor John Connelly at Dealy Plaza

Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”

All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.

We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.

Assistant D.A. Lou Ivon looks on as Garrison aims the Carcano rifle

After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?

Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.

To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.

Bill Broussard steps between Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) & D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK

Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.

Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) — He for Whom Nothing is Written

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Auda Abu-Tayi (Anthony Quinn), Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) & Ali (Omar Sharif) in Lawrence of Arabia
Auda (Anthony Quinn), Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) & Ali (Omar Sharif) in Lawrence of Arabia

What makes a film a classic? A better question to ask is: what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that Sir David Lean’s 1962 desert epic Lawrence of Arabia conveniently and consistently fits both bills.

At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission, and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. But why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit; it’s got taste; it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. And it has an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young and nearly unknown Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and incredibly revelatory) performance of the first order.

Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning of it. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Sir Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed to the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, with Bolt taking most of the credit since Wilson had been blacklisted at the time of the movie’s release) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a stand-up-and-get-shot-at hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer.

Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak — his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962 — without a) giving away the game; b) without making him into a limp-wristed caricature; and c) without giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure per se.

In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature, as well as his high tolerance for pain — the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by José Ferrer) is a good case in point. Although such an electrically-charged term as “male rape” could never have been uttered in an early 1960s feature that is exactly what occurred here and what director Lean was going after. Lawrence’s refusal to go into specifics about his manhandling is an indication of how far he was willing to go to prove his manly (that is, heroic) nature to his Arab friends.

"It's going to be fun" -- Peter O'Toole as Lawrence
“It’s going to be fun” — Peter O’Toole as Lawrence

The plot, in brief, concerns a misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness, in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” comments the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God,” exclaims Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. “Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.” Indeed, a whirlwind that lands him in hot water.

Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using a ragtag army of Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now refer to him. A legend of his own making, helped along by the cynical American reporter Jackson Bentley, Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become, i.e., a masochist as well as a sadist. His unraveling at the Arab council and the realization that he’s been a pawn in the hands of both Faisal and Allenby leads to his abandoning the desert for anonymity in the British countryside.

In his international film debut, Egyptian-born Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Both Ali and Lawrence share a unique love/hate relationship with each other. Today, our so-called modern sensibilities might admit to a probable “bromance” between these two politically and culturally distinctive individuals. This opens up the issue of whether Lawrence, as depicted in the film, had homosexual tendencies. The introduction of two servant boys, Daud (John Dimech) and Farraj (Michel Ray, an Anglo-Brazilian), may even have allowed for such an indulgence. Historically, however, Lawrence was said to have been asexual, so that ends that query.

Lawrence and his guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin) see a mirage
Lawrence and his guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin) see a mirage in the distance

Others in the all-male cast include Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) as warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his Arab “ally” in arms; Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby; Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau; Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton; Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley, the Lowell Thomas doppelganger; and bushy browed Sir Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray.

The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another Oscar® winner. Despite many months in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia was filmed partially in Jordan and along the southern coast of Spain), director Lean held it together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!” Ω

‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) — A War Epic Without the War

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The plantation Tara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
The plantation Tara, with Scarlett and her father, in Gone With the Wind (1939)

It’s hard to fathom even today that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the silver screen.

For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held belief (perpetuated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head of production, the “boy genius” Irving Thalberg) that “no Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” This was only partially true, of course: in its day, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, not only set attendance records whenever and wherever it was shown, but revolutionized the way motion pictures would be marketed and made for all time.

Still, Thalberg’s boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was a son-in-law to Louis B. Mayer (one of the M’s in M-G-M), purchased the rights to Atlanta native Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut, the likes of which went on to break all-existing records for decades to come.

As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary but not nearly as densely worded, the book version of GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as the American variant of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace, but without the Russian author’s literary acumen or extraordinarily philosophical insight into the human condition.

The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent times of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Ms. Mitchell (who was known in her native Atlanta as Peggy Marsh, after marriage to her second husband) concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara.

A lively spitfire of a Southern belle, Scarlett uses large dollops of girlish allure, feminine guile, and willful behavior, along with a ruthless capacity for survival at any cost, to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara, the land her father, Irish plantation owner Gerald O’Hara, insisted was “the only thing worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for!”

