Friday, 28 December 2007

The Lord of the Rings (2001-3)

At around Christmas and New Year, a new tradition had started for film fans: the December fantasy movie, a trend begun in 2001 with the release of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING - about which this blog will mostly concentrate, because that was the one film of this particular trilogy which had the biggest impact on me.

Its release was highly anticipated by fantasy film fans; the advent of special effects, which had steadily grown during the 1980s and taken a giant leap with the arrival of digital technology in films such as Jurassic Park, meant that old barriers were being broken and potential new frontiers of storytelling could be reached, where epic works of fiction that were once deemed too imaginative to be adapted onto film, could now be considered. It was time to return to the work of Tolkien, provided someone could be found who could manage such a massive undertaking.

Step forward the Lord of the Ring-bearer, who came not from Middle Earth, but from Down Under.

Peter Jackson was not by any means the first to attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novel: John Boorman had collaborated with Tolkien himself for a time, in the hope of creating a live-action version of the saga in the 1970s, which fell through ultimately (partly because of Boorman's intention to slash the story down to an economical one hour and forty minutes), but soon afterwards came an animated version of the story, directed and supervised by Ralph Bakshi (see Film Review blogpage), who had at the time notably made the first adult "X" rated cartoon feature, Fritz the Cat.


The 1978 film had its pros and cons, and only attempted to tell part of the whole story of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the mighty ring of Sauron. But Peter Jackson was taken with the film sufficiently to want to know more about Tolkien, and 23 years later, the result is in some ways, a "live action" remake of the Ralph Bakshi film, with certain images directly imitated in The Fellowship of the Ring - but also with far more meticulous attention to the huge, sprawling narrative of the book, and the benefit of 21st century digital technology to help bring it to life.


Being already an acclaimed film maker in New Zealand, and becoming noticed on the international scene with Heavenly Creatures (the film debut of Kate Winslet) and The Frighteners (a useful warm-up for further films with scary special effects), Jackson was just the man to be able to tackle head-on with typical Antipodean energy the challenge of putting Tolkien onto film properly. His full-blooded adaptations of all three volumes of the novel (which was clearly influenced by the horror of two world wars) always allow the right amount of pathos without ever letting the special effects dominate too much.

But, ye Gods, on hearing some of the publicity build-up to the first film, I discovered that The Fellowship of the Ring was to be THREE AND A QUARTER HOURS LONG - and this is just the first of a trilogy.

Okay, the quality of a film should not necessarily be determined by its length - as Alfred Hitchcock once said "the length of a film should be directly proportionate to the endurance of the human bladder." In comedy a film that is longer than 90 minutes is frequently pushing the endurance level of its audience. The average drama can probably sustain itself for the first two hours. But any special effects fantasy film which exceeds three hours - with no intermission - is frankly, overkill.

By a coincidence, that same winter also saw the release of the first Harry Potter film, at an overlong 150 minutes for children and their parents to sit through - and it still cut several scenes from the book, to the younger audience's dismay.

If Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone seemed long, then what was to follow from New Line Cinema would feel like an absolute eternity.

Nevertheless, armed with a lot of curiosity and a certain amount of trepidation, I persuaded my sister Catherine to come along with me and see the film at the Odeon Colchester, as she was sufficiently intrigued by the concept to pass up her plans to have a special pasta lunch that Saturday, in favour of the 3 hour-plus marathon in Screen One. At the end of it, I think she would probably have preferred the pasta.

But the fans were hooked.

What is so impressive about the first film, to me, is how it sets its sense of time and place so brilliantly in the first few minutes, from the softly atmospheric prologue (narrated by Cate Blanchett) explaining the history of Middle Earth, and the subsequent build-up to the discovery of the one ring "to rule them all." All of the best (and worst) elements of the trilogy are demonstrated here: a fine sense of medieval whimsy and the scale of the battles, with Lord Sauron batting off literally thousands of Elf soldiers, until his sword arm (containing the Ring) is miraculously hacked off by King Isildur, who subsequently takes possession of the Ring, until it corrupts him, and the ownership of the Ring eventually passes into the unlikely hands of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), at which point Tolkien's story begins proper.

The title caption sets out Peter Jackson's intentions from the start too: this is to be "The Lord of the Rings" as one film, and this is the first part, "The Fellowship of the Ring".

Seconds in, and we see the Luke Skywalker-ish hero, Bilbo's cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood), the quintessential innocent sitting under a tree in the Shire, when he hears the approaching sound on a horse and cart of his old friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and sits down beside the wizard on the front seat, like a child - of adult Hobbit size. The transition is seamless, and the viewer is instantly transported into Middle Earth without any sense of fakery.

Soon afterwards, Gandalf is knocking on the door of his old friend Bilbo, who is turning away all intruders in the midst of his hectic preparations for his "eleventy-first" birthday - except that is, for very old friends. The two are thus re-united, and the sense of nostalgia is immediately evoked from The Hobbit, a story which I've never seen on film, but instantly recognised the characters' relationship, having read the novel at school when I was 11.


The birthday party scenes that follow are perceived by some to be the weakest of the trilogy, but they have a sense of light relief about them (in the light of what's to come), before Bilbo unexpectedly disappears - literally - to take "a long journey", but not before Gandalf has persuaded him to leave the Ring behind, into the custody of Frodo...

...and from there the story suddenly swings into dramatic fifth gear, with the return of Sauron's power, and his sinister and demonic Ringwraiths riding out towards the Shire in search of the Ring, and the stage is set for one of the most epic chases in fantasy literature.

On the advice of Gandalf, ringbearer Frodo heads out of the Shire altogether, with his loyal servant Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) and two other close Hobbit friends, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Gandalf himself meanwhile sees the stormclouds gathering over Mordor, and goes to his old friend Saruman for consultation. As Saruman is played by Christopher Lee however, this can only lead to something sinister. Sure enough, the two old wizards are duelling each other ferociously, in a style that reminded me of Christopher Lee's memorable head-to-head confrontations with Peter Cushing in the classic Hammer films.

The highlight of the film for me is the ensuing race towards the ford by the Ringwraiths in pursuit of the wounded Frodo - who has been stabbed by one of them - with Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) riding him to safety on a white horse in a thrilling chase scene, daring the black riders with the bold line "If you want him, come and claim him!" Tolkien purists grumbled at the diversion from the book in having Arwen riding the horse at all, when her character is basically depicted (by Tolkien) as a lady-in-waiting rather than an action girl, but Peter Jackson, attuned to more modern tastes - and sensibly in my view - gave Liv Tyler's character some backbone and helped to bring out the drama.

Thereafter, the film slightly soft-pedals as the cured (but not totally) Frodo is reunited with Gandalf and, equally unexpectedly, cousin Bilbo, together with the rest of his Hobbit friends, at the castle of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who soon summons the other leaders of Middle Earth united against Sauron, for an urgent conference.

