Sunday, 20 December 2009

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Cinema thrives on innovation: right from when audiences ducked in horror at the sight of the Lumiere brothers' steam train coming towards them; The Jazz Singer was as much about the introduction of sound as about the story of a Rabbi's son's rise to redemption; in 1952 audiences gazed in wonder when This is Cinerama introduced the wonders of widescreen cinema; most recently James Cameron's Avatar has showcased the latest in state-of-the-art 3D animation.

Cartoon animation in particular - most especially cartoon characters mixed with live actors - has also been one of cinema's little fascinations: in the 1910's American showman Winsor McCay animated himself into the adventures of Gertie the Dinosaur, and Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell cartoons frequently had the main characters dipping their toes into the live action photographic world. There were major feature film examples such as Disney's Three Caballeros, Dangerous When Wet and Anchors Aweigh (the last two featuring Tom & Jerry). Up until 1988 the most notable example of animation mixed with live action was the chalk drawing adventure in Mary Poppins - but all of these were used as novelty interludes, and never dared to make a whole feature film in the process.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit topped all these animation milestones, but was a very enjoyable film too, for all that. Innovation is its keynote, but there's a great deal of charm in the enterprise, right from the moment of its opening "Maroon Cartoon" prologue, a slightly over-imaginative pastiche of Tex Avery and Tom & Jerry, which is suddenly halted by an irate shout of "Cut! Cut!" from an angry director (played by film producer Joel Silver), because one of his cartoon actors (aka. "toons") is not following instructions in the script - he should be concussed with stars in his eyes, not birds! We are then instantly transported into another world, where cartoon characters intermingle in the real world of 1940's Hollywood, with all the town's trappings and dangers.

As a cinematic novelty as well as a rattling good entertainment, a great deal of the credit has to go to three men - or at rough count, four. The fourth in question is someone called Steven Spielberg, who enthused about the project as a semi-tribute to Walt Disney and suggested it to his friend and disciple Robert Zemeckis, after the pair were looking for something to top the highly successful Back to the Future.

That was back in 1985, around which time Britain's top emerging character star was Bob Hoskins - the second key player in the making of Roger Rabbit - who gives an acting masterclass in how to perform alongside special effects. Nowadays it is quite commonplace for actors to work with non-existent characters created by CGI, but few of them can do it so well. Hoskins' acting technique has always been based on simple essentials: for the adventurous challenge of acting in a film with "nothing", he simply studied how his two children would play games at home with imaginary friends. Together with Zemeckis's technical assistance (and the presence of Roger's voice on-set), Hoskins brought his kudos as a tough guy of British cinema (in films such as The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa), giving the film that extra edge, and to my delight, making what was at the time a rare family-type film for his bullet-headed personality.

Like Bugsy Malone was an affectionate spoof of gangster films using children and ice cream guns, so Roger Rabbit is a nostalgic pastiche of the Philip Marlowe detective thriller with cartoon weasels for goons, and a very oversexed femme fatale in the shape of Mrs Jessica Rabbit ("I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"), suitably voiced by a husky Kathleen Turner (and also sung seductively by Spielberg's ex-wife Amy Irving.) Her frankly improbable figure is already well celebrated on the Internet, so there's no need for me to go into any further details, suffice to say she makes Marilyn Monroe's distinctive hour glass figure look positively ample by comparison.

The only slight drawback to Who Framed Roger Rabbit really, is Roger Rabbit himself. Irritatingly voiced by Charles Fleischer, the character is something of an amalgam of styles - from Tex Avery to Looney Tunes - with no substantial identity of his own. It's interesting 20 years later to compare the relation Roger has in the film to Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace years later, where in both cases a tremendous amount of expertise and special effects were at work, and most of the effort was spent just making the character able to appear on screen - although in Roger's case what's going on around him is much more interesting - and nostalgic.

Roger and Valiant hide in a cinema (showing cartoons of course), filmed at the State cinema, Grays (below)

Detractors of the film have said that the plot is thin; far from it, it's just that the cartoon part is the "showpiece". Indeed, there's a good deal of Chinatown-style complexity to the corporate conspiracy sub-plot (the dismantling of the tramcars to make way for the freeways) that screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman added to Garry K. Wolf's original story ("Who Censored Roger Rabbit"), investing a nice element of whimsy for the bygone era of 1940's California, now long gone: the end of an era for the great detective thriller, but the beginning of the coming of age for cartoons.