But what relation does Scarlett O’Hara have to Natasha Rostova, the youthful heroine of Tolstoy’s massive novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye!

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)
Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses the widowed Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh)

First of all, there are several pairs of individuals intimately detailed and observed in both works — Scarlett with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes with his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, juxtaposed against Natasha and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as well as Pierre Bezukhov and his wife, Helene Kuragina, among numerous others. It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personalities of Natasha and her own cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (a mirror image of the sweetness-and-light personified by Melanie), with that of Scarlett herself; then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre (standing in for the poetic dreamer Ashley), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene (another side of Scarlett’s capricious persona) and her dashing lover Dolokhov, who safely incorporates multiple facets of that lovable rogue, Rhett.

We may add another viable if all-too obvious connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose physical presence is never shown but whose name is blazoned across the screen in one of those telling intertitles familiar to followers of silent cinema.

Intertitle from the start of Gone With the Wind's second half
Intertitle for the second half of David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind

These contrasts may one day serve as the basis for a more extensive study along the same academic lines as I’ve outlined above. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the dramatic merits and deficits of its screenplay (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of slavery, as well as its muddled political views and skirting of the larger racism issue, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest.

One major reason for the film’s popularity at the time of its release was the coincidental element of a country (the U.S., in this instance), on the brink of war, sending its men folk off to battle while the women stayed put, waging their own fight to keep home and hearth intact. Scarlett O’Hara epitomized that daily struggle in her gutsy determination to hold on to her memories of the past, along with what remained of her family and property.

That the women of 1930s America related to Scarlett’s predicament and saw themselves in her heroic defense of the home front rightly bolstered box-office receipts to unheard-of levels. They loved the fact that Scarlett was a smart, and sometimes cold-hearted, small-business owner: a real-life Rosie the Riveter in every respect that no man could tame.

And speaking of taming men, contrary to commonly held wisdom, wise-cracking Clark Gable, in the role of a lifetime, was not exactly a shoe-in for the rugged Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee items as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone (author Mitchell’s personal choice), and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over the star’s employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to M-G-M, the opportunity to star in Selznick International’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would secure Gable’s services in exchange for M-G-M’s obtaining the distribution rights — a win-win situation for both studios.

Replete with double entendres and humorous asides for all occasions, as the nefarious Captain Butler, Gable delivers his lines with easy affability and abundant charm and finesse, even though his Southern drawl comes and goes with equal ease. It’s one of the actor’s best roles and a shame the he didn’t win an Oscar for it (he lost out to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the sentimental favorite of that year).

Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)
Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)

With literally a cast of thousands at its disposal, some of the other key participants involved in GWTW were two British subjects, Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, in addition to Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as whiny housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ward Bond, Paul Hurst, Cammie King Conlon, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, Barbara O’Neil, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Everett Brown, Howard Hickman, Leona Roberts, Jane Darwell, J.M. Kerrigan, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit parts, including stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by director Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all focus and attention belong to Vivien Leigh as the feisty Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging assignment.

Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the coveted part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, Alicia Rhett (who appeared in the picture as Ashley’s sister, India), and Lucille Ball (!). In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two for the unstable performer) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. With few exceptions, from start to finish Scarlett is on-screen for roughly the entire length of the picture. And Leigh keeps her frivolous nature front and center throughout.

Puzzlingly, about the only thing that wasn’t transferred to the screen from the novel was the war itself. Look again at the restored Blu-ray/DVD editions of the movie: you will search in vain for any of the most famous battles being depicted. What there is involves the citizens of Atlanta running for their lives to escape the advancing Union Army. There’s plenty of shelling and noise, and runaway carriages with galloping horses and men, as well as pandemonium and voluntary evacuations (for example, the hustle and bustle of the flighty Aunt Pittypat); and, of course, that impressionable stomach-churning scene at the “hospital” where Scarlett witnesses a Confederate soldier’s leg being amputated.

Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett
Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett, as he leaves her to join the war effort

Beyond that, about the only sequence where viewers actually experience the consequences of a war-ravaged South takes place near the Atlanta train depot, i.e., that spectacular crane shot of thousands upon thousands of the dead and dying, lying wounded and waiting for medical attention, while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the tattered flag of Dixie flapping helplessly in the breeze — a visual metaphor for the movie’s title.