The strength in depth of the film's cast is demonstrated here, with the brooding, disillusioned Aragorn - son of Isildur - played very well by Viggo Mortensen, Legolas by the soon-to-become hot property Orlando Bloom, the dwarf warrior Gimli played suitably rumbustiously by 6-foot John Rhys-Davies (another brilliant trick of special effects), and the determined but doubtful Prince Boromir played by Sean Bean, whose presence in the film and untimely death towards the end makes one sorry for the loss of his character in the rest of the trilogy, and also gives the ending a suitable amount of poignant reflection.

This merry band, including of course those pesky Hobbits, join together to help Frodo in his daunting quest to take the Ring into Mordor - the only place where it can be destroyed - and the Fellowship of the Ring is thus formed......

Two epic films later, the quest to destroy the Ring is finally achieved, but not of course without lots of thrills and spills, and the breaking up - or in some cases death - of our heroes along the way. In the course of the first stages of this epic quest, Jackson was able to utilise some of the spectacular and multi-faceted locations of his native New Zealand, that were ideal for his vision of Tolkienland.

It's not too difficult to spot some of the similarities with other films such as Star Wars (George Lucas was clearly influenced by Tolkien in writing his fantasy space saga), with the Obi-Wan Kenobi-ish Gandalf making a dignified but unexpected "death" at the hands of the mighty Balrog. I think it's fair to say that Ian McKellen readily stepped into the shoes of Sir Alec Guinness, who would otherwise have been probably the ideal choice for the role, say, ten years previously. The loss of Gandalf is further emphasized by the eventual arrival of our remaining heroes to the sanctuary of Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who says with mournful recognition "he has passed into shadow", and any film which has an actress the quality of Cate Blanchett waiting in the wings to make a belated cameo appearance, has to be special indeed.

At the end of the three hour onslaught of action, noise, special effects and pathos, I was pleased that Jackson had chosen to ironically finish it with a relatively straightforward image (alluding almost to European/arthouse cinema) of Frodo and Sam sailing away on a single boat towards Mordor, leaving the story in limbo but nicely poised for audiences to anticipate the follow-up - which they did, eagerly.

THE TWO TOWERS duly came along the following year, which I saw with friends and fans at the Odeon Leicester Square, and a mounting sense of expectation after the acclaim and success of the first film. Happily this second instalment was less than three hours long - by one minute. The Odeon Leicester Square, being what it is nowadays, had me bracing for a bombardment of digital stereo sound, especially during the later battle scenes.

After the ads and trailers were over, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened, and the BBFC certificate displayed the film's title, to the delighted whoops and gentle ripples of applause from fans in the audience.

Jackson kicks off the second film with another stirring flashback, as Frodo dreams about the fate of the unfortunate Gandalf at the hands of the Balrog - keeping this in mind for later when the wizard will make an unexpected return as "Gandalf the White". Ian McKellen is well into his stride in the role by now, and in general The Two Towers allows for a deeper study of the characters, and contains for me the best performances in the trilogy, particularly by McKellen and also Bernard Hill, as the despairing King Theoden, who eventually rises out of the spell cast upon him (by Saruman), and defends Helm's Deep from literally thousands upon thousands of Orc soldiers.

The most celebrated aspect of The Two Towers however, much more so than the Battle of Helm's Deep, was the creation of the character of Gollum, that could only be created effectively (as Tolkien described him) using CGI. For this, they also hired the services of a relatively unknown but brilliantly energetic British character actor, Andy Serkis.

Gollum, for me, is an irritation - the same as, in their way, the Ewoks, Yoda and even C-3PO & R2-D2 were in the original Star Wars trilogy - but this I suppose was Tolkien's (and Peter Jackson's) intention. On nearly every occasion when the story looks to be moving along nicely, in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, he pops up annoyingly, but thanks to Serkis's brilliant interpretation, you also see the character's schizophrenic torment with his alter ego Smeagol. I watched some behind-the-scenes footage recently with Andy Serkis filmed in a leotard, with visual reference points for the CGI animators to work on, and found his performance to be touching, real, and to be honest, much more believable than the emaciated character created - brilliantly - on computer.

For the second time in the saga, I made a customary visit to the toilet when the natural intermission point came, and caught up with what I missed when I saw The Two Towers again a few weeks later at the new Odeon Colchester. As I was with a friend, the second time round I restrained myself from taking another self-imposed intermission, and sat grimly through the whole 2 hours 59 minutes - at the end of which Saruman is briefly humbled, but the bigger fight is still to come: Ian McKellen's resurrected Gandalf paraphrases Churchill, declaring "The Battle of Rohan is over, the Battle of Mordor is about to begin."

THE RETURN OF THE KING begins in unexpectedly gentle fashion, flashing back to the prologue of the story, and the sight of Smeagol fishing, and played movingly by the real, undigital Andy Serkis, who is quickly corrupted by the Ring's power, and compelled to commit murder for it, a path of darkness that leads him inexorably down the road to becoming the monstrously parasitic Gollum, from which point the story resumes where The Two Towers left off.

Thanks to a churlish local magazine article, a major spoiler in the plot was revealed to me about one of the main characters (having not read the novel at the time), when I admit my enthusiasm for this saga was flagging. But having gone this far, it would have been foolish not to go through with the rest of it and see "the third part" of this one film. I waited until the Easter of 2004 for the inevitable event, once it had come round to the superb Electric Palace in Harwich.

At the end of the third and final 3-hour marathon (which stretched to 4 hours on the Collector's Edition DVD), I was pleased that Jackson had at least faithfully used the last line of the book as the last line of the film, at the end of an epic 4-year journey for both audience and crew -principal filming having taken the better part of a whole year, with constant subsequent revisions of certain scenes. I can remember (if you'll forgive my name-dropping here) talking to Ian McKellen's sister Jean (a doyenne of local amateur theatre in Colchester) about how she and her husband had spent their holidays in New Zealand with Ian during filming.

Sadly Jean died in 2002 before the completion of the trilogy, but Christopher Lee fulfilled his one wish (as he stated when receiving a BAFTA fellowship award) to live long enough to see The Return of the King. Unhappily for him however, his own character Saruman was inexplicably missing from the cinema version of ROTK - and only dedicated fans were able to see his cameo on the Collector's Edition DVD the following year - and so the dark epilogue to the book is lost, where the Hobbits return to the Shire to find it enslaved.

Otherwise what is left in the third and final instalment is more of the same: bigger and, arguably, better than the first two (the Academy Award voters certainly thought so, giving ROTK a staggering 11 Oscars - typical Hollywood sycophancy after the comparative lack of awards for the first two films.)

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As a 3-part whole, The Lord of the Rings is not, for me, a great film. I was initially totally captivated by The Fellowship of the Ring, but felt beaten into submission by the end, through the sheer amount of noise and action to have to put up with in one sitting. In some ways, that first instalment pushed the boat out so far (particularly with Howard Shore's overbearing score), and set the bar so high, that it left the following two episodes with simply too much to follow.