Admittedly the intriguing plot settles down in the end to a simple case of Good versus Evil, of which it's pretty clear who the chief antagonist is: Christopher Lloyd was reunited with Robert Zemeckis after playing the likeably bonkers scientist Dr. Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, but his Judge Doom had very little sentiment and a great deal of Darth Vader-like menace about him. Younger audiences be warned: one scene where Doom dispatches a toon shoe using a sinister combination of chemicals - turpentine, acetone & benzine (used to remove paint from celluloid), nicknamed "Dip" - had some little kiddies weeping in their seats when I saw the film in cinemas in 1988.

The monumental technical challenge of filming an entire feature with the animated part still to follow, was akin to "making an Invisible Man movie" for Spielberg and Zemeckis (and Hoskins apparently suffered from hallucinations for weeks after shooting finished), but the 2-year wait while the animators got to work, was well worth it.

Some 700 people - a record number listed on the end credits - pooled together to create this amusing masterpiece of illusion. And not only were the names confined to those off-camera. As a unique coup of cartoon casting, Spielberg brought together the star toons from both the Disney and Warner Brothers studios (together with or two extra guests such as Betty Boop and Droopy). There they all are, littered through the film in guest cameos: Goofy, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Bugs Bunny (how interesting if the film had been about that rabbit instead), Tweetie Bird, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, the broomsticks and hippos and ostriches from Fantasia, and of course Mickey Mouse, and my favourite of the bunch, Donald and Daffy Duck playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody at The Ink & Paint Club.

All were presided over by the third and by no means last and least hero of Roger Rabbit: the sanguine figure of Richard Williams had been animating countless commercials and short films in Britain as well as imaginative title sequences for the Pink Panther films and The Charge of the Light Brigade among others. With Roger Rabbit, his consistently brilliant animation was deservedly given a wider audience (and also enabled him to pursue his cherished dream of finishing his own epic feature film, The Thief and the Cobbler).

Director Zemeckis, skilfully aided by Dean Cundey who photographed with an eye for the missing pieces (in much the same way as he later did with Jurassic Park), gave Williams the perfect canvas with which to weave his magic. Who Framed Roger Rabbit will be his lasting legacy. Not a bad one to have either.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Third Man (1949)

In Vienna's main cemetery lies an area dedicated to Stalin's soldiers who died in the violent two weeks that it took to overcome the city from the Nazis. The victory was hard-earned, and the city was made to pay in the most unpleasant of ways, with the second wave of the Red Army raping and/or looting the citizens; as some embittered voices put it, "Austria could take a third world war, but it could never endure another liberation."

By chance it is near this Russian cemetery where the Harry Lime funeral scenes were filmed for The Third Man (coincidentally a family grave lies there now named "Grun" - Green) and it seems a suitable spot for one who delved into the murky underworld of a Vienna riddled with the Black Market. It is this climate of post-Russian occupation (by the Four Powers) that so dominates the city and the lingering menace of the film, so brilliantly conveyed by Graham Greene and Carol Reed - with some notable fellow collaborators.

The story, one of Graham Greene's quintessential "entertainments", began from a single line thought up and scribbled down on the back of an envelope:

"I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand."

From this first genesis, it was the inspiration of arguably British cinema's greatest producer, Alexander Korda (fresh from his own adventures across Europe) to suggest the setting of Vienna for Greene's premise as a post-war thriller, working once again with director Carol Reed after their recent successful collaboration The Fallen Idol.

With all the Allied involvement in Vienna, it required a suitable element of international collaboration to put across the story in its proper political context, so Korda looked across the Atlantic to the equally renowned Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to secure the services of two of his contract stars, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli (then billed as just "Valli" in those days.) In return, Selznick took all American publicity and distribution rights, and was also allowed to have a say in the making of the film - which led as a result to a good deal of trans-Atlantic quarreling over how romantic and dramatic the film should be.

Neither gentleman's first choice - probably - was Orson Welles to play Harry Lime (Noel Coward was one name in mind for the role), but with persistence, and perhaps a good deal of cinematic providence, Welles was in the end the natural choice.