The score by Viennese-born composer Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. His instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett.

If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal taste), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Three): ‘Glory’ Days

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Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in Glory (1989)
Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in Glory (1989)

There was a time in Denzel Washington’s young life when he had entertained notions of becoming a preacher. After all, his father, the Reverend Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. (Denzel was named after his dad), was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church. And wouldn’t it have been nice if the son had followed in the father’s footsteps?

But by age 14, Denzel’s parents had split up and the more junior Washington was sent off to a private prep school, i.e., Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Although by the time Denzel had studied there the military curriculum had long since been discontinued, it was still a forlorn environment for the impressionable inner-city youth from Mount Vernon.

Years later, the actor would recall that the decision to send him to Oakland Military Academy had profound ramifications for his personal life. “I wouldn’t have survived in the direction that I was going,” Denzel stated. “The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”

And Tinsel Town got nice guy Denzel, a fair trade at best. A little over 20 years passed when Washington, now a major force on the Hollywood scene after glowing reviews in several big-screen features, was signed to appear in the Civil War epic Glory (1989). He played the part of the taciturn Private Silas Trip, a former slave fighting for the North who also fought for the freedom of his people.

“I wanted to do something different,” Denzel indicated at the time, “and to feel removed from the present time. It’s difficult to do a period piece and to give yourself as an actor a different feeling, as though you’re in a different time.”

“He really defined that character,” commented film critic Julian Roman, “to the point of someone who became a part of the war … but beyond that became a comrade to his friends, became a loyal soldier to his regiment commander, and that’s a transcendent performance.”

“I didn’t even know that blacks fought in the Civil War,” the actor told the Associated Press. “The American history classes that I took didn’t seem to dwell on that at all. It was inspiring for me; it gave me a lot of energy to continue research and get further and further into it. Although the character I play isn’t based on a real person, I kind of put ideas together that I found from reading slave narratives and things like that.”

Battle Cry of Freedom

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)
Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)

Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War.

Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel.

Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Col. Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author, abolitionist, editor and speaker Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious.

One of these fictitious creations, Pvt. Trip, is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie.

Trip would rather take the punishment than show weakness by backing down from a beating. In his own words, Denzel put the case before us: “Basically what I did was, got on my knees and sort of communicated with the spirits of those who had been enslaved, who had been whipped. And when I came out I was in charge. I said ‘Trip was in charge. If this is what you men, which is what you call yourselves, want to do to Trip, then come with it.’ ”

He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as Union soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina.

Trip is flogged for desertion in Glory
Trip is flogged for desertion in Glory

“These men were looking for an opportunity to prove themselves,” Denzel continued. “The battle was no more dangerous than their day-to-day lives with the constant threat of slavery and slave masters with their mentality over their heads. They were looking for the opportunity to have a fair fight and to have a rifle as well, regardless of the odds.”

Subsequently channeling Rev. Denzel Washington Sr., Denzel Jr. sounds distinctly like a man preaching to the choir. And in a rousing scene that takes place the night before the final battle, Denzel (in his guise as Trip) gets to clap and sing along with his fellow soldiers in a spontaneous revival meeting. Do I hear an “Amen” out there?

The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg, PA.

After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice. For me, the most poignant portion of the entire film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously thrown into a huge ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with gulls and sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. Their bodies come together in an involuntary “embrace,” which symbolizes the union of each man’s spirit in brotherly love and understanding — if not in life, then in the after-life.

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw
Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw

However, the real-life tragedy of what actually took place after the battle had been lost was mercifully omitted. In the book, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson, in the chapter on the movie Glory, describes the outcome in distressing terms:

“The Confederate defenders of Fort Wagner stripped Shaw’s corpse and dumped it into an unmarked mass grave with the bodies of his black soldiers. When the Union commander sent a flag of truce across the lines a day later to request the return of Shaw’s body (a customary practice for high-ranking officers killed in the Civil War), a Confederate officer [General Johnson Hagood] replied contemptuously, ‘We have buried him with his niggers.’”

Interestingly, Col. Shaw’s father had quite a different reaction to his son’s “dishonorable” burial: “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!”

With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by the veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis, Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman as Sgt. Major Rawlins, Cary Elwes as Major Cabot Forbes, Andre Braugher as Thomas Searles, and Jihmi Kennedy as Jupiter Sharts, with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles.