It's certainly a landmark film (how could any trilogy that length not be?), influential enough for Hollywood to have churned out other CGI fantasy "franchises" such as The Narnia Chronicles, His Dark Materials, and the contemporaneous Harry Potter saga. And in fairness, it's a much more interesting and self-sustaining saga than the recent Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Whether or not Peter Jackson will slip into the realms of becoming another George Lucas (ie. a promising director who basically slipped into producing special effects) remains to be seen: his subsequent work has followed in a similar semi-digital vein, with another huge remake of King Kong, and his current plans include producing a remake of The Dam Busters, no less. I sincerely hope that in due course he moves on to more arresting material like Heavenly Creatures, because he is far too prestigious a talent to be left just remaking other people's work.

Technically, The Lord of the Rings is also a remake, but full marks to him for giving fans of the book the adaptation they had been yearning for.

With thanks to Mark Richards for Leicester Square photo.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Magic Box (1951)

William Friese-Greene was a pioneer of the cinema, there's no doubt of that in my view; where exactly he lies in the pantheon of film history is open to question and a certain amount of conjecture, but he was certainly a dedicated and enthusiastic photographer who devoted much of his life to bringing a sense of life to his pictures, by striving to make them move.

Born and raised in Bristol, William Green as he was christened, developed his photographic skills as the apprentice of High Society photographer Maurice Gutenberg (Frederick Valk), and after marrying Helena Friese (played in the film appealingly by Maria Schell), he adopted the soubriquet of Friese-Greene using his wife's maiden name and adding the "e" to his own to give it more status.

Cliff Road in Dovercourt, where Willy and Edith Friese-Greene lived for a time.

At the point which the film begins however, is several years later in 1921, when Friese-Greene meets his ostracised second wife, Edith (Margaret Johnston), in the midst of his ongoing efforts to create colour film (which his son Claude later took up), shortly before his tragic death, when at a meeting of British film exhibitors at The Connaught Rooms in London, he collapsed after making an impassioned speech (in the film) about the state of British Cinema - a message which is still relevant today.

Upon his person at his death were practically his sole possessions of value: a pawn ticket for some cufflinks, a glass prism for refracting light, a can of colour film, and a purse containing one and tenpence - the price of a seat at the pictures.

For whatever reason, the making of this excellent and only moderately romanticised biopic of him, has tended to be rubbished by the media, both today and also in 1951 when it was specially commissioned to be the British film industry's contribution to the Festival of Britain. Perhaps therein lied the innate cynicism that commentators attached to the project. Not unlike a similar Millennium project in 2000, the Festival of Britain was thought in some quarters to be a white elephant, and the Festival Films contribution to it was not actually finished until most of the festival was already over and done with, and not released to the general public until much later. It flopped commercially, but this is not to say it's a bad film, far from it.

At its heart is a moving, quintessential performance by Robert Donat, one of the great forgotten stars of British cinema - mainly due to the fact that asthma cut his career tragically short in the 1950s. His notable triumph in 1939 was to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his shy schoolteacher-cum-headmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips, surpassing the likes of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Praise indeed.

Donat's "Willy" Friese-Greene in The Magic Box is a partial throwback to that fine Mr Chips characterisation, but with a much darker side that covers the anguish of near-success and bankruptcy, instead of the usual tale of rags to riches. This is some ways, is what endears me to this film: it seems all the more real for it.

The other key factor is the plethora of famous British actors (70 or more) who appear in the film - besides Donat - in supporting roles. Being the Festival of Britain, practically anybody who was anybody in British cinema at the time was offered a part, and in honour of the occasion they accepted reduced fees to appear in the film. Using the skill of director John Boulting and a sympathetic script by the great Eric Ambler, all the supporting performances are subtly integrated into the story without ever drawing attention to themselves as "guest star" appearances.

Right at the beginning of the first flashback, there's Richard Attenborough and Glynis Johns introducing Edith to Friese-Greene. Willy's children include Janette Scott and John Howard Davies (then famous for playing Oliver Twist). Stanley Holloway plays a sleazy bailiff, Joyce Grenfell the member of a choir, conducted by the unmistakable Miles Malleson, and William Hartnell and Sid James play army officers when the Friese-Greene boys volunteer for War Service in 1914. The noisy conveners at the Connaught Rooms include Robert Beatty, Michael Denison, Peter Jones, Cecil Parker and Peter Ustinov. The irrepressible Margaret Rutherford has a typical cameo as an eccentric wealthy customer of Gutenberg's. Michael Redgrave walks in with the much prized first movie camera of Friese-Greene's, and the first subject for the camera is his cousin Alfred, played by Bernard Miles.

And then there is no less a name than Laurence Olivier listed in the credits.

Upon watching this film on television the first time with my mother, we played a little game of wondering which character he was going to play or where he was going to pop up in this cornucopia of British talent. Then I vaguely remembered a schools' science programme I had seen a few years before, and a scene where a projectionist was showing a film to a bewildered policeman. Mentioning this to Mum, she promptly deduced "he's not playing the policeman is he!?"

And sure enough, to our surprise and delight, up strolls Sir Laurence himself, carefully disguised as a London bobby with a period moustache, to relieve PC Jack Hulbert on a Holborn street corner late at night, and noticing a single light on in the flat that Friese-Greene has rented to carry out the most important stage of his work.

Legend has it that Friese-Greene was so ecstatic that his experiment had worked, that he raced out of the building in the middle of the night to find the nearest person he could show his work to, who in this case was PC 94. The story is probably apocryphal, but I like to think there was an element of truth to it.

The brief scene that the two actors share together (which is the highlight of the film) illustrates just what a great actor Robert Donat was, if only his career had lasted longer. His sincerity when set against Olivier's straight-laced dignity is a fine if brief teaming of two great stars of that era.


The elation of his new invention is however, short-lived, for insurmountable debts have led Friese-Greene into near poverty, whilst Helena finds herself to be terminally ill. Most other biopics would have sidetracked this pessimistic turn to the plot, but I admire the film makers for including it, with the moral that film-making is a hard road, for which many of the innovators stumble and fall, but the dream remains.

Its earnestness and honesty was perhaps the architect of its own downfall. So many truly romanticised biopics have taken the short cut to success by giving its main character a happy ending and an almost totally incorrect view of the person's life. The Magic Box may dress itself up with elaborate scenes and give its central character more stature that perhaps he really had, but it certainly does not portray him as a flawless character.

The final shot of the film is of Friese-Greene's name etched in stone alongside all the other pioneers of early cinema (Edison, Lumiere, etc). A debatable claim of course, but several monuments sprang up all over Britain in acknowledgement of his achievement, including an especially grand memorial to him laid in Highgate Cemetery (see below).

