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.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films