Saturday, 12 July 2008

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Secretly, this is my favourite of the original trilogy. Though Star Wars(qv) stands up in a class of its own, and The Empire Strikes Back(qv) is considered to be the best entry of the entire saga, for me, Return of the Jedi has that little bit extra ahead of both, because I happened to return - literally - to the saga because of it, after a few years away from such childish whimsy. I wasn't 7 any more but 17, and was able to appreciate it that little bit more from a maturer perspective.

And maturity is what Return of the Jedi certainly has, for me, more than any other entry in the saga.

Back in the 1980s, school came and eventually went. I'd seen The Empire Strikes Back, but had stopped collecting the Marvel Comics, and the toys (which were getting more expensive), etc, etc. Ipswich Town had won the UEFA Cup (and nearly two more trophies in perhaps their greatest season ever), and I'd starting going with my Dad to see matches (both home and away) regularly.

The year was 1982, the summer of the World Cup in Spain. Around about this time mutterings were made about the next Star Wars film. The title of the next episode, according to publicists,would be The Revenge of the Jedi - which gave a pretty fair indication of what to expect. So - the Empire had struck back in the last film, but the Jedi were clearly going to get their revenge.

Enough said?

Ah well, big deal, no real need for me to go and see it then, so I thought. And maybe the saga was just taking itself a little too seriously. Somehow in my heart of hearts I knew it couldn't be as good as the first two - or certainly the first one. Besides, it was all kids' stuff that I'd grown out of.

A year later in 1983, England were playing Scotland in a Home International at Wembley Stadium. Among the advertising boards around the pitch that evening were one or two for "RETURN of the Jedi", which I noted with curiosity. I managed to get hold of a copy of the programme for that match, and saw the poster for the new film, a simple, cool but effective blue on black piece of artwork with just a single pair of hands holding a lightsabre vertically - to this day, I think it's the best and most simply effective of all the Star Wars posters.

My curiosity however, was still not sufficiently aroused to want to go to the pictures, that hot summer (cinema was also something I'd turned a blind eye to.) The Star Wars saga was for me, something pretty much on the back burner....

...BUT, little by little over the succeeding years, I had noticed minor little nuggets of information about ROTJ, mostly out of casual interest: sticker album packs, Return of the Jedi Weekly comics, little TV slots on BBC's Breakfast Time about the chart-topping video release in the summer of 1984.

And then I delved further; I forget from where exactly, but I overheard the whisper that Luke and Leia were actually brother and sister. Mentally speaking I sat up eagerly at this news, as I had always felt the consummation of their relationship was naturally the way the saga should develop, and was disappointed when Leia fell for Han Solo.

This was around about 1987, when my horizons suddenly broadened (as they do for so many teenagers) when going to college, and starting to see the world from a different perspective. After three difficult years at Wilson Marriage, and a further three even more suffocating years at St. Benedict's in Colchester, I escaped from some of the adolescent teasing and drudgery that was secondary education, and then suddenly started to remember about things that I missed when I was younger.

And one of those things of course, was Star Wars.

Interested enough now to want to know more about the plot of ROTJ, I delved further. I went to a second hand bookshop and bought a copy of the illustrated Marvel Comics adaptation of the film, a beautifully woven piece of art, if taking images directly from publicity stills for the most part, as well as dwelling upon the film's sense of melancholy.

Having left school, finally, feeling that I was, at least in theory "my own man" and not a child anymore, and wandering casually around Colchester during the holidays (between school and Sixth Form College), I happened to pass the "Video International" rental store in Magdalen Street, and peered through the window to see a video cover for ROTJ on the shelves. Once again, all the main characters (Luke, Han, Leia) were ever present, and my curiosity was once again aroused, to the point of eagerness.

And then late that summer, after watching a slightly disappointing cricket match between Essex and Surrey at Castle Park (because Essex lost), I took the plunge and asked my father to go to Video International (of which I knew he was a member), and rent out for me Return of the Jedi on video as a consolation for the cricket.