Like all accomplished or would-be film makers in this country and elsewhere, the triumph of the accomplishment on film almost takes second place to the actual achievement of getting the cameras to roll in the first place. Working in films as I occasionally have done - and having seen a good deal more of other people's films too - I know that one of the hardest things for any film maker to achieve is to get all the people together and get the material on film from which it can then be worked upon in the editing room.

The Magic Box may be a dubious tribute to a failed craftsman, but it's certainly a sincere depiction to one of Britain's first cinematic adventurers who fought the good fight.


Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

On a wet September evening, or thereabouts (research reveals it to have been sometime after the first week in July) in 1980, my father and I - once again - headed out to see the much anticipated sequel to STAR WARS (see May 27th blog) at the Odeon Colchester. It was with a certain amount of excited anticipation, and also slightly idle curiosity - for I already knew most of the plot of this film: "Star Wars 2" as it became known in the media up until the Spring of 1979. Little did I realise at the time that what I was actually seeing was in effect "Star Wars 5", and the central story of a nine film saga.


Making our way with some difficulty through the wet weather, we also passed the ABC in St. John's Street (then still functioning as a cinema) and continued on eventually into Crouch Street to see the film, but had arrived rather later than planned, after the film had already started. This however, was in the dying days of roving performance times, when latecomers could enter the cinema and stay for the next screening. When Dad and I stumbled into the darkened Screen One therefore, it was to the sight of Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and See-Threepio crowded inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, nestled within a cave inside an asteroid which is "not entirely stable!"

In honour of that first occasion therefore, I will tell the story from that point onwards, then regress to the beginning.



Moments after settling down into our seats, we are taken from the mysterious asteroid cave to a semi-submerged X-wing fighter on the swamp planet of Dagobah, where Luke Skywalker emerges to begin his training as a Jedi knight, in the most seemingly unlikely of places, and the most seemingly unlikely of Jedi Masters: the initially comical and eccentric but quickly preachy and philosophical midget Yoda.
The original conception of Yoda (as seen in the original Marvel Comics adaptation), prior to eleventh hour amendment by George Lucas and Stuart Freeborn.


I will come to the defence of Yoda here, against my own later opinion of the character as much as anything. George Lucas was thrown into something of a dilemma during the making of Star Wars with the fate of Luke's previous mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. With the character due to train Luke in the ways of the Force (in the later sequels), Kenobi had barely anything to do after a certain point in the plot, so Lucas took the audacious move of killing the character off (at the hand of Darth Vader), a decision which understandably upset Sir Alec Guinness at the time, but with hindsight it actually helped to make his character all the more memorable.

However, come The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas needed to create a new Jedi Master to teach Luke, and thanks to the combined genius of Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz, the character of Yoda (a genuine original that Lucas has since slightly disparagingly referred to as "just a puppet") was brought to life, and perfectly suited the ethereal nature of both the character and the world of Dagobah itself. In the hands of Buddhist-leaning Irvin Kershner, Dagobah could almost be taken for a state of mind rather than an actual place, such is the mysticism. Subsequent attempts (in the Star Wars prequels) to take Yoda out of his native habitat and to also "quantify" the Force have been, in my view, misguided, when the mysticism should remain intact. The very elusiveness of the Force is one of the secrets of the whole success of the Star Wars saga.

The Jedi training scenes on Yoda may appear sluggish (there were apparently many other scenes which were cut - see right), but they are usefully counterbalanced by the continuing chase of the Millennium Falcon by the Empire, having evaded their clutches by the most sneaky of methods. Just when he thinks he has led them off the trail, Han Solo takes his friends over to the sanctuary of Cloud City on Bespin, where an old friend is in charge. Unbeknownst to them however, a bounty hunter knows some of Solo's tricks, and pursues the Falcon on its journey to Bespin: Boba Fett.


Fett was a character introduced quite early in 1978 to Star Wars fans (first seen in the one-off "Star Wars Holiday Special"), and from initial appearances I perceived him to be one of the good guys. This soon becomes patently not the case, but for whatever reason, he has become quite a cult figure among fans, more so in some ways than Darth Vader.

The old friend of Solo's meanwhile, is the Cloud City administrator, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), more in truth a gambler and smuggler - and a bit of a charmer with the ladies - than a "responsible leader", and intended by George Lucas as an "earlier" version of Han. Indeed, Billy Dee Williams was one of those who originally tested for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.

One element that Calrissian is also not beyond is deception, and before our heroes know it, C-3PO is dismantled into several pieces by stormtroopers, and our heroes are finally caught by Darth Vader, who has been led on to the trail by...Boba Fett.


Lando's reasons meanwhile for "betraying" Solo have been purely mercenary, of course, but it's a deal which he soon begins to regret, and not just because of the involvement of Boba Fett, or the added betrayal of some boy named Skywalker. The two disparate elements in the story therefore suddenly come together in exciting fashion, and despite the dissuasion of both Yoda and the "ghost" of Ben Kenobi (a fleetingly seen but always memorable Alec Guinness), Luke deserts his Jedi training on Dagobah to rescue his friends, whom he perceives to be in danger. But - ahah - this is all Vader's trick, to lure Luke towards him.

And we realise by the end of the film just why Vader is so interested in young Skywalker, in a plot twist that few if anyone could have guessed.

How I first learned of the surprising twist in the tale.


Before that however, Han Solo is "tested" for carbon freezing so that "the Emperor's prize" can also go through a similar fate. The scene in the carbon freezing chamber I find rather sluggish and melodramatic, but it brings out the best in Harrison Ford. Famous for being allowed to improvise much of his dialogue in the Star Wars (and subsequent) films, he is at his most inventive in The Empire Strikes Back, with he and director Kershner changing the emphasis from Leia being emotionally stronger than Solo, to the other way round. There were those - Lucas in particular - who were nervous about the use of Ford's "I know" ad lib, as it was perceived to be unintentionally comical, but on previews of the film the only laugh it received was a laugh of recognition. It is for me, one of Harrison Ford's best and most underrated performances - up there on a par with Mosquito Coast and his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness - where he makes the character of Han Solo his own - and receives a semi-martyr's death for good measure, before the film's main climax.


If Ford takes most of the acting honours - closely followed by the always excellent Mark Hamill and Frank Oz - then in terms of characters the film belongs to Darth Vader, turning a character from what in the first film was something of a hatchet man for both the Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin, into a black avenging angel of doom - and much more than that, we later realise.



The scene where he chops Luke's hand off (quite carefully edited for a "U" certificate film) and then tries - and fails - to turn Luke to the dark side, watching his own son fall down a massive chasm on Cloud City, has some of the poignancy for me of the end scene of King Kong, where you felt sorry for the monster in spite of everything.

We are nonetheless still on Luke's side as he tumbles down to the bottom of Cloud City and hangs - on one hand - to a slender weather vane, and appeals to Ben Kenobi for help. But Ben "cannot interfere", especially where family matters are concerned, so Luke uses the Force to turn to someone closer to home - hinting at a plot twist later to be revealed in Return of the Jedi.