Harry Lime may well have been the star, but the film is anchored by Welles's old Mercury Theatre pal Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a writer of pulp Westerns (amusingly mistaken by Wilfrid Hyde-White's cultural attache for a serious writer), who finds himself delving into far murkier plots than those of his Westerns.

Mourners at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof (filmed in between the "Eichinger" and the later "Grun" family graves)

To those coming fresh to The Third Man, it comes as something of a jolt when the film begins with a funeral - of its main character! But nothing in this Vienna is ever quite what it seems - not even the leather-jacketed, staunchly British figure of Trevor Howard, who turns out to be the British head of the International Police, Major Calloway, immediately depicted in a suspicious light (using Reed's tilted camera angles) once Martins discovers after the third drink that he is a policeman. Only a discreet ushering followed by a necessary slug on the jaw from his junior sergeant prevents Martins from taking a swing at Calloway - a great supporting role for Bernard Lee.

Undeterred, Martins delves into the Vienna underworld of Harry Lime's outwardly ingratiating but secretly ruthless black market friends - and then there is the enigmatic beauty Anna Schmidt (Valli), who like everyone else, has her secrets; her romance with Martins lasts only as long as he reminds her of Harry.

But what of Harry himself?
The light from an angry resident's window shines down, outside Schreyvogelgasse near Molker Bastei.

As the story goes on, the audience gradually cottons on to the fact that there's more to this tale than meets the eye, and the sting in the tail, though delightfully teased (with a typical Reed device of a tabby cat), is still a surprise.

Harry's shadow runs off, along the Schulhofplatz towards Am Hof.

Once Welles makes his belated famous entrance, his character takes over the film and more than lives up to expectation in the brief but brilliant Ferris Wheel sequence (filmed mostly at Shepperton but re-creating the Riesenrad), where Martins realises not only that his elusive friend is a deadly black marketeer, but also quite relishes in the task with a good deal of Machiavellian charm, and puts the story into a different perspective, as you realise how simple and seductive things are on the other side of the coin.

Debates may rage among cineastes over how much involvement Orson Welles had in the making of The Third Man, as the style Carol Reed adopted was very symptomatic of black-and-white thrillers of the 1940's, and of Orson Welles films in particular. Welles however, was hardly around the city of Vienna or the film set for a good many weeks, in the midst of his own ramblings around Europe trying to raise money making Othello - in that sense Welles was just as elusive as the character he was playing. So Reed was very much working on his own initiative (Assistant Director Guy Hamilton stood in for many of Harry Lime's appearances on the street), and the only definite contribution that Orson Welles can said to have made was the famous and amusing anecdote about Italy under the Borgias and cuckoo clocks in Switzerland - Graham Greene felt there was no need to "explain" the evil of Harry Lime, but Welles gave it that extra touch.

Once Harry reappears, all previous bets are off and a new game of hunting down the black marketeer is soon underway, with the battle lines quickly drawn: upon discovering that Harry is alive, Anna almost totally switches to his side in spite of her own helplessness, while the disillusioned Martins agrees to reluctantly help the police bring him in. The only weak point of the film for me is the sequence in a children's hospital where Calloway takes Martins to see some of the victims of Lime's penicillin racket, as if to redress the balance - when the rest of the film is quietly revelling in the wickedness.

The police give chase down the steps beside St. Ruprecht's Church.

With the Ferris Wheel sequence having set the pace, the film goes into second gear with the striking chase through the sewers, which Greene climaxes with an ironic take on the Western shoot-out: Martins has a gun, and only he can bring justice to the corrupt town by shooting the bad guy - his best friend.

Orson Welles races for the sewers (some of the time), where the Vienna Kanal section of The Third Man Tour begins, near Friedrichstrasse (below)

The sewer chase wisely keeps the soundtrack down to just the tense echoes of footsteps and shouting through the tunnels of the underground Vienna Canal, although there is ever such a small undertone of Anton Karas's famous Harry Lime Theme (which became a huge hit), when Martins corners Harry, who has a look of reckoning on his face.

A last grasp for freedom, outside the Minoriten Church in Minoritenplatz.

Come the end and we're back at the cemetery, where the real Harry Lime (we suppose) is being buried, and Anna discards Holly by calmly walking by without acknowledging him - a suggestion of Selznick's, which Reed enthusiastically supported - the original treatment by Greene had the two of them walking off together.