The exceptionally fine and moving musical score by James Horner, with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s secular cantata Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and ethereal, otherworldly tonalities.

(End of Part Three – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

When the Legend Becomes Fact — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Two): Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and the Lone Gunman Theory

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Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK
Kevin Costner as D.A. Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK

“Let There Be Light” – And Let Us Be Illuminated By It

Continuing with my rumination on a course I once developed concerning Hollywood and the Historical Film, exactly how much history and how much fiction does one include in such an undertaking? On the flip side of the issue, is there anything we may wish to exclude?

Questions of this nature pose a perplexing problem for the instructor, in that the focus of the course is placed exclusively on the limitations and uses of available sources. And a lot is riding on those same sources!

For example, one can turn to the Bible, a primary source for many people’s moral and ethical guidance, and ask the obvious question: “Is the Bible history, and can it be used to teach history?” First and foremost, such a query must take into account matters of fact, faith and fiction, in addition to myths, legends and the all-important religious interpretation of events.

This is a delicate subject to broach with students because it goes to the very core of their belief system and upbringing. Inside an academic setting, it’s a perfectly valid form of inquiry and well within the reasonable. But outside academia’s hallowed halls, one must tread lightly so as not to offend those same beliefs. Therefore, let us proceed with caution.

To begin our analysis, what should one make of the frequent parables present throughout the Biblical narrative? For one thing, we can say that parables, as told by various individuals — Christ primarily — in both the Old and New Testament, serve the purpose of putting a potentially difficult topic or principle into simple, everyday terms. This was done so that the average layperson might understand and absorb their lessons.

Are there ways we can tell how much of what is being conveyed via parables is truth, exaggeration, verbal embellishment or other such extravagance? If by that question one is referring to “fact checking,” that would be a physical impossibility, considering that, for one, we still have the aforementioned distance problem to deal with, as well as the time factor involved in retracing the steps of who said what, where and when so many eons ago.

What about the problem of errors, mistakes or liberties taken with the known (or generally acknowledged) facts? Do the facts found in the Bible, such as they are, coincide with or run counter to the veracity of events as described elsewhere in the historical record? This is the crux of the problem. For if the historical record — those so-called “known facts” — are found not to coincide with the Biblical explanation of events, do we then discard the historical record, or do we drop the Biblical sources as unreliable?

Here’s another interesting case in point, drawn from the Gospels: we know from history that the Roman governor of Judea — the province where the historical Jesus both lived and died — ruled with an iron hand. The reason for this attitude was both practical and plain: to put down rebellion at the first sign of trouble.

How, then, do we explain Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to swiftly carry out that part of Roman justice demanded of his office, i.e., to execute a potential “rabble rouser” such as Jesus, swiftly and at the first sign of trouble? Wouldn’t we expect Pilate to act as any Roman governor would and take matters into his hands, or would his behavior depart from the norm simply because of his proximity to Christ?

Depending on who you ask, the Biblical narrative would “seem” to indicate the latter, which somewhat contradicts what scholars, historians and other learned individuals know of the historical Roman governor’s role in Christ’s Crucifixion, or for that matter any crucifixion.

This takes us to the next topic up for discussion: is history truth? Or, to put it another way, is there such thing as historical truth? If there is, how does it compare to, say, Biblical truth? You will notice the paraphrasing of Pilate’s own rhetorical query, “What is truth?”

We have seen that history can be subjective — that is, one’s view of a subject is always taken from the person viewing it (thus referring back to the old issue of history as being written by the victors), what tends to be called the “subjective vantage point.” Can this view encompass other vantage points — in other words, a more objective one, whereby a topic, matter or person is interpreted in a less opinionated fashion, thereby refraining from pontificating on its substance? Of course it can! But it’s not that easy, is it?

Again, we come to what I describe as the “invariable variable,” also known as the distance problem rearing its ugly head. By that I mean to ask: are we so far removed from the Biblical (or prehistorical) context of past events as to be irretrievably separated from them?

The answer to that is: it all depends. Different events in the past can have any number of differing, even multiple, interpretations or meanings, whether or not they are viewed from a subjective or objective angle.