Thus a curious love triangle reaches its closure, as Luke, in love with Leia from the beginning, is rescued by her - reversing the pattern set in Star Wars - but her heart now belongs to Han Solo, whom they both resolve to rescue, as too does Lando Calrissian and, of course, Chewbacca. The film ends therefore, beautifully poised with our surviving heroes severely humbled but having reached the sanctuary of the Rebel fleet, and looking out from the edge of the galaxy, to an uncertain but hopeful future.


Roll credits. End of film.

We sit sheepishly in Screen One, hoping that the Odeon staff will let us stay in the cinema for the next screening that evening, and after one audience has rolled out and another rolled in, we sit through the familiar "Rank Screen Advertising", and the trailers for some other fantasy films (none which I remember now), before in due course, the second screening is under way.

And so it begins.

Opening in a very similar fashion to Star Wars, a single Imperial destroyer comes into view, but this time with several Imperial pods flying out of the cruiser like angry wasps, to the various planets littered all over the galaxy, in search of the elusive new rebel base. One such vessel flies fortuitously onto the sixth planet of the Hoth system, out of which pops a sinister looking probe droid which floats across the snow like a fly, in a skillful visual effect created by the newly named Industrial Light and Magic.

Before Luke Skywalker - the boy himself - can check the status of the "meteorite", an angry snow creature assaults both him and the "Tauntaun" he is riding. This scene was apparently filmed as a means to explain the reason for Luke's badly scarred face - as Mark Hamill himself suffered facial injuries in a car crash in 1978, after the making of Star Wars.

Han Solo meanwhile, unlike Luke, has successfully returned from snow patrol duty, and emerges through the main rebel hangar (filmed on the then huge new "Star Wars Stage" at Elstree) past his wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca who is trying to fix a flagging Millennium Falcon, to tell the base commander, General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) that he has to leave to pay off an old debt to Jabba the Hutt - still unpaid since the first film. Listening in on this conversation, none too pleased at Solo's decision, is Princess Leia Organa, for whom clearly something has sparked between her and Solo in the intervening time, no matter how prickly.

Who will she choose? Luke - in a forbidden (by George Lucas) romantic scene...










...or Han?












Before the romantic complications can be sorted out however, Luke is rescued out of the snow by Han, and once these slightly sluggish opening scenes on Hoth are done with, we get to the nitty-gritty of the story of the story, when the aforementioned probe droid is disintegrated (by self-destruction) to just a fragment, and the alerting signal to the Imperial fleet is all the proof that Darth Vader needs that the Rebel Alliance, and Luke Skywalker, is there.

So the resulting impressive battle in the snow with giant evil Trojan Horse-style Imperial Walkers, was actually at the end for me, rather than the beginning - which probably helped - followed soon afterwards by a thrilling asteroid field chase, after the crew of the Millennium Falcon discover to their shock that the ship's trademark lightspeed is faulty! Using his wits and his cunning, Han Solo navigates the Falcon through a Grand Canyon-like gorge to evade the dogged Imperial TIE fighters, and finds temporary refuge in a mysterious "cave"...

... which as they say, is where we came in.


Mischievously, I watched a few minutes extra, and really wanted to see the rest of the film over again, but Dad eventually persuaded me out of the cinema.


On the way back home (by which time the rain had eased off) that night, I told my father of the various imaginative ideas I'd had for sequels ever since Star Wars first set me buzzing in 1978 - including one where I imagined a 9-year old (modelled on myself of course) befriending Princess Leia and helping the heroes to defeat Darth Vader. In later years I thought this to be just childish whimsy - or was it? Little did I expect that 27 years later, another Star Wars film would indeed feature a 9-year old as its pivotal hero.

So after all the anticipation, and indeed all the euphoria after the first film, the new follow-up in the "continuing" saga was enthralling, quite dark, and with some unexpected plot developments. But is also, on reflection, a very sluggish film, deliberately so at times, trying to focus on characters and philosophy rather than plot, and characters bicker with each other - C-3PO is reduced to a figure of ridicule, and Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is still spiky and feisty but also petulant, rarely feminine or princess-like, and even reduced on a couple of occasions to a screaming heroine. Above all, the Empire strikes back indeed, with a vengeance, but it is not as much FUN as Star Wars.

So at the time for me, the excitement of the Star Wars whirlwind had blown its full course. Perhaps on reflection I wasn't entirely happy with the way things were mapping out for the characters; I certainly had always envisaged Luke Skywalker as Princess Leia's true love rather than Han Solo, and to see the way things were going was secretly disappointing - although that particular romantic triangle was later resolved in rather ingenious fashion.

Come 1980 however, my childhood days in Aylesbury were over, and rehabilitated in Essex, there came a new distraction just round the corner: football. Colchester United and in particular, Ipswich Town's successful UEFA Cup winning season in 1980/81, gave me another popular culture hook to latch on to, away from the cinema, and galaxies, far, far away.

It was a fashion which, by and large, did not swing back the other way until seven years later, when I got round to seeing Return of the Jedi.

With the director of the excellent first Star Wars sequel, the venerable Irvin Kershner.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Way Out West (1937)

A word is overdue now for my favourite comedy double act. There are so many of Laurel & Hardy's films that I love to watch: this one just happens to be the film that I enjoy the most consistently.


Apart from anything else, this is a darn good comedy Western, one of the best of its kind, that utilises the appeal of "the boys" to maximum effect. Their comedy routines honed to perfection, combined with an above average plot, make for magic entertainment. In the corrupt town (is there any other kind in the Wild West?) of Brushwood Gulch, hard-working Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) slaves away Cinderella-like at the saloon of her irascible landlord and legal guardian Mickey Finn, and his wife and star attraction Lola Marcel, played with villainous relish by James Finlayson and Sharon Lynne. But unbeknownst to Mary, her gold prospecting father has recently died, and two unlikely knights on white chargers (or more accurately, a single mule) are riding into town to present her with the valuable inheritance of her late father's goldmine.

The villains alas, get word of the loot first, thanks to the incompetent innocence of Stan:

"Yeah, you see it's private. Her father died and left her a goldmine, and we're not supposed to tell anybody but her..."

.. and some skillful acting on the part of Lola as "Mary":

LOLA ("sobbing"): "Tell me. Tell me about my dear, dear Daddy. Is it true that he's dead?

STAN: Well we hope he is, they buried him!

LOLA: Oh, it can't be! What did he die of?

STAN: I think he died of a Tuesday, or was it a Wednesday...?"

The deception complete - in spite of Stan's unwitting resistance - the boys are packed off having delivered the deed, until they meet up with the real Mary. Ollie, ever the chivalrous one, marches up to the villains' lair and demands the deed back, or Stan "will eat his hat." So in they march, knocking on the door, and then when the door opens, he knocks accidentally on Finn's head:


OLLIE: (to Finn) "Out of my way, you snake in the grass!