Wow! A chance to see the film 4 years after its first release! You have to remember that video rental was still a novelty: in those days films disappeared after the end of their cinema run - DVDs had not been invented - and the time when ROTJ would be shown on television was far, far away. So to get the chance to see it on video rental that evening was quite a thrill.

A few hours later, waiting for the house to be quiet enough for me to enjoy it properly, I put the tape into the machine. Watching the film in standard "pan and scan" square TV format may lose some of the widescreen spectacle (the opening shot of an Imperial cruiser and a half-built Death Star over Endor is the only moment I was sorry I missed in the cinema), but the setting still looks as captivating as always, and of course the characters were all very familiar - even Jabba the Hutt, whom up till then hadn't actually appeared in the saga.

When he does, it's something of a sight to behold. On reflection I'm baffled as to why Han Solo would be so much in dread of a giant slug who could barely move himself around, but at the time I trusted in George Lucas and whatever conception he had for the character, and that it would be great.

And that also applies to those Ewoks. I have often seen and heard them referred to as "cuddly", but I detected no real sense of this when I first saw the film - and indeed, this "cuddliness" was never really pointed up in ROTJ, but in its subsequent spin-offs: the Ewoks cartoon series and two Ewok Adventure films. They were irritating perhaps, just as the Munchkins were in The Wizard of Oz - but whoever complains about that classic film?

But Star Wars however, had become not just a popular film but a phenomenon, for an entire generation. Some fans therefore who had remained loyal from the beginning, went slightly ballistic at the introduction of these little creatures, when they felt they knew George Lucas's saga better even than George Lucas did; he had originally promised a closing battle between the Empire and an army of primitive wookiees, just like Chewbacca. But Chewie had been quite clearly established by now (Lucas explained) as a fairly sophisticated creature, able to liaise directly with Han Solo as a formidable co-pilot and First Mate - hardly the sort of life form to be considered "primitive". Added to that, wookiees proved to be exceedingly strong, so the Empire would probably be very easily overthrown by an army of these mighty beasts - so no suspense, and no surprise either.

Given these circumstances, it was only natural that Lucas should rework his original idea into something different. Crucially, he took the theme of the underdog - the little man - into its most literal form, as he had done already with Jawas in Star Wars, and created what for me were Jawas without their hoods on.

And the Battle of Endor works, there's no question about that. If there are any sentimental asides, they are usually quickly swept away by the excitement of the scenes taking place elsewhere above and on board the (Second) Death Star. Other parts of ROTJ may have dated, but the closing (three) battles are still a tremendously kinetic piece of fluent cinema.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here; before the grand finale of the saga - and finales didn't come grander than this - there had to be the setting up of the story leading to all that. And it began where it had started in the first place, on the desert planet of Tatooine.

Not quite the Tatooine as we saw it in Star Wars - filmed in Tunisia - but in hot, slightly more golden coloured mid-America, in Yuma, Arizona. Here, C-3PO and R2-D2 are seen walking along the sand dunes towards the palace of Jabba the Hutt. The set-up seems the same as the first film, but slightly different. A brief prologue with Darth Vader apart, the bulk of this opening phase of "Star Wars III" follows the same mould of its original by having its first reels consist almost entirely of creatures and robots, and no people.

Where Star Wars however was a few jawas and one or two robots at the beginning, the opening scenes of Jedi by contrast are a veritable phantasmagoria of creatures and monsters, squashing some of the human element to the side (you can see where some of the genesis for the prequels came from.)

But once the heroes do pop up in the film, they are a welcome sight and worth the wait, especially Luke Skywalker, who is given a great entrance - a character whom, you already sense, has to be the son of Darth Vader, because he's started to look like him (how so exactly is not explained.)

Luke however has more than just his Jedi capabilities to have to call upon when he suddenly has to deal with Jabba the Hutt's mighty intergalactic "hitman", the Rancor, in an excitingly mounted and scored sequence that becomes the first major set-piece of the film. A little moment after the Rancor's untimely demise demonstrates the heart and soul poured into this film: the animal's keeper (Paul Brooke) and his friend weep and console each other on the death of their pet, whilst Luke is herded off to face the wrath of Jabba, together with Chewbacca and....Han Solo, now resurrected from his carbon freeze by Princess Leia (in disguise), who also conveniently gets captured by Jabba, and is now the Hutt's personal slave girl. You can't blame him really.

Foolishly, Jabba and his entire entourage decide to execute the heroes at the Sarlacc pit, little realising that one of the guards is also Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in disguise, and that Luke has a few more Jedi tricks up his (or more accurately R2-D2's) sleeve. I loved how Mark Hamill was given the chance to strut his stuff, being the hero in true swashbuckling fashion, and doing what I assumed Jedi knights were supposed to do. Added to that, Han Solo had returned - oh yes, and Leia Organa looked fetching in a metal bikini, which seemed to pleasantly surprise most males, and some females (Carrie Fisher included), but it was no surprise to me - I knew Leia was beautiful since 1978, and didn't need a metal bikini to prove it.

The Tatooine scenes, I confess, slightly bore me nowadays. The story only really warms up when another evil warlord arrives - no, not Darth Vader, but his boss, who is "not as forgiving" as Vader is! That character is the Emperor, formerly known as Senator Palpatine, and played by Ian McDiarmid. "Who's Ian McDiarmid?", most people wondered.

McDiarmid was one of several distinguished British stage actors, not really known outside of that medium (Michael Pennington, Kenneth Colley, Dermot Crowley and Caroline Blakiston were other examples), and did what all good British character actors do: he brought out the character in a splendidly overplayed (but never unsuitably so) performance, full of guttural resonance and Machiavellian teasing. McDiarmid has since become a Lucasfilm favourite, and his acting in the subsequent Star Wars films has stood far above anyone else.

Although much of the credit for Jedi was given to Lucas (who had much more of a "hands on" approach than on The Empire Strikes Back), little credit was given to the film's actual "director for hire", the sadly underrated figure of Richard Marquand. Because so much of the film looks like Star Wars, it was only natural to assume that George Lucas had the major hand in its making, but this I think is only partly true.

A former actor, Marquand came from a background of directing television documentaries and dramas and a couple of minor British feature films - one of which, Eye of the Needle, impressed Lucas. The sheer scale and spectacle of ROTJ however was something he had never dealt with before, but he took the task on with Shakespearean reverence to the material, and to its creator.

He also gladly allowed Lucas to dabble in whatever way he wanted (a similar creative partnership also arose at that time for the film Poltergeist, between Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg.) Lucas concentrated on the action and the overall scheme of galactic history, and Marquand dealt with the characters and the emotions - an ideal blend.

It was Marquand who also insisted that Yoda return to make one final, dignified exit from the saga, having been so strongly established as a character in TESB. Having now created a character who could walk and talk with great wisdom and truth, Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz now had the added challenge of making Yoda look even more frail, and have a convincing death scene to boot - and once again, they came up trumps. Lest we forget, thanks also in no small measure, to the acting skills of Mark Hamill who reacted with suitable pathos.

After Yoda's death (and that was a surprise that the comic book adaptation had not prepared me for), there comes the welcome return, in spectral form once again, of Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi, who has the unenviable task of explaining to Luke the key plot twist in the saga (that contradict Ben's own words spoken in Star Wars) about his father. The audience would only believe it if Guinness/Kenobi himself explained his reasons for "lying" - and it's an explanation which cleverly skirts around the deception, with Guinness giving a world-weary shrug to it all.

But there's more to this dark secret than just Vader however - whom we learn, was also named "Anakin" Skywalker. "The other" that Yoda spoke of in passing (both here and in The Empire Strikes Back), turns out to be Leia - as it always was really, Luke realises, as did I. The fact that she is a blood relative to Luke is of course, contri
ved, but like in the best (and worst) of Dickens and other great writers, it all has a nice sense of coming together and satisfying storytelling.

The scene where Luke tells Leia the truth (which she also "sensed" from the first moment too), is perhaps my favourite of all the scenes in the later SW films. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were given short notice to learn their lines, but deliver them with beautiful aplomb, thanks to Marquand's sympathetic direction, which relies all on atmosphere and emotion and not action. Brief mention is also made in this discourse about Luke & Leia's mother, which set my curiosity bells a-ringing in the years to come.

At this point, the stage is set for the great showdown, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally, between Rebellion & Empire, father & son, and Good & Evil. Vader now returns to see Luke, and both men are much more subdued since their last meeting. They are now two rather similar sides of the same coin. Further nuggets of information about Vader's early days are mentioned - the name Anakin Skywalker is one that "no longer has any meaning" for him, and when Luke tries to entice his father back to the good side - before the inevitable confrontation happens - Vader briefly mutters a little insight: "Obi-Wan once thought as you do."

The tragedy of Vader, as well as the legend, is now brought to the fore. He turns his own son over to the Emperor, as expected, but stands ruefully over a balcony in the Ewok forest, wondering if, as Luke suggests, Anakin is truly dead.

The interweaving space battle with the (multi-alien) Rebel fleet and the dogged Ewok forest battle are splendidly mounted, but the crux of the film now lies in the scenes with Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. The film's editors (which included the soon-to-be divorced Marcia Lucas) ensure that the battle only really swings the good guys' way once Luke makes the decision not to turn to the Dark Side, unequivocally; and this, when he was provoked by Vader into the prospect of Leia turning to the Dark Side instead - a bit of artistic inspiration by Richard Marquand, and leading to a last desperate lightsabre onslaught, superbly scored by the ever-reliable John Williams.

The embittered Emperor however has more than just malevolence up his sleeve, and shows his true colours in response to Luke's defiance. In perhaps the most moving and unexpected of moments in the saga, it is not Luke but his father who finally defeats evil, by turning on the Emperor - his master - in order to save his son's life, at the cost of his own. Skywalker Senior and Junior then console each other for the first time in their lives, and the dying Anakin asks Luke to take the Vader mask off...

Here was another revelation I had not expected. The comic adaptation has Luke averting his gaze in horror and pity as his father dies away, but on screen we see, briefly, the now old man that was/is Anakin Skywalker - and he's played not by David Prowse, or James Earl Jones, but by another distinguished British stage actor, Sebastian Shaw. This was something of a revelation: a father figure who is actually rather humble, and I suppose, quite like Obi-Wan Kenobi in many ways, and was British. It all had a lovely sense of the saga coming home (to Britain that is.) And indeed, it is Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin who stand reunited together as ghosts of the past at the film's closing celebration.

As Luke sees the Three Wise Men watching over the happy scene, his sister Leia comes over to take Luke by the shoulder, and bring him back, as the novelisation puts it, "into the circle of warmth and love."

A fitting end to a great trilogy.

Yet recently, a certain number of inexplicable changes have been made to the original saga, and the one that suffered the most significant alterations was Jedi (mostly in order to keep it in line with the later prequels), which included such additions as a herd of banthas strolling through the desert, to a new "pop music" style number in Jabba's Palace (making it seem oddly dated as an 80's film, when the changes were made in 1997!), and most incomprehensible of all, the changing of Anakin Skywalker from Sebastian Shaw in ghostly form, to the (much) younger Hayden Christensen!

My admiration for the original version is sufficient to make it unbearable (and unnecessary) for me to watch the latest version.

I got round to seeing the original film in its proper setting at the National Film Theatre in London in the autumn of 1988, during a season of Jim Henson- related fantasy films. I took along my little 9-year old sister, who was terrified of the Rancor monster when unleashed from his cage, but by and large she could take the film without having to hide behind the seat too often. It was a rousing experience, especially (once again) that end title music by John Williams

It's my favourite of the saga because on the one hand of course, it's a great wrap-up to the story, and on the other that it has a sense of melancholy and destiny fulfilled. There were not many things in the 1980s that turned out to be "Happy Ever After", but Return of the Jedi was one of them. It was not a celebration of the 80's, but a belated final party for the 70's, the era which Star Wars helped to define.

Having reawakened myself to the wonders of the Star Wars galaxy, my imagination opened up again, beyond college, toward the future, towards even old forgotten dreams of being in the films myself.

The back story revealed in ROTJ had excited me enough to want to know how things were going to turn out, when - and if - they were going to make any more Star Wars films.

In the early 1990s, I decided to put these plans into concrete form, by writing my own Episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Star Wars.

But that as they say, is another story reserved for another time.....

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Joan Littlewood's scathing, nostalgic satire on the First World War (based on songs and sketches first devised in a Charles Chilton radio programme Long, Long Trail a-Winding), used Pierrot clown costume for all the characters, to convey the circus farce of war. It was a move indicative of the anti-war feeling during a time when the Vietnam war was starting to escalate. Subsequent versions of the stage show however (including the above), have been indelibly influenced by the film adaptation by Richard Attenborough, which added the traditional khaki uniforms, and brought the story back into line with a general British nostalgia for the valour of those men who fought in the trenches, whilst still retaining most of the satire.

Attenborough at the time was a complete novice when it came to film directing. As an actor he was one of the foremost, having transcended his initial typecasting as slightly shifty and even psychopathic characters, thanks in part to his own efforts at producing with Bryan Forbes. His considerable expertise in the film business was therefore instrumental in bringing Oh! What a Lovely War to the screen, as well as his actor's kudos for attracting an incredible British all-star cast.

This was perhaps just as well, for Attenborough had pitched the idea for the film to the irascible Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramount, boasting that he could get Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgu, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth More, etc, etc. Bluhdorn, ever the showman, promised the money for the film so long as Dickie could get just five of those names. He could, and many more too.

At the head of all-star roll call is John Mills (who first instigated the project with Len Deighton), unusually steely and reserved as Field Marshal Haig, but also capable of a jig or two and a reasonable singing voice for the title number. Not far behind him comes Sir Laurence Olivier, briefly seen but memorably pompous as Sir John French - Haig's predecessor. Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson complete the triumvirate of the Acting Knights, and Jack Hawkins has a wordless (cruelly rendered so by throat cancer) but moving cameo as Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, who in effect signs the declaration of war which sets into motion the biggest human disaster of the 20th century.

These guest appearances by the glitterati of British Theatre are perhaps distracting, and diminish a little from the central story of the Smith family going to war, but otherwise Attenborough has a firm grip on contrasting the high luxury and pomposity of the officers, with the degradation and camaraderie of the men in the trenches.

For whatever reason, the entire film was shot, and set, around Brighton, with the old West Pier (nowadays sadly crumbling into the sea since Christmas 2000) as the main focus of the action. Rather akin to Olivier's Henry V(qv), the setting gradually switches to a more grimly realistic setting as the conflict deepens, whilst the officers remain aloof back on Brighton Pier. This juxtaposition is a little odd for me, after a while, when it would be better leaving the pier and focusing totally on the "real" setting.

The satire works at its best during numbers like "They Were Only Playing Leapfrog", sung by several caustic ANZAC soldiers whilst Haig and company hop and skip over each other, as well as the early recruitment songs inside the theatre on Brighton's East Pier with Maggie Smith (and a young Jane Seymour in the chorus) enticing young men onto the stage to go into the Front Line, and especially the incredible closing shot of the film with a whole meadow full (literally) of crosses.

The songs in this musical, it should be noted, are all completely from the period in which it is set, including the title number. This gives it an extra sense of authenticity but also poignancy; we often think nowadays how futile the First World War was, and how different attitudes toward it were in those days, but these very same anti-war sentiments were felt at the time, as the songs testify.

This nostalgia was borne out when I visited my grandmother in London on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday in 1988. At her Dalston flat the TV was showing OWALW which I watched with curiosity, and though I didn't expect Nan to enjoy this sort of satirical film, she was nonetheless moved and engaged by the atmosphere of the time conjured by the songs.

More recently, at the Cambridge Arts Cinema (who nervously but perhaps quite appositely showed the film a month after September 11th) where I first saw OWALW in its proper big screen setting, the projectionist didn't realise that there were no end credits, and the film ran right out to reveal a blank white screen.

I defy anyone not to be moved, or "blown away" as they say, by the closing scene of the film. It is a vivid lasting memory of the First World War, which gets the point across with total clarity.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films