The unhappy but reflective ending set the seal on what was perhaps a uniquely atmospheric film, where sentimental romanticism is supplanted by cynical acceptance of life, accompanied by a lyrical zither theme to counterbalance the gloom; a glorious mixture of elements, a British film in beautiful, decayed surroundings, with American star power to raise it up a level - an international effort of true proportions.

Kings Road, Chelsea (left)

Critics and cinema buffs rejoice in Citizen Kane (which this resembles in some ways) but The Third Man for me goes one better because it involves the socio-political atmosphere of the period, within an all-too real setting for the Vienna of the time. The rest of Carol Reed's career never topped this (and why should it?), and for all his own brilliance in front of and behind the camera, Orson Welles is immortalized as Harry Lime - to paraphrase, probably the Best Role in the World.

Anna silently walks away out of the Zentralfriedhof.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Cruel Sea (1953)

"This is the story - the long and true story - of one ocean, two ships, and about a hundred and fifty men. It is a long story because it deals with a long and brutal battle, the worst of any war. It has two ships because one was sunk, and had to be replaced. It has a hundred and fifty men because that is a manageable number to tell a story about. Above all, it is a true story because that is the only kind worth telling."

Nicolas Monsarrat's prelude to his novel The Cruel Sea

During its grimmest phase, the Second World War was won - not on the fields of Normandy, or in the skies of the Battle of Britain, or even the pivotal Siege of Stalingrad - but on the North Atlantic, where the supply lines had to be kept going. Without them, none of those victorious battles would have taken place. It is this period of grim observance of duty that covers this classic Ealing war drama, a big success in its day, perhaps because it came at just about the right time to be able to look back at WWII with a certain amount of perspective.

The studio was perhaps the ideal choice for this kind of material. Ever since the war itself, Ealing had presented earnest, well-crafted war films with a sentimental thought for the honest, hard-working average soldier, sailor or airman. Eric Ambler's brilliant screenplay turned Nicolas Monsarrat's sometimes bleak but honest and entertaining bestseller into a carefully downplayed expressionist drama about facing the horrors of war and its occasional mixed blessings, and trying to treat it all like routine hard work.

At its centre was a towering performance by Jack Hawkins as Captain Ericson, containing all of his best attributes. Providing excellent support was a young Donald Sinden as Lockhart (the novel's narrator), a former freelance journalist and something of a free, aimless individual, until the war and his shared experiences with Ericson quickly harden his resolve. After surviving the uncomfortable early stages of Navy life with loudmouth bully Bennett (Stanley Baker) whom luckily Lockhart replaces as First Lieutenant, there is the greater challenge of the unseen enemy underwater, and the daily toil of seeing ships sunk, and having to cope with death, and/or the survivors to be brought in to safety - whilst also at the same trying to sink U-Boats, when they find them.

Helping them along in this case are the likes of Lockhart's nervous friend Ferraby (John Stratton) whose pretty wife (June Thorburn) and Lockhart are his two main sources of strength (especially against the brutal Bennett), and smooth-talking ex-barrister Morell - a young Denholm Elliott, showing early signs of his palatable talent for scene stealing.

Other members of the crew of HMS Compass Rose (some of them Ealing regulars) were splendid examples of the British carrying on in the face of adversity, such as Chief Engineer Watts (Liam Redmond) and his friend Coxswain Tallow (Bruce Seton), whose widowed sister (Megs Jenkins) provides welcome relief from the toil of long Atlantic convoys.

Lockhart finds that war brings its comforts in the shape of delectable WREN J
ulie Hallam (Virginia Mckenna).

Charles Frend's understated direction tones down some of the grimness of the original novel but still plays up the drama to the full, especially in scenes such as the tragic killing of survivors when a submarine is underneath them in the water, or when the crew of Compass Rose have to fend for themselves in lifeboats to survive the harsh Atlantic weather. In some perversely comic moments that are as dark as anything Ealing ever dared, Lockhart bullies his surviving crew into singing silly nursery rhymes in order to keep themselves alive.

The Cruel Sea was the first war film I'd seen which stripped away the jingoism of war, and told the truth in a very simple, honest, low-key manner, only shoving home the anti-war message when necessary. It had enough small traces of Ealing humour to entertain audiences whilst at the same time being able to mix in the darker elements, and its authenticity for depicting the war at sea was probably the decisive factor in its success - and in Jack Hawkins it found the ideal officer for all seasons (with dimensions too) who, like John Mills, could easily have gone into service as an officer of distinction and no-one would question his suitability. In a better world, Hawkins would have won an Oscar for the performance.

Devonport harbour, which deputised for Merseyside in The Cruel Sea.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Dead Poets Society (1989)

With school term upon us, for those either teaching or still lucky enough to be learning, here's a reflective thought about the time that is sometimes called the happiest days of our lives.

So much of learning comes from the particular personality and charisma of the teacher. My English teacher at St. Benedict's was something of an eccentric; not necessarily with the zany flamboyance of Robin Williams, but she was able to get things across in a certain galvanising way that set that little spark of inspiration alight. As a result, English turned from what was a standard educational chore into a major creative pursuit. So in the years following the end of school, the sight of Robin Williams inspiring his pupils about the beauties of the English language struck some familiar chords.

Williams himself I've often thought had the attributes of a crying clown: an incredibly creative comedian, who could produce jokes with as much spontanaiety and timing as Mozart could produce musical notes, but also with a poignant side. In recent years his sentimentality has been attacked by some critics, but here in the hands of Australian director Peter Weir (who also made the excellent Witness) he had an ideal nurturer for his talents. Besides all that, they had a compelling story by Tom Schulman to work with, covering youthful hopes and dreams within a harsh establishment-oriented school environment, typified by veteran Norman Lloyd as the headteacher.

Williams as teacher John Keating was the star of the show, but the main focus of the story is on the boys, particularly Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), the film's main "observer" of the drama, and his roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard, right), as well as their like-minded friends Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) and the most rebellious of the group, Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), all of whom are suddenly swept away by Keating's quirkiness and inspiration. We've all experienced these kinds of children in one form or another before.

Neil's story is especially poignant, rebelling studiously against his disciplinarian father (Kurtwood Smith) in the process of discovering that he has acting blood in him, whilst for me the much more relatable character is that of Todd Anderson: shy, repressed in his passions for art and poetry, but who suddenly breaks loose at unexpected moments, and is ultimately the first to openly express support and admiration for John Keating when events in the story turn tragic.

Neil's father (Kurtwood Smith) cannot come to terms with his son's sudden acting aspirations.

Peter Weir (with the help of composer Maurice Jarre) indulges in his flair for otherworldliness, as Neil relives his lost dreams of playing Puck.

This motley band of young rogues, unwittingly instilled by Keating (a former pupil at the same school) revive a long forgotten band of Bards known as the Dead Poets Society (some pedantic English teachers noted the lack of an apostrophe in the word "Poets"), who recite works of the Greats to indulge in their rebelliousness, and satisfying their own desires to woo girls in the process. One such pretty specimen (Alexandra Powers) flutters into Knox Overstreet's life, and he pursues her lovingly - in spite, alas, of her attachment to a dorky football player. The fact that he fails in the quest does not matter - his yearning from the heart is the more important achievement.

I saw Dead Poets Society - three times - in that pivotal year of 1989 whilst at college, where triumph as well as tragedy were both past and present, and it was a reminder that education is not only about studying the world around you, but also learning about yourself. As well as reminding me of those recent (not always happy) halcyon school days, the film also spoke towards a greater idealism of pushing yourself from what you know you can do already to what you are capable of doing, and how strong a mentor's influence - parental or non-parental (ie. teacher) - can be on your future life. Some of those ideals never worked out - for most of the boys or for myself - but that isn't important. It was the pursuit of the dream that mattered. A life-affirming film.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Escape to Victory (1981)

With the emotional recent departure of Bobby Robson, my mind is drawn irreverently towards a film in which some of his "Boys of '81" happened to find themselves unexpectedly involved.

By the summer of 198o, Ipswich Town had rounded off another impressive season with qualification for Europe, finishing third in the league behind Liverpool and Manchester United (beating the latter 6-0 at Portman Road.) The year after that was arguably their greatest ever season, when they were in contention for three trophies and eventually won the UEFA Cup.

In between, Robson's team were approached by film producer Freddie Fields with a view to spending a few weeks in Hungary to play some football alongside the likes of Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, and to be directed by no less a person than John Huston. Eyes perked up when two other footballing names associated with the project were Bobby Moore and Pele, and so it was that Russell Osman, John Wark, Kevin O'Callaghan, Robin Turner and Laurie Sivell (the last two on the German side) took to the field, and the film stage, whilst goalkeeper Paul Cooper (who coached Stallone) and the legendary Kevin Beattie (Caine's stand-in, or run-in if you like) also offered their assistance.

The film was originally based on a real life incident in World War II when Eastern European prisoners were forced into a football match, where they would be set free provided they lost the match to the Germans. Tailoring the film to a more mainstream audience, Fields modified the original concept to make it into a Great Escape-ish adventure where the German Army pits itself against a combined team of Allied prisoners, the intention being - as before - to force a victory to prove German supremacy as an excellent propaganda exercise.

To boot (excuse the pun), in order to re-create the climate of noted footballers, Fields and Huston cast real-life footballers in some of the roles. In addition to those players already mentioned, there was Tottenham Hotspur's legendary Argentinian Ossie Ardiles, another former England star Mike Summerbee, Belgium's Paul Van Himst, and the international flavour was completed by Norway's Soren Linsted, Dutchmen Co Prins, Belgium's Paul Van Himst, and Manchester City's Polish star Kazimierz Deyna - who in one powerful scene is in a group of maltreated Eastern European players.

And then there's also a fella named Edson Arantes dos Nascimento - better known as Pele, who contrives to be in a PoW camp as a West Indian with a fairly thick Brazilian flair.

The international guest stars notwithstanding, there's a healthy "Boys of '66" spirit to this film, represented appropriately by the presence of Bobby Moore, when a group of ordinary down-to-earth lads gathered together as a great team unit to win football's most coveted prize. Here that spirit crosses a whole international frontier, and is epitomised by the film's two most credible characters, Major Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) and John Colby (Michael Caine), who have set up the idea for the match:

STEINER: "If nations could settle their differences on the football pitch, wouldn't that be a challenge? How would you like to play a match against a team from the Wehrmacht? From the army base nearby?

COLBY: What for? To settle the war?

STEINER: Unfortunately not."

On balance, the soccer players are more suited to acting than the actors are in having to play soccer. Certainly in John Huston's hands there's a greater enthusiasm for the skill and endeavour of the footballers that in the mechanical rudiments of the plot. The weakest of them, alas, is the film's chief star, Sylvester Stallone. Riding on the success of the Rocky films, Sly was clearly considered a bankable property for this kind of sports film.

Only in Hollywood.

What Stallone brought to boxing, he certainly does not bring to soccer; frankly, he'd be just as well off trying rhythmic gymnastics. But clearly his physique and his star clout got the film made. If Stallone is the worst idea of a goalkeeper, then at least the other 10 team in front of him lead the way.

The match itself is a classic - in the football sense of the word - mirroring the course of events of World War II. The Germans dominate the initial stages, thanks to a little judicious refereeing (then again it could just be Hatch's inept goalkeeping) and before you know it, the Hun are 3-0 up. What's worse for the Allies, one of their leading players, Luis Fernandez (Pele), is taken injured after a brutal challenge, and soon the Nazis are 4-0 up. But then a little determined rearguard from the Allies sees Terry Daly (Bobby Moore) score at the far post shortly before half-time, to the delight of the hitherto stony-faced French crowd.

At half time itself, Hatch's sneaky plan to escape from the dressing room into the sewers of Paris is hatched (excuse pun no. 2); but to the rest of the team there are certain things greater than their freedom, and that's their pride and dignity. To the surprise of the British officers who've organised the escape, the Allies take the field again for the second half, and here's where the game really starts cooking: a lovely flowing run and finish by Carlos Rey (Osvaldo Ardiles) pulls the score back to 4-2 shortly after the resumption. As the Allied crowd and the players become more excited, the resulting bewilderment in the German defence leads to a third Allied goal, scored by Poland's Paul Wolcek (Kazimierz Deyna, who curiously alternates the No. 7 shirt with John Wark.) The Allied comeback is almost complete when a shot hits the post and Doug Clure (Russell Osman!) scores off the rebound, but it's disallowed for offside. Silly ref.

The high point of the match comes however, when the hobbling Luis Fernandez, his chest still badly bruised from the earlier tackle, comes back onto the field, and scores an overhead kick from Terry Daly's cross, past the hapless German goalkeeper Schmidt (Laurie Sivell), a moment which is poetic enough in the eyes of the filmmaker to give it a multiple Leni Riefenstahl-style slow motion replay. In one of the film's most hilarious moments, Von Steiner is moved enough to stand up and applaud the goal scored against his own side. There then follows a moment that has often haunted me whenever I think of this film - the French crowd, resurgent at the Allied comeback, chants "Victoire!" constantly through the final minutes, of a match that has clearly gone something beyond a mere game.

4-4 then (echoing, by no small coincidence, the year of the Allied invasion), but then - oh dear - the Germans get another penalty in the dying minutes of the match, relying on the late intervention of the inept American goalkeeper to save things. Somewhat improbably, Hatch manages to save the resulting penalty kick by catching the ball cleanly with his fingertips! (Stallone's original idea was to dribble from one goal to the other and score the winner - something which Pele vetoed vehemently.)

In the whimsical climax, the crowd breaks out of the stands and smothers the Allied team, who ultimately make their escape through the mob as they flee out of the Colombes Stadium: an unlikely but in its way satisfying denouement to a fun footballing war film.

I make no bones of the fact that I enjoy this film because of the involvement of familiar Ipswich Town players; from my later enthusiasm for sport that followed on from cinema, here unexpectedly was a film that combined both. But there's also something powerfully omnipresent here, a sense of the power of sport to cross international barriers, to use the football field as a metaphor for solving difficulties off the field in a more global context. John Huston's chief enjoyment of the film was the challenge of staging the soccer game, and though the film is corny, that enjoyment shines through, particularly with Bill Conti's catchy score. Michael Caine is agreeable as the honest, King, Country and Football-devoted Colby, and even Stallone can be forgiven as a footballer.

It also harkens back to a more innocent, nostalgic era of soccer, a time when the spirit of the game was more important than the increasing professionalism that has crept in over the years. As the opening exchange between Von Steiner and Colby puts it so tellingly:

"It's a shame the war has ended your career."

"Interrupted it."

"Let's hope so."

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Fantasia (1940)

"How do you do. My name is Deems Taylor, and it's my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowsky and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, Fantasia."

So began Walter Elias Disney's most audacious experiment in the field of animation. Four years previously he had mortgaged his house and practically his entire career on the reckless venture of a cartoon feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the results paid handsome dividends. From this seminal moment, a new genre of film was born, and Disney was able to push the boat out with further adventures in the feature length animation field, as well as the further adventures of his "star" originally to be known as Mortimer Mouse (named after the camera whose reels his ears mimicked), later changed to Mickey.

Thus it was that Disney approached Leopold Stokowsky with a view towards making a cartoon short version of Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The end result however, was something considerably more ambitious.

It was a film that I had known about since the 1970s, from looking at posters in the London Underground stations; the cartoons of Walt Disney were as rich and prosperous a commodity as they are today, but this particular one seemed a little unusual, which even a child of my age would notice. The one unmistakable image was that of Mickey Mouse, but the rest of it seemed puzzling: what was the title about? Why wasn't it a Mickey type cartoon adventure? Where was the story? And what were all those other strange things around him?

Such an impression led to an aura of mystique around the film, so that when I did finally get round to seeing it in 1990 (on the film's 50th anniversary) at the new Odeon Ipswich, I was curious to the point of wonderment, and found it an incredibly beautiful film, having grown up enough to be able to appreciate it as not just a cartoon. The children of the 1990's however, were just as mystified as children of the 1970's (or indeed the 1940's) - "When's Mickey coming on, Dad?", I heard a child ask in the cinema in Ipswich that afternoon. I suspect many other children have asked their parents that question in cinemas through the decades.

Youngsters may not have expected the arty tones to the film, but this doesn't alter the brilliance of the animations, which all work on their own different levels. The first of them is a slightly uncharacteristic rendition of Bach's Tocata and Fugue, unusual not for the abstract animation, but for Stokowsky's orchestration of a piece originally written for organ. This was no doubt to allow Stokowsky and his orchestra full reign to their talents.