STAN: You Toad in the Hole!"


The resulting chase round the saloon culminates in a hilarious scene in which Lola traps Stan in her boudoir (lucky chap) and burrows into his clothes to grab the deed back, and the ticklish Stan is paralysed with laughter. Even Sharon Lynne can't conceal the grin from her face, as you'll notice if you watch the scene.

"Just in the nick of time" comes the Sheriff, whom unfortunately the boys have already had a run-in with over sharing a stagecoach with the Sheriff's wife (Vivien Oakland) - and quick as you know, the boys are racing out of town - "you can't see them for dust!"

But fear ye not, the boys are back - after Ollie has first of all insisted than Stan carry out his pledge to eat his hat - with salt added for flavouring! Returning late that night to Brushwood Gulch, they sneak in to rescue the deed - and Mary - even in spite of being trapped in a piano (that Finlayson plays!), and Ollie having his neck twisted around 360 degrees (oddly pre-dating a similar scene in The Exorcist.)

Riding out of town to pastures new, the three triumphantly make their way home to the town where Mary was born, "way down South." Ollie declares that he is from the South too, as does Stan - "the South of London...and some good old fish 'n'chips!" The film ends with a running gag, as they march singing merrily across the river, until Ollie once again finds the deep end and takes a plunge!

And in the midst of this joyous and all too short 66 minutes, come two famous song & dance numbers, The Shoe Shuffle, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine - a song which was popular enough to become a top ten single in its own right. The voices that Stan adopts when he switches from heavy bass to soprano, were actually the voices of co-stars Chill Wills, and Rosina Lawrence.

The Shorts

I realise that I've unfairly restricted this blogpage largely to "feature" films, so this is an ideal opportunity to also mention some of the classic Laurel & Hardy short films that they made in the 1920s and 30s, and were in many ways, their metier.

I can remember laughing uncontrollably when I saw Beau Chumps (the British title for Beau Hunks) on TV when I was younger, a spoof of Foreign Legion films - as much as Way Out West was a spoof of westerns - where the boys foil a raid by the Arab armies by throwing drawing pins on the ground under their bare feet! Another amusing running gag was how everyone in the legion - including Ollie, and even the commander of the outpost (Charles Middleton - best known as "Ming the Merciless") has ended up there because of their one-time sweetheart, "Jeanie Weenie" - a pre-megastardom Jean Harlow, no less.

The most famous of their comedy shorts is probably The Music Box, an Oscar winner (the very first in that category) with the boys hauling a musical piano up a large flight of steps (that still stand today in suburban Los Angeles), and brilliantly finding ways to climb up the hill and then come tumbling straight back down again! As in Way Out West, there is also a pleasant little song and dance number, to the tune of the musical piano, naturally.

One of the best examples of their endearing antipathy with James Finlayson, is Big Business (perhaps the best of their silent films), where the boys are Christmas tree sellers - in June - and Finn is naturally an unwilling customer. The boys will not take no for an answer however, and Finn - unfortunately for him - does not know how to reject them politely. The disagreement escalates into a slapstick war which half demolishes both the boys' car and Finn's house, and in due course embroils the local policeman (Tiny Sandford), and ends with the four of them in a fit of mutual weeping - while the audience is weeping with laughter.

Stan & Ollie are in dungarees again in Dirty Work - a title with a double meaning, as the boys are chimney sweeps at the house of a mad scientist, who has discovered the formula for rejuvenation. At the end Ollie overdoses on the formula and turns into a chimpanzee - complete with bowler hat! (Was this where they got the idea for the PG Tips ads I wonder?) Their interaction in this short is particularly engaging. "I have nothing to say!" is Ollie's frequent response to the various indignities heaped upon him by Stan - not quite as distinctive as "Here's another fine mess..." perhaps, but just as funny.

Helpmates is a brilliantly funny black comedy, as Ollie tries to clean up after a wild party, before his dragon of a wife comes home. In one tour de force sequence, he slips on a carpet sweeper and crashes into the dishes that Stan has just cleaned, then accidentally catches his arm on a string which unleashes the soot from the stove and covers him! He then accidentally washes his hands with butter instead of soap, and to top it all, Stan gets a towel from the cupboard, but out falls a tin of flour onto Ollie's head, transforming him from a Minstrel into a ghost!

By the end of the film, Ollie has returned - alone - with a black eye, and Stan has rendered the house to ashes - "I guess there's nothing else I can do.", he says!

Legacy

I believe the secret of their appeal was very much how they seemed to be on the same level as their audience. They never spoke down to them. Chaplin had a brilliant common touch with his Tramp characterisation, but had a tendency to preach with his comedy, once his power and his success increased. Buster Keaton was technically brilliant, but didn't quite have that magic of engaging his character with the audience, the way that especially Oliver Hardy did with his frequent despairing looks to camera. Laurel & Hardy had just the perfect mix, and like so many successful double acts, it was one of those happy coincidences that just happened to come together and create a unique style, that has never really been surpassed.

Stan Laurel was of course, the prime mover in many of these classic comedies. He was actually already semi-retired as a comedy actor, and working largely behind the camera at the Hal Roach Studio before his official teaming with "Babe" Hardy. Many of their short films in fact, are not film scripts as such, but simple synopses around which they planned their own comedy routines, and then performed them in front of camera. Peter Cushing remembers a time when, during the making of A Chump at Oxford (below), the boys have a scene where they are tricked into walking through a maze, and naturally get lost. The scene was originally shot with doubles in long shot, but both Stan and Babe felt it needed themselves to do the scene, adapting it to their own unique style, an example of their model professionalism which they maintained throughout their 40-year careers.

A Chump at Oxford (1940). Standing in the middle with fake moustache: a young Peter Cushing.

It's sad to reflect that the time of Way Out West was actually at the end of a renaissance of fine comedy for Laurel & Hardy. This was the second and last of two official "Stan Laurel Productions" which were markedly slicker and more professionally made than many of their other films, and refuted the notion that L&H were only good in short films. But the golden run was brief.

For whatever reason - though their popularity remained - the feature films which they had successfully (and gradually) adjusted to from shorts, were to go by the wayside quite quickly, and contracts were negotiated for them away from Hal Roach, to other studios such as Twentieth Century Fox, who just did not understand the way Laurel & Hardy ticked.

But when watching Way Out West, time and time again, I defy anyone not to be engaged and feeling better after the experience. This, as I say, was their appeal. Other comedians made you laugh: these two made you laugh, and also made you feel like you really knew them at the same time.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A fitting tribute to the late Ingmar Bergman, whose death was much reported in the media recently, and for whom mortality was his favourite subject. This film of course - probably his most famous - deals with it in spades, but it's also about the virtue and strength of life - in all its quirky and various forms.