The Kennedy Case

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court
Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presenting his case in court

Let’s take one such event from the recent past and examine it from both the subjective and objective vantage points, certainly one of the most photographed and investigated murder cases of our time, i.e., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, as interpreted by filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone in the movie JFK (1991).

Stone’s film charts a familiar course set forth 15 years earlier by director Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation of the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon (a subject Mr. Stone tackled separately).

In Pakula’s picture, there are two crusading reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who write for the Washington Post, headed by Chief Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). In Stone’s reworking of Kennedy’s untimely death and the ensuing investigation of same, Kevin Costner plays crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, as portrayed by Costner, is as far from the real-life fanatical, self-righteous, wrong-headed prosecutor as New York is from Los Angeles.

JFK follows Garrison as he leads his team of investigators on a wild goose chase over unsupported terrain: there are charges and counter-charges, dirty dealings and underhanded activities, clandestine meetings, supposed conspiracy theories, angry Cubans, ex-military types, contrived or fabricated evidence, numerous blind alleys, red herrings, dead or disappearing witnesses, and whatever else the D. A.’s illogical mind conjures up.

Now let us juxtapose Stone’s operatically conceived opus with an actual piece of research material: the 1989 documentary Who Shot President Kennedy? Written, directed and produced by Robert Richter, and narrated by anchorman and reporter Walter Cronkite, the level of investigative journalism demonstrated in this 57-minute feature, which takes into account every known facet of the assassination — from footage of the Dallas physicians who tried to save Kennedy’s life and computerized 3-D images of Dealey Plaza, to a frame by frame analysis of the Abraham Zapruder footage and leading critics of the Warren Commission’s findings — puts to shame many of JFK’s most far-fetched conclusions.

To begin with, what did the city of New Orleans have to do with Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas? Quite a lot, as the film would have us believe. In the first place, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, in an uncanny personification), the so-called Lone Gunman (a designation made years after the fact), was born there; and in the second, Garrison’s bogus criminal case was aimed squarely at a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (a fey Tommy Lee Jones) and his sometime partner, cross-dresser David Ferrie (a peculiarly manic and foul-mouthed Joe Pesci), scapegoats both.

Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw
Tommy Lee Jones (at left) as Clay Shaw

The result is Rashomon run amok. In the end, one has no idea who to believe or how to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys (there are no black hats here, only varying shades of gray). In reality, Garrison tried his best to sway an incredulous court to convict Clay Shaw on flimsy if unsubstantiated evidence. If the film had stayed in the Big Easy, it might ultimately have made more sense. As it turned out, though, Stone had his fictional Garrison go in every direction at once, all the while trying his best to keep up appearances as the dedicated D.A. and devoted family man and husband.

What were those directions? Among the various corners turned, the director had his cast and crew look at the case against Oswald in much the same manner as the above-mentioned documentary, which included the single bullet theory (the timing problem, the angle of trajectory, the type of weapon fired, and other incongruous issues), the possibility of a Grassy Knoll assassin (or lack thereof), the photographic and acoustic evidence from Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s alleged ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, likewise his FBI and CIA connections, the president’s body, the supposed botched autopsy (or “altered wounds” theory), and so on. Whew, that’s a whole lot of fat to chew on for three hours of movie time!

As we know from past experience, the longer a specific case is investigated, the more it will reveal about itself. In this instance, however, the more the JFK assassination is probed and poked at, the more speculative it gets and the more speculation surrounds it, which only leads to more unanswered questions and crackpot “theories” — some of which belong to the realm of fantasy and the bizarre, not to mention the harebrained.

Still, does the fact that the most investigated and photographed case in modern history make the resultant inquiry any less meaningful, or the findings any easier to accept? We know there were many problems with the Warren Commission’s Report, but after watching JFK one is forced to admit that Oliver Stone’s version of events is not without glitches of its own. Bravura film-making, which the director’s motion picture undeniably encompasses, does not a true picture make!

Additional problems are presented or addressed, along with newer and ever bolder hypotheses about who killed Kennedy, to include blatant, out-and-out inventions. One gets the feeling that Stone is constantly lurching for a definitive answer, which remains stubbornly out of his reach. The question at this point becomes: has Stone taken undue liberties with the facts? Can he beg our indulgence over their use by employing the oft-quoted “poetic license” excuse?

Oliver Stone conferring with Costner
Oliver Stone conferring with Kevin Costner

We may even put forth a few theories of our own, such as: doesn’t a film’s director have a responsibility — moral, ethical or otherwise — to present the facts as they are? The “truth,” if it indeed exists, is out there (at least, according to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder), so why can’t he see it?

Do directors, by their very nature, have their own agendas to pursue, arrived at before filming even begins? By their action, does it soil whatever believability has been attained, only to be buried under layer upon layer of unproven allegations? 

Are they not attempting to fit pieces of gathered evidence, conveniently labeled “the facts,” into a previously developed, predetermined script? And isn’t this another form of manipulation of past events, a parable to end all parables, the cinematic Gospel according to Stone?

All of the above certainly merits our attention, which may warrant further inquiry at a later time.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part One)

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Come On, People Now

Bob Dylan in the recording studio (theawl.com)
Bob Dylan in the recording studio (theawl.com)

That’s a great title for an article about the music of the Swinging Sixties. And with so much happening right here, right now, in the good ole USA — from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the passing of folk legend and peace activist Pete Seeger and the upcoming half-century celebration of the Beatles’ landmark invasion of our shores — there’s no better time like the present to rekindle one’s association with that long-ago period from about 1962 up through 1971 when popular songs and colorful individuals formed the backbone of various movements.

The songs and individuals I had in mind, however, were ones I personally remember listening to on the radio and/or watching on TV. What’s more, I recall hearing a handful of these tracks in my school’s English and Social Studies classrooms — in some cases, within a few months of their release. How many of us can say we experienced that sense of having belonged to a tiny part of history in the making?

Today, I am grateful to have lived through those turbulent times. Granted, the impetus for posting this piece comprises the thinnest hint of nostalgia for songs that actually meant something. Besides the obvious sentimental value, I wanted to make the case for the enduring efficacy of these unforgettable artworks, as well as pay belated tribute to their creators.

Now that I’ve reached a point in life where maturity and understanding have merged with a writer’s ability to come to grips with these matters, I felt compelled to pursue the mystery of why these songs still haunt our memories after so many years in circulation.

Maybe it was my disgust at the poor quality of this year’s Grammy nominees. Maybe it was my disappointment at seeing how worn and jowly ex-Beatle Paul McCartney had gotten in that spiritless duet with drummer Ringo Starr — and how unremarkable Sir Paul’s output has become of late (“bland” is the word I would use).

Whatever the reason, I needed little motivation to remind readers of what true folk, pop and rock once sounded like to a generation that learned to appreciate song lyrics that were as dense and meaningful as they were occasionally diffuse; with instantly recognizable tunes that, despite the passage of time, have continued to celebrate a momentous era in America.

If I have left a favorite singer or two out, please accept my apologies. The ones I’ve chosen reflect my own preferences and are, in no way, a commentary on the abilities (good or bad) of those artists excluded from this list. To paraphrase a line from Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike: “Not much meat, but what there is, is ‘cherce.’”

Album cover for The Times They Are A-Changin' (fplreference.blogspot.com)
Album cover for The Times They Are A-Changin’ (fplreference.blogspot.com)

It’s fair to say that Dylan ushered in the times, and from there went on to inspire an entire generation of like-minded artists. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, musician, performer and songwriter Bob Dylan (he took his surname from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose dictum, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he took to heart) rose to fame in the Sixties as the unofficial, if habitually unwilling, spokesperson for social and civil causes (“Don’t follow leaders!” he famously insisted in 1965).

Influenced early on by Woody Guthrie, the father and pioneer of folk and protest songs, along with rocker Little Richard and Country & Western star Hank Williams, Dylan used the power and substance of language (drawing from the likes of Walt Whitman, French Symbolism, and the Beat poets) to venture forth on his own as the voice and conscience of America’s disheartened youth.

With such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” made popular by the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary (who smoothed over the song’s edges with the pristine purity of their vocals), and the droning, prophetic “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan sang with the stridency of a picketing union worker, the immediacy of a Baptist preacher, and the disarming yet wise-beyond-his-years boyishness that captivated audiences used to less offensive material.

“Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first item on our list, betrays strong African-American spiritual roots. In the rhetorical form of a question and answer — a mini sermon, if you will — it’s a give-and-take lifted in part from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. The words are simple and direct, the instrumentation (acoustic guitar with intermittent bursts from Dylan’s harmonica) Spartan and lean, the voice solemn and sincere, all persuasively arrayed to point up man’s longing for freedom and dignity in his continuing struggles against injustice:

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man…?

The lyrics have something to say as well about outlawing armed conflict long before our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia took hold:

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned…?

A year or more before President Kennedy was killed, Dylan chanted this prescient verse:

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?

And what’s the sought-after solution to these problems? It’s simple, really:

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan himself has clarified the meaning: “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”

Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head and pretend he just doesn’t see…?

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?

If there is any way out of these intractable conditions, it can be found in a later musical number — a suitably spiritual one, we should add — written by our friend Mr. McCartney in 1969, after a dream he had involving his long departed mom, Mary:

When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

And in my hour of darkness She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

Let it be, let it be,

Let it be, yeah, let it be

There will be an answer: let it be.

His song offered a slightly more consoling message “in times of trouble” than, say, the lyrical fist-shaking that Mr. Dylan previously propounded. Still, Paul’s late-in-the-day composition, “Let It Be,” came at the tail end of the decade and was the last single the Beatles released before they disbanded.

Better Times Ahead?

One of Dylan’s most challenging outpourings, an oracular expression of holy-rolling writ large (and a jeremiad standard in its day), is his “The Times They Are A-Changin’” from 1964. At the time, his vision of the coming inundation, of “wars and rumors of war,” of political turmoil, of parents forced to give way to their offspring, of generational divide and quasi-scriptural proclamations that the “first shall be last” — compounded by his mumbling vocals — smacked of the ravings of a street-corner lunatic on the fringe of society.

Sadly, most if not all of Dylan’s apocalyptic imagery would de facto come to pass with the outbreak of the Vietnam War conflict. Conversely, it was exactly this kind of verbal warning shot, cloaked in the formal structure of popular song (shades of composer Kurt Weill), that so enraged the senior members of “society,” i.e., the “establishment,” as it was known back then. At the risk of making it sound like a lengthy diatribe, I print the song’s thought-provoking lyrics in full:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

His namesake, poet Dylan Thomas, once wrote that, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Not only that, but it should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Bob Dylan, who raged and fumed so early on in his career, crashed and burned much sooner than most — and long before the dying of his light.

Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1965 (rirocks.net)
Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1965 (rirocks.net)

To many of his diehard fans, Dylan had betrayed the folkie “cause” by going all-out electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And the lyric wordplay, by turns virulent and elegiac, witty and bizarre, were more oblique than ever in his corresponding Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited releases, as well as the classic double-album Blonde on Blonde.

On the morning of July 29, 1966, upon his recent return from an exhausting nine-month world tour the month before, Dylan was involved in a life-changing motorbike crash near his home in Woodstock, New York, which led to his subsequent withdrawal from performing. His forty days and forty nights in the wilderness stretched into a year and a half of self-imposed isolation.

“When I had that motorcycle accident,” Dylan told a reporter in 1984, “I woke up and caught my senses. I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that … I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.” This begs the question of whether Dylan had also been dabbling in booze and drugs, thereby using the extended “timeout” to undergo detoxification. His absence from the scene has never been fully explained.

Emerging from the dark, Dylan released two back-to-back albums of new material: the introspective John Wesley Harding in 1968, and the country-flavored Nashville Skyline in 1969. The public soon learned that he and his Butterfield Blues Band (a.k.a. The Band) had been busy documenting their latest efforts in the experimental recordings dubbed The Basement Tapes (1975), which confirmed the singer-songwriter’s growing obsession with Country & Western themes fused with rural rock.

He would not perform live again until a 1974 concert tour. Five years later, Dylan, who was born into the Jewish faith, would formally convert to Christianity. He was no longer the proverbial “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” (that honor would go to the fictional Howard Beale from the movie Network), but a man trying to confront the expected norms of artistic life. He would celebrate his conversion with the launch of Slow Train Coming (1979).

Bob Dylan’s abandonment of live performing, and the acid-tripped rock-n-roll lifestyle that went with it and that he formerly espoused, had a heavy impact on other bands and individuals, as we shall see.

(End of Part One – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes