Monday, November 30, 2015
ARMY OF DARKNESS is one of my top 50 favorite movies of all time. Director Sam Raimi's third chapter in his EVIL DEAD film series is a wild, goofy, roller-coaster ride. If I remember correctly, Raimi once said in a Cinefantastique article on ARMY OF DARKNESS that the movie was made for the 12-year old boy in all of us. As someone who is constantly accused of still acting like he's 12 years old, ARMY OF DARKNESS is to me far more entertaining than all of Raimi's SPIDER MAN movies put together.
This picture has been released on home video several times, by both Anchor Bay and Universal. In fact, Anchor Bay put out so many versions of the EVIL DEAD titles that it became something of a running joke. Shout Factory, through their Scream Factory label, has now come out with the ultimate edition of ARMY OF DARKNESS.
This release includes four different versions of the film. Disc one features the 81-minute theatrical version, disc two has the 96-minute unrated director's cut, and disc three has an 88-minute international cut, and a 90-minute TV version of the film. (This TV version is in standard def, and it is in fullscreen. The picture quality is sub par, and it should be only watched for comparison purposes.)
The release has a boatload of extras as well. The most important one is a 90-minute documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with 20 members of the cast & crew. The main talking head is Bruce Campbell himself. Unfortunately neither Sam Raimi or producer Robert Tapert make an appearance. Raimi & Tapert were not involved in the extras for Shout Factory's DARKMAN Blu-ray either, which leads one to believe that the duo harbor some hard feelings toward Universal Studios--if you watch this Blu-ray's documentary, you'll know why.
The documentary gives a thorough account of the trials and tribulations that went on behind the scenes of ARMY OF DARKNESS. Campbell, as always, steals the show with his hilariously honest and unique take on the business of low-budget genre film making. If you already own ARMY OF DARKNESS (this is the third time I have bought it on DVD or Blu-ray) and you are unsure whether to buy it again, I suggest you do so just for the documentary.
The other extras are spread out on each of the three discs. They include trailers, TV spots, vintage featurettes, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, still galleries, and a audio commentary (from an earlier home video release) with Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, and Bruce Campbell. The Blu-ray case cover is reversible, and it includes the original Universal main poster image.
Do we really need four versions of ARMY OF DARKNESS? Well, why not? I have to say that for some reason the international cut of the film looks the best of the four. The director's cut presented here is of a far better quality than the one on the old Anchor Bay DVD. (By the way, I much prefer the original "S-Mart" ending to ARMY OF DARKNESS than the ending on the director's cut.)
Watching so many versions of ARMY OF DARKNESS gave me a greater appreciation for Bruce Campbell's performance as Ash. Campbell now has an exalted position in the world of geek culture....but I believe that the actor is still somewhat taken for granted. Many people just don't realize what Campbell went through in this movie. Not only is he literally in almost every shot, he also had to play "Evil Ash" as well (and suffer through a complex makeup on his entire face). Campbell also had to ride horses, engage in sword fights, and perform a number of slapstick stunts and falls. And if that wasn't enough, he had to play a character that was a goofy jerk...and still make him likable to the audience. I have to say that Bruce Campbell, in ARMY OF DARKNESS, gave one of the greatest performances in genre movie history. He'll never get the same credit as, say, Meryl Streep or Robert DeNiro would in a "serious" role....but he should.
The other thing I noticed during my ARMY OF DARKNESS binge was that this was one of the last great practical-effects laden movies ever made. Many of the extras go into great detail on how these effects were achieved, and they all have a texture to them that CGI can't match. If ARMY OF DARKNESS had been mostly computer-generated, I don't think it would have had half of the impact that it currently has now.
Obviously this release was timed to coincide with the new ASH VS. EVIL DEAD TV show (Bruce Campbell mentions the show during the main documentary). It's a bit ironic, then, to note that due to rights issues the TV show has to pretend ARMY OF DARKNESS doesn't exist!
You either love ARMY OF DARKNESS or you think it's just stupid. You know how I stand. I got this Blu-ray from Amazon for less than $20, and that's a magnificent deal for a package that has four versions of the movie and is stuffed with extras. Shout Factory deserves major kudos for this release.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
If you were a kid back in 1977, chances are you were obsessed with a new film called STAR WARS. And if you were obsessed with STAR WARS, you tried to get as much merchandise from the film as possible. There actually wasn't a whole lot of Star Wars stuff available in 1977 for kids--the Kenner action figures wouldn't come out until 1978. Burger Chef came out with some posters, and of course Marvel released their extraordinary comic book adaptation of the film, but younger STAR WARS fans had to rely mostly on their own imaginations for a time.
That is why the original Topps STAR WARS trading card set has such an important place in the history of the Star Wars Universe. In a pre-internet, pre-cable era, any real information, or images, about the movie was hard to get to. The Topps set provided that information in spades--most of the basic facts about STAR WARS I learned from the set. For those who had not yet seen the film, the card photos offered a tantalizing glimpse at what one could expect, and for those who had seen it, the photos encouraged you to go see it again.
The first Topps STAR WARS card set was so popular the company wound up releasing a total of five series of 66 cards each, for a mind-boggling grand total of 330 cards. For a non-sports card set, this was a humongous number (some of Topps' sports sets of the same period didn't even approach that total). The original Topps STAR WARS set is now considered to be by many the greatest non-sports card set ever produced.
I had most of the cards when I was a kid, and through time and various other things, they are now all gone. Every so often I go on ebay to see how much a complete set runs for--trust me, they ain't cheap. Thankfully Abrams Comicarts has published a fantastic volume called STAR WARS: THE ORIGINAL TOPPS TRADING CARD SERIES. The book reproduces the front and backs of each card in the set. The result is a potent mix of fun and nostalgia, and a must-have for anyone who was a young Star Wars fan in that heady summer of 1977.
All 330 cards are shown, in color, and each card gets its own page. The five series are presented in the order in which they were released--blue, red, yellow, green, and orange. (I remembered the order on my own, by the way.) All the stickers released with the sets are showcased as well, including the backs of the stickers, which formed a giant picture from the film. The boxes and pack wrappers
from the sets are also shown.
Gary Gerani, who worked on the sets for Topps, writes a commentary on the various cards throughout the book. (Gerani is also the author of the excellent TOP 100 series of movie books from Fantastic Press and IDW.) The personal background on the making of the set that Gerani gives is fascinating--at first Topps didn't even want to do a series of STAR WARS cards. Because the movie's popularity was so immense during the 1977-78 period, Topps had to scramble to get new and different photos for the newer series. When one looks at all the cards in this book, one realizes that many of them are basically just alternate angles of the same scenes, and a few photos were repeated. As a kid back then, we didn't notice--or care. Anything with Star Wars on it was welcomed with open arms. I can assure you these cards were hugely popular among schoolkids--if you had a card with Darth Vader on it, that was the equivalent of hard currency on the playground. (Ironically, there really weren't all that many Vader cards in the original sets--or at least not as many as one might think.)
The last series, the orange series, is looked at by some Star Wars fans as the most interesting series of all. Gerani writes that for the orange series Lucasfilm provided Topps with many photos never seen before, including several shots of the Mos Eisley cantina sequence. The orange series also features a number of behind-the-scenes pictures, including a few cards showing George Lucas himself (and yes, he's wearing a plaid shirt!).
I can't tell you how important these cards were to me as a young Star Wars fan. The backs of the cards didn't just give you the story synopsis--they also gave you information on the cast, and background on the making of the movie itself. If you read all the card backs from the sets even today, you are still going to get a fairly thorough examination of all aspects of the movie. That's a testament to the people who worked at the Topps company--this wasn't just another card set for just another movie, it was something above the ordinary--just like STAR WARS itself.
The book's afterword is written by memorabilia expert Robert V. Conte, and it discusses the ultra-rare 16 card Star Wars set released by the parent company of Wonder Bread.
The book's wrap-around cover is produced just like a Topps card pack wrapper, which is a very cool idea. The volume also contains four replica Topps Star Wars trading cards (there's no real stick of gum included, however).
This is an amazing idea for a book--it's as if it was specifically designed for me personally. Being an original 1977 Star Wars fan (and a card collector), I can't help but love it. For me it is almost a mini-time machine. As a film geek I am constantly being accused of wallowing in mindless nostalgia, and I know my praise of this book will only strengthen that perception. But I look at it this way--there are plenty of people out there who get enjoyment out of partaking in certain unsavory activities, and they don't believe they should be criticized for it--so I see no reason why I should get flack for continuing to appreciate a movie I saw almost 40 years ago as a kid. The original Topps STAR WARS trading card set was a major part of my childhood, and I'd like to thank Abrams, Topps, and Gary Gerani for giving it a proper showcase.
Saturday, November 28, 2015
Pierce Brosnan made a huge impact on the James Bond movie franchise even before he was cast as Bond. As I discussed in my blog posts concerning Timothy Dalton's time as 007 (from October 2012), Brosnan had originally been cast to take over as Bond from Roger Moore, but his contract to the REMINGTON STEELE TV show got in the way. Many (especially the media) felt that Timothy Dalton was nothing more than a pretender who usurped the role that was supposed to be Brosnan's. Both of Dalton's film outings as Bond were not all that popular with the general public, and the shadow of Pierce Brosnan hanging over the franchise didn't help matters.
After LICENCE TO KILL in 1989, the Bond series took a forced break due to legal matters concerning which studio actually had the rights to the character (matters which were far too complicated for me to cover in this blog). When the Bond movies were ready to start back up again, it was generally assumed by nearly everyone that Pierce Brosnan would take over the role, and he did starting with GOLDENEYE, which was released in 1995.
This may be a surprise to some readers, but I think Brosnan was an excellent Bond. I always saw him as a combination of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Like Connery, Brosnan could get rough and tough when he needed to (Brosnan's Bond definitely has a mean streak to him), and like Moore, Brosnan had a smooth way with the quips and the ladies (Brosnan's Bond has a huge female fan base). Brosnan kept himself in top physical shape for the part, and he tried to do the majority of the stunts. Despite his reputation as a pretty boy, Brosnan was able to put across the idea that he was someone you wouldn't want to get into a fight with.
There's one Brosnan as Bond moment that particularly sticks out to me. It is in TOMORROW NEVER DIES, right after Bond has ruined Elliot Carver's press gala. Bond is sitting in his hotel room, waiting for Carver's goons to bust in. Bond has his suit jacket off, his gun at his side, and he's drinking vodka. He's tired, apprehensive, and angry. It's just a short moment, but it is about as close to the Ian Fleming Bond as you can get.
Unfortunately there's very little in the rest of the Brosnan as Bond movies that matches that moment. Brosnan's legacy as 007 is hurt by the fact that he never really appeared in a great James Bond film. All four of the movies he starred in are somewhat schizophrenic--they try to be serious and goofy at the same time, with the result being that none of them come off in a consistent manner.
After a five year break GOLDENEYE would have been the ultimate opportunity to go in a totally new direction with James Bond, but the Broccoli family were not interested in reinventing the wheel at that point--they were more worried about making sure the wheel still worked. GOLDENEYE was all about making a typical Bond movie that would appeal to the largest audience. For the most part, it worked. In the first thirty minutes of the film, Brosnan gets more female action--and more laughs--than Timothy Dalton did in two whole movies.
GOLDENEYE is the best of the Brosnan Bonds, which doesn't say much about the movies that followed. GOLDENEYE tries to appeal to all Bond fans by using all the classic James Bond movie tropes. Sean Bean is very good as the villain--the idea of a Double-O agent turning rogue and becoming a major bad guy is a interesting idea, but it is not developed as well as it could have been. (As we shall see, none of the Brosnan Bonds feature a truly memorable main baddie.)
TOMORROW NEVER DIES is okay, but it is basically a remake of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. Both films start out with an attack on the British Navy, both films have a ultra-rich megalomaniac who wants to start World War III, and both films have Bond teaming up with an agent from a Communist country. Having Jonathan Pryce as a Bond villain seems a great idea on paper, but once again the execution is lacking--Pryce comes off as more silly than dangerous. Michelle Yeoh is quite impressive as Bond's Chinese partner.
GOLDENEYE and TOMORROW NEVER DIES were directed by action specialists (Martin Campbell and Roger Spotiswoode). The next Brosnan Bond, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, was helmed by a "serious" director, Michael Apted. You couldn't tell that by the result, however. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH veers wildly from one attitude to another, and it suffers mightily from a bad guy (played by Robert Carlyle) who is built up as a major threat but winds up being a dud. The movie's serious tone is represented by Bond's relationship with the troubled Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). The elegantly sexy Marceau is the best Bond girl (and best Bond villain, for that matter) in the entire Brosnan era. This movie is all but ruined by the presence of Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist, and the gimmick casting of John Cleese as the new Q.
DIE ANOTHER DAY was released in 2002, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movie series. There was a lot of expectations for this entry in the series, and the result is one of the most disappointing Bond films of all. In this movie a supposedly hot, up-and-coming director was used (Lee Tamahori). About the only thing Tamahori did of note was make a movie which looks like all the other wild action flicks made during the same period. When people talk about DIE ANOTHER DAY, everyone mentions the invisible car, but for me the worst sin by far is having a CGI James Bond perform a CGI stunt. A huge deal was made about Halle Berry being in the film, but her character is basically the same role Michelle Yeoh played in TOMORROW NEVER DIES--and in my opinion Yeoh did a way better job. (Pierce Brosnan even had to share the film's main poster with Berry--just like Roger Moore had to share the A VIEW TO A KILL poster with Grace Jones.) DIE ANOTHER DAY also has an underwhelming villain, and a goofy title song (and a goofy cameo) by Madonna.
If anything good came out of DIE ANOTHER DAY, it was the fact that it was patently obvious James Bond really needed to be rebooted for the 21st Century. Could Pierce Brosnan have played Bond in a Daniel Craig-type outing? Yes, I believe he could have. Brosnan always hinted during his time as Bond that he wanted to do something more with the character. All the Brosnan Bond movies made huge amounts of money, and the Broccoli family at that time was not willing to mess with the formula. The Brosnan era had several highlights, such as Judi Dench as M, the music of David Arnold, and many action set-pieces, such as the pre-title sequence in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. One could make a truly great Pierce Brosnan James Bond film by editing all four of his outings into one feature (and editing in a great James Bond villain from the past).
I think that Pierce Brosnan made a fine Bond. He never got the chance to be in a fine James Bond film, and that hurts his 007 resume (even George Lazenby can say he was in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE). If he had to portray Bond in a movie right now, he'd still be able to pull it off.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Like most film buffs, I have a fair amount of Criterion releases in my movie collection. According to my personal page on the official Criterion website, I own at least 28 Criterion DVDs or Blu-rays. That might sound impressive, but I know people who own literally hundreds of Criterion titles.
The Criterion Collection is best known for its many foreign and art films, but the company has also put out several cult classics that in no way match the definition of "pretentious". One of those releases is 1932's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It is an earlier title from Criterion (the spine number is 46), and while it has nowhere near the expansive extras of the company's recent products, the DVD matches the movie's low-budget streamlined attitude perfectly.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME will always be compared to the original KING KONG. It was produced at RKO in 1932 during the pre-production of KONG, and both movies share many of the same on-and off-camera talent. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack often used THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME as sort of a test run for certain aspects of KONG. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is more than just the little brother of KING KONG--it is a fast-paced engaging thriller that stands alongside such other Pre-Code horrors as MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU.
The film is based on the famous short story of the same name written by Richard Connell, a story that has probably been read by every American schoolchild. Famous big-game hunter Rainsford (played in the film by Joel McCrea) is shipwrecked upon a South Pacific island controlled by the mad Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Rainsford learns that Zaroff is a hunter as well--but the Count goes after the biggest game of all, man.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME has officially (and unofficially) been remade many, many times over the years, but this version is the first and the best. The screenplay by James Creelman (who worked on the script of KING KONG) adds a female element to the tale in the form of Eve Trowbridge, played by the ultimate scream queen, Fay Wray. Ms. Wray wound up doing many of the same things in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME as she would in KING KONG, namely running around in terror and screaming a lot. Her character's appearance allows Count Zaroff to expound upon his theory that true hunters must kill first, then "take" a woman. This adds to Zaroff's menace--the audience has no doubt what will happen to Eve if the Count kills Rainsford. It also adds a kinky aspect to the film that would not have been allowed if it had been made a few years later, when the Production Code was fully enforced.
British stage actor Leslie Banks made his screen debut as Count Zaroff. Banks is best known today for appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. He cuts a dangerously fine figure as Zaroff--he's one of those decadent foreign bad guys that were so much a part of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Banks suffered injuries during World War One that left half of his face paralyzed, and this results in Zaroff having a off-center look that matches his off-center personality. Banks' performance as the Count is as memorable as anything Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi did during the same time period.
A very young Joel McCrea may strike some viewers as too young to be a renowned big-game hunter and successful author, but his All-American simplicity and ruggedness make him a perfect opposite from the Count's Old World villainy.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is really a dark adventure story, but it could also be classified as a horror film in many ways. Zaroff's island has an old fortress which might as well be called a spooky old castle, and the Count has a physically afflicted servant, just like Dr. Frankenstein had Fritz. The Count saves the heads of his victims and puts them on the wall of his "trophy room". We don't get much of a look at these "trophies" (it is explained why in the audio commentary), but what we do see would have been a major shock to audiences in 1932. The movie is quite violent for the time period, and the fact that the film is only 63 minutes long makes it seem even more frantic.
Criterion's DVD of this title only has one major extra--an audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. Thankfully it is very well done. Eder's talk is a combination of historical facts about the production, and those involved in it, along with a thoughtful analysis of the film itself. Eder keeps to the point and does not stray from the subject at hand, which is good considering the film's short running time. There are also liner notes from film professor Bruce Kawin.
The visual quality of this DVD is good--at least it is better than the many public domain copies of this title that are available. The Criterion version of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME can still be purchased on Amazon for a decent price. It may not be one of Criterion's most famous titles--or one of their most extra-packed releases--but this DVD of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME shows the company's commitment to celebrating all the various forms of cinema, no matter what the genre.
The DVD case cover
Liner notes by Bruce Kawin
Liner notes booklet and back case cover
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
I have to admit that I'm still unsure how I feel about SPECTRE, the latest James Bond film. I didn't hate it, but I wasn't blown away by it, either. It's kind of like how I felt about the last Bond movie, SKYFALL. Could it be that I've reached the point where I can't even enjoy a James Bond flick?
I hope not, but there is one thing I became aware of when I was watching SPECTRE. I kept trying to "analyze" it, and I kept trying to figure out what I was going to put in my blog post about the movie. I really shouldn't be thinking about stuff like that--I should be sitting back and looking at the film like a "normal" person. I've found that ever since I began writing this blog, it has become harder and harder for me to put away the movie blogger uniform when I walk into a theater--and that is a bad habit I need to break.
Anyway, back to SPECTRE. This movie references all the other Daniel Craig Bond films. I'm still not sold on the idea of the 21st Century Bond movies being direct sequels to one another. The classic Bond films were not direct sequels--they were a series of films (and yes, there is a difference). I love the 2006 CASINO ROYALE--but constantly going back to it reminds one how great that movie was, and how the other Craig Bonds are somewhat lacking in comparison.
SPECTRE reveals that all the incidents that have happened to Daniel Craig's Bond were secretly masterminded by a major criminal organization known as...SPECTRE. That name will be familiar to James Bond fans, and there's plenty of other stuff will Bond lovers will recognize. (Let me say right now that I am NOT going to give away any spoilers, even though that is going to make this blog very hard to write.) If you are a longtime hardcore 007 fan, you will be reminded of THUNDERBALL, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, LIVE AND LET DIE, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE while watching SPECTRE. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson must have read all those people on the internet complaining about how the Craig Bond films are not "fun" and how some of those people wish the Bonds were like they "used to be". Daniel Craig has lightened up a bit, but he's still pretty surly. The climax has several classic Bond film elements, such as a massive secret enemy lair.
But SPECTRE is still a long way from Roger Moore territory. The finished product has a lot of 21st Century darkness to it, such as a sub-plot dealing with a worldwide surveillance system, a sub-plot very reminiscent of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Yes, it's the good old "The people who say they are protecting us are really our enemies" storyline, one that has been used so many times recently it has become stale. Like most typical modern-day big-name popcorn movies, SPECTRE clocks in at 2 and a half hours, and in my opinion it should have been a tighter, leaner film. And SPECTRE has one of those "desaturated color" schemes that makes everything look either tan or grey...this is something I'm so tired of seeing I'm thinking about writing a blog post on it. (Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked on SKYFALL, is absent from SPECTRE, and he is missed.)
I can't say too much about Christoph Waltz's performance without giving the whole plot away. As for the Bond girls (ahem, Bond women)....there was a lot of publicity over the fact that Monica Bellucci was cast in SPECTRE, and most of that publicity centered around the idea of James Bond being with a "mature" woman. The fact is that Bellucci has nothing more than a glorified cameo, and Bond spends most of his time in the film with Lea Seydoux's character...and she is far younger than Daniel Craig. The person who stands out the most in this movie is Dave Bautista, who plays SPECTRE's main henchman. He's probably the best Bond bad guy in years.
Overall, I would rank SPECTRE as a better-than-average Bond film. Due to spoiler considerations I can't really get into it as much as I would like (maybe when it comes out on home video I will write another post on it). There was a huge pile of money spent on this picture, and there were times I felt that director Sam Mendes wanted to make sure the audience knew how much money was spent instead of moving the story along. Right now it is still up in the air whether Daniel Craig will do any more Bond films--but if he does, I humbly submit that the franchise needs to move away from being tied to CASINO ROYALE and send Craig on a totally new Bond adventure.
Oh, one more thing....the credits song is horrible. The only Sam Smith that I am aware of is a Chicago sportswriter by that name.
Saturday, November 7, 2015
This is my contribution to the Swashathon! blogathon hosted by moviessilently.com.
When you hear the word "swashbuckler", what is the first thing that comes to your mind? I'm sure some of you might say Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but for most folks it would be Errol Flynn. Flynn is to the swashbuckler as John Wayne is to the Western, or Karloff and Lugosi are to the classic horror film. Call it fate, destiny, or happy accident, the decision to cast Flynn in Warners' 1935 pirate adventure CAPTAIN BLOOD set the young actor on a course that would see him define an entire genre of film.
There have been many, many stars (male and female) who have taken up a sword, defended the honor of a monarch, or stood upon the deck of a pirate ship. But nobody did it quite the way Errol Flynn did it. Put any other actor in green tights and a green vest, and have him swing from a tree, and that actor would look as silly as the time Daffy Duck tried to prove he was Robin Hood. But Errol Flynn....for whatever undefinable reason, Flynn was the perfect swashbuckler--at home in Sherwood Forest, Middle Ages England, or on the Seven Seas.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is the greatest Robin Hood movie of them all, and the definitive Errol Flynn swashbuckler performance. But there's another high cinematic tale of adventure--an almost semi-sequel to ROBIN HOOD--that in some ways, I think, is even better than ROBIN HOOD.
1940's THE SEA HAWK is the Errol Flynn movie to end all Errol Flynn movies. It is a bold, vast epic that has a 127 minute running time (very few mainstream movies went that long back in that era). With THE SEA HAWK, Warner Bros. went out of their way to try and repeat the successful formula that had created ROBIN HOOD. Both films shared on-camera (Flynn, Claude Rains, Alan Hale, Una O'Connor) and off-camera (director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Seton Miller, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold) talent. In ROBIN HOOD Flynn plays a dashing rogue who, even though he goes by his own rules, really just means to faithfully serve his English monarch. That description also applies to the character Flynn plays in THE SEA HAWK.
In 1580s England, Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) is a "Sea Hawk"--a privateer who, while not officially under the command of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth, uses his ship and crew to harass and loot England's enemies. (In other words, he's supposed to be "better" than a mere pirate--although he basically is a pirate, no matter how the screenplay tries to cover it up.) The continued raids of the Sea Hawks on Spanish interests has led that country to the brink of declaring war on England. Queen Elizabeth (the magnificent Flora Robson) is tired of the threats of Spain, but she also believes that England is not yet ready for war. The Queen tries to keep a tenuous peace while at the same time keeping happy both the Sea Hawks and ministers like the treacherous Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), who is actually loyal to Spain.
The very beginning of the film showcases the artistry of director Michael Curtiz and the glorious black & white camera work of cinematographer Sol Polito. In an expressionistic meeting chamber, King Phillip of Spain (Montagu Love) and his ministers plot the conquest of England. The chamber is dominated by a huge map of the world, and as Phillip rises from his seat his shadow looms ominously over the map--a clever visual metaphor.
What follows next is one of the greatest action sequences in all of classic Hollywood history. A Spanish Galleon is en route to England, transporting the new ambassador (Claude Rains) and his lovely niece