It's also about the uncertainties of faith, the keynote being whether or not redemption will be found in the afterlife, if it exists at all. A servant (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who potters around in the film like a wiser version of Baldrick, often represents this more cynical yet amusingly caustic side.

The period of the story is not specifically referred to, but can roughly be assumed to be the 14th century, the time of the Black Death. The characters have a splendidly allegorical feel to them which is never overplayed, making them much more real and believable as a result. Read into them what you will: the main character is Antonius Bloch, played by Max Von Sydow, a knight returning from the Crusades, and on something of an idealogical mission, both before and after his adventures; in some ways this predates Von Sydow's casting as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, and his later very successful role as The Exorcist.


Bloch also has a certain amount of Hamlet-like stature and gallant uncertainty about him - one of several Shakespeare influences in Bergman's tale. There is also a travelling theatrical troupe heading towards Elsinore (but warned off from going there!), headed mostly by a young couple named "Mia" (Bergman regular Bibi Andersson) and "Jof" (Nils Poppe) - and of course, they have a newly born child (by immaculate conception?) whom they steer through the wilderness whilst others are dying all around - for good measure, Jof also sees a vision of the Virgin Mary helping baby Jesus (we assume) to take his first steps. Other characters are victims of the time; suspected witches, blamed for the spreading of the plague, or temptresses, led by - or indeed leading - equally frustrated men astray.

And then there is Death of course, played memorably by Bengt Ekerot, and his game of chess with Antonius Bloch: a scene much imitated since - directly sent up in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, and even popping up in Last Action Hero - but the character, for all its over-familiarity nowadays, is still a very scary and effective image, resonant in so many artistic forms over the centuries, from Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, to the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. In most of these cases, Death is an omnipresent, sinister, yet oddly blank figure, and portrayed here with a brilliantly simple but effective chalk-white face covered with a sinister black cloak. Much of Bergman's film is photographed in this haunting black-or-white style - if ever a film was suited to monochrome, it is The Seventh Seal.


Other quirky scenes seem to belie the notion that Bergman is a "Heavy" director. The subject is certainly a dark one, but that does not mean that his films are without amusing moments. There is one blackly comic moment where a travelling actor, discovered in an affair with a blacksmith's wife, decides to "act" his own death in order to fool the blacksmith, and then hides up in a tree, only to find Death walking right behind him with a saw, in order to chop the tree down!

I first saw the film in its entirety on video in the autumn of 1999, a suitably appropriate time, with lots of foreboding about apocalyptic "Millennium Bug" threats leading up to 2000. Seeing it again just recently at the Norwich Playhouse (the temporary stand-in venue for Cinema City during redevelopment), the film seems just as relevant today, and has lost none of its potency 50 years after it was made.

One of the most famous moments from the film is at the end, when "the seventh seal" (referred to in the Book of Revelation) is opened, and Heaven was silent "for half an hour" - or in this case, the six figures who face Death, as he leads them up the hill (improvised by Bergman with seven volunteers in the distance instead of the original actors) to the dance of death: the knight, his wife, his servant, the blacksmith and his wife, and a strangely mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) who has just one line in the entire film, but quite a telling one.

Jof sees this vision of the seven of them in the distance, but his wife Mia gently dismisses it as another one of his "visions" (he has also "seen" the game of chess itself) as they walk off into the pleasant morning sunshine, seemingly the only people (together with the baby) who have survived the cataclysm overnight, and reaffirming hope for the human race.

Bergman leaves the audience to make up their own minds about its Christian symbolism. The only certainty in the story - and in life - is death. So beyond that, is there, as Bloch wonders, true salvation in life after death? Or is it all just illusion and fakery?

If the life thereafter and dreams of Heaven and Hell are just illusions of whimsical fantasy, and not scientific reality, then as Orson Welles once said (in the last film he directed F for Fake): "go on singing."

When Ingmar Bergman passed away on July 30th this year, I hope there were angels singing for him up in Heaven, and even if there weren't, there were still plenty down here on Earth to sing for him anyway.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Henry V (1944)

"Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!" Never was the cry more fittingly made in 1944, when Britain and her allies were preparing to open up the long awaited second front against the Germans in World War II. As part of this feverish period of anticipation prior to D-Day, someone in Government circles proposed the idea to Laurence Olivier that he should make a film of Shakespeare's Henry V, in order to promote the cause of the crusading British and Americans into Europe (as well as a tribute to "the few" who fought the Battle of Britain), and also provide some excellent propaganda to bite back at the Germans, who had been making their own escapist adventures with a political message during this time.

Olivier's opportunity was a golden one, and he took it with both hands, and although his resources were often enforcibly restricted because of the war situation, he was able not only to make a richly satisfying colourful adventure, but also one of the most definitive adaptations of Shakespeare on screen.

The opening is beautifully evocative, and owes a minor debt of inspiration to the films of Powell and Pressburger, as a single billing sheet flutters in the blue sky before splashing broadly across the screen to display the title not of the film - in the conventional sense - but of the production as presented in the Globe Theatre in 1600.

There then follows what by today's standards is a horribly obvious model shot, of London in Shakespeare's time - a far cry from what it was to cinemagoing audiences of 1944. Perhaps this was Olivier's point, to present a "staged" version of a London long since gone but much cherished, and a glimpse into the wider world of what we were fighting for once peace finally came. The idea of restoring the Globe Theatre (as dreamed up by Sam Wanamaker in the 1980s) was a very distant thought back in those days, so to actually stage a presentation of the play in its original environment was entertaining and insightful; entertaining in the sense that it allowed for some quite funny Brechtian moments where the actor playing the Bishop of Ely (Robert Helpmann) mixes up the papers with the correct lines for the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) to read from, and various other moments, such as the rain falling down on the audience standing in the middle of the "wooden O".

Olivier's own entrance onto the stage as King Henry is prefaced by a nervous little cough he gives backstage before entering, another delightfully simple but innovative touch. As the camera eventually pans away from the stagy appearance of the Globe Theatre, Leslie Banks's Chorus takes us into the more "realistic" realms of the outdoors, where the fleet assembles for the invasion, then onto France itself, and the Battle of Agincourt.

As is fairly well known, Olivier did not have the safe resources to film the stirring battle scenes in Britain, so the production switched to Ireland. Here, with the use of only a hundred or so extras on horseback made to look like thousands (an ironic contrast to Richard III which managed to make a thousand extras look like a few hundred!), together with some fine camera tracking work by Robert Krasker and a stirring score by William Walton, he was able to create one of the great battle charges in world cinema, with an especially evocative visual effect of hundreds of English arrows streaming into the air to fall down upon the marauding French forces.