A rousing, stylish start nonetheless, followed equally audaciously by Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, perhaps the most charming of all the animations, with characteristic Disney flourishes of imagination such as Chinese mushroom dancers and Cossack dancing thistles.

Next comes the long-awaited arrival of The Sorcerer's Apprentice; as the erstwhile Mr. Taylor puts it, "a piece that tells a very definite story", and formed the basis for the whole project. It's the one item of all that seems most in tune with what would be perceived to be the "Disney style" (if one thinks of the "Silly Symphonies" they had been producing for years), and in that sense is probably the most successful of the lot. It certainly sold this otherwise unsellable film by putting Mickey on the front of the posters.

After the mischievous exploits of Mickey the Sorcerer's Apprentice, comes something altogether different in The Rite of Spring, which was always a very experimental and ritualistic piece as composed by Igor Stravinsky, and a highly unusual piece for Walt Disney to challenge. As an adaptation of the music, it chops and changes with uncomfortable melodies to listen to, and as animation it's variable but certainly has its moments, and Disney has rarely dared to push the barriers further than this.

As if to trivialise things after the primal e
xperience of the story of the beginning of the Earth in The Rite of Spring, there comes an intermission (in the tradition of a "Concert Feature") where a soundtrack line makes various noises and wave forms, before the second half of the concert/film commences with The Pastoral Symphony, only partly trivialised by switching to a mythical setting. Its difficult not to recognise a certain My Little Pony imagery with parts of this sequence; secretly I also wonder if it was considered politically incorrect to depict Beethoven's beloved Austria because of its connections to the Nazis in World War II (The Ride of the Valkyries was also a piece considered and ultimately rejected by Disney), but Beethoven's music still transcends the prissiness of the visuals, and there are still some charming moments such as the storm and the party of revellers.

The funniest and perhaps most enjoyable of the pieces for me is The Danc
e of the Hours, an unashamed parody of Ponchielli's ballet but quite appropriate considering the jollity of the piece, with balletic ostriches, hippos (the inspiration for those "Hippapotamousse" ads in the 80's?), elephants (two years before Dumbo came along) and amorous crocodiles, all coming together in a delightful finale.

The "big finish comes" with Mussourgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria, a beautifully powerful mixture of
"the profane and the sacred", with the sight of Satan atop the mountain (looking very Darth Vader-ish) demonstrating the darker element that often permeated Disney's work. The beautiful ending representing the triumph of good over evil (darkness gives way to light) was done with innovative multi-plane animation, ending with a sunset to conclude Fantasia, which at the time (and still today) in the eyes of some was considered pretentious, and was not a huge success. If it was a failure, then it was one of Disney's most glorious ones, a brilliant attempt at integrating mass entertainment and art, and an experience of pure cinema.

In the sixty years since Fantasia there were many attempts at reviving the formula of classical music set to animation: the original film went through vari
ous re-releases, with the 1982 version having the audacity to completely re-record the music (as previously orchestrated by Stokowsky) to the original animation.

There was much talk of a sequel, with various composers considered for animated treatment (including even The Beatles at one stage), but in 1999 the Disney studio bravely and perhaps foolishly set about trying to follow-up its original masterpiece with FANTASIA 2000, commemorating the new millennium in enjoyable fashion with Donald and Daisy Duck in a cheerfully apocalyptic rendition of the Noah's Arc story to the tune of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. Other pieces followed a pretty similar pattern to the original, with an abstract opening (to the beginning of Beethoven's 5th Symphony) followed by a charming rendition of flying whales to Respighi's Pines of Rome, and finishing once again with the good vs. evil motif of Stravinsky's Firebird suite. Perhaps the most innovative piece was Copeland's Rhapsody in Blue animated to the newspaper drawings of Al Hirschfield.

In spite of the shortening of the music down to single movements rather than entire symphonies, as well as irritating celebrity introductions (from the likes of Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones and the conductor himself, James Levine), there was still a great deal of charm to the enterprise, although less of the magic that Walt brought to the original.

And it was testament to the memory of the original, that Mickey's Sorcerer's Apprentice was revived for the sequel 60 years later.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films