The acting (from quite an impressive cast) is, I have to say, a little "Shakespearean" and grand, as though most of the actors are treating it like theatre instead of a film set. The novice movie director Olivier clearly felt this was more in keeping with the style of the film he wanted to make. His own speeches as the King are suitably "big", with the occasional softer inflection (that he'd learned from William Wyler when playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights) in some of the character's soliloquies, as well as in his closing scene with Princess Katherine, played by a young Renee Asherson, who gives one of the film's more subtle and refreshing performances. The other performance of note in the film is that of the great Robert Newton (as Pistol), over the top as usual, but his style of ham acting was often the exception to the rule that transcended both cinema and theatre. I remember particularly him as a terrifying Bill Sykes in David Lean's version of Oliver Twist. Alcoholism cut his career short in 1956, when he should be better remembered than he is.

The rest of the cast is impressive indeed, for its time (those who were available and not on active service): Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams, Niall MacGinnis, Felix Aylmer, a very young George Cole, and special mention I give for John Laurie, always convincing in whatever role he plays, whether in Shakespeare or Dad's Army.

The film has recently been restored in a gleamingly colourful new print, and is well worth catching both for its visual and musical impact - Olivier rightly gives William Walton major credit at the end. This was also the first in a triumphant series of Shakespeare films that Olivier was to go on and make, of which Hamlet (1948) won an Oscar, with another excellent cast and a fine William Walton score, and then Richard III (1955), which not only allowed Olivier to put one of his greatest characterisations onto film, but also paired him with his two great fellow acting knights, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

The Remake

In 1989 Kenneth Branagh had the audacity to make his own adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, and it's worth noting here for some of the similarities as well as the differences to the 1944 original, to demonstrate what Olivier left out.

This version also had a stirring score (by Patrick Doyle) and an all-star cast, with Branagh himself directing and taking the lead role, as Olivier had. But this was a much grittier, more "realistic" film, pointing up the anti-war elements over 40 years after the end of World War II, that suited modern audience tastes better. Certain scenes such as the treachery of three knights, and the execution of Bardolph (Richard Briers), not featured in the original, were included in Branagh's film, demonstrating that Shakespeare can be adapted in all sorts of ways, suiting the differing moods of whatever time the play happens to be performed, be it today in war-torn Iraq, or back in war-torn Europe in 1944.

But Laurence Olivier's version still has that marvellous score, a wonderfully colourful look, and that opening and closing model shot of Old London, as well as all the terrific action.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The Mission (1986)

Here is a film that comes under that rare category, the school visit to the cinema.

I say rare because nowadays in the era of DVD it is so much easier to see the latest film within just a matter of months of its release. Even then, back in 1987, such a thing was not uncommon: I can remember seeing Roland Joffe's previous film The Killing Fields on video in a classroom with the rest of the 4th Year in R.E. class. Then on wetter days, when most of the school were confined to the main hall instead of the playground at lunchtime, we would watch on video such (very) variable entertainment as Ghostbusters, Tron, The Toy, or The Goonies.

But to see The Mission at the Odeon Colchester was, as I say, something of a novelty. Significantly for me, it was also my first visit to the cinema to see any kind of film in 6 years or more.

Cinema in those days for me was very much on the back burner. Before The Mission, the only kind of films I had ever seen or taken an interest in were largely "fantasy" oriented: Star Wars, Disney, etc. At home I remember my family also liked to keep up a healthy collection of war films recorded off the telly, using the relatively new medium of video.

At first, when I was told we were going to see "The Mission", I thought I would have to suffer listening to a pop group of some kind, which I had heard fellow pupils (to call them "friends" would be a misnomer) talking about, chiding each other about their favourite pop groups as if they were football teams competing against one another. Adolescent years at school were, as they are for most of us, slightly confusing, painful and revealing years in which one's sense of identity is eventually forged, and shyness got the better of me at St. Benedict's.

To see a "serious" film therefore, set on our own planet in a non-fantasy and largely mature fashion, was something of a breakthrough, as well as a welcome escape from the everyday stresses of school life. Before the film began we trotted our way in, some of the kids threw sweets at the screen before the start of the show, and we sat down to watch some of the trailers and ads - which I remember included one for a Harrison Ford film, The Mosquito Coast. I found a seat out of the way of most other people to the side - a trend I have tended to lean towards ever since.

The main feature film which duly followed that afternoon wasn't perhaps the greatest film to bowl me over, but there were nonetheless certain indelible impressions that stayed with me.


The strongest one I suppose, is the image of those waterfalls, which dominate the screen in the opening titles. Indeed, the sight of a martyred missionary priest being tied to a crucifix and sent over the edge to his death had a powerful enough resonance for it to adorn the film's poster (see above). The first, exquisitely beautiful sight of these waterfalls was like being transported to another world, VERY far removed from the Odeon Screen 3.

The locations were in deepest South America, still under threat from outside forces even at the time of filming, where Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) atones for the death of one of his Jesuit colleagues by climbing up the rockface of the falls himself to spread the message of Christianity. He wins the natives over by playing his oboe in the middle of the jungle, in a scene which is a gift for composer Ennio Morricone, who duly obliges with a beautifully lyrical theme combined with harpsichord and orchestra. Indeed, his whole score is a marvellous mixture of all his musical influences, from his own Catholicism to the heart-pounding tension of the Spaghetti Westerns that made him famous. Shamefully, he has never won an Oscar for his music in all his 40 years of composing.

The story perhaps took second place to the visual impact of the film, but that is not to say the plot is uninteresting: being in a Catholic school, the subject - of Jesuit priests struggling against slave traders to bring the beauty of Christianity to the South American jungle - was of course a very relevant one. Added to that was of course a strong environmental message which still applies today, of the rainforests being continually plundered by modern technology and economics.

The main actors in the film I had no real knowledge of, save for a vague awareness that Jeremy Irons was in Brideshead Revisited on ITV. Robert De Niro was, I later discovered, something of a big name in the film world, and therefore took top billing in the film as Rodrigo Mendoza, the slave trader who turns to the cloth as a mark of penance after murdering his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a fit of jealousy over the woman they both love (Cherie Lunghi).

Also in this distinguished international cast was a young up-and-coming Irish actor, Liam Neeson - yet to make a breakthrough in films such as Schindler's List, but full of energy, enthusiasm and commitment to his craft - and fellow Irishman Ray McAnally, whose face is the first we see on the screen as narrator and also presiding judge over the ultimate fate of the Jesuit mission.

That fate, is a tragic, cynical, desperately sad but also extremely powerful finale in which the Guarani jungle territory is given over to the Portuguese and Spanish soldiers to ransack and destroy. But the Jesuit priests, who have built the community and grown to love it and its people, do not want to see it die, and remain to face up to - and in some cases engage in - the fighting to the bitter end, sacrificing their lives. Morricone underscores this gut-wrenching finale with a powerful ending on one single drumbeat as the flames engulf the huts and the church and the floating wreckage on the river.

It is an impressive film indeed, that can silence an audience of noisy 15 year olds on a school trip, and I can remember most of us being completely spellbound by the experience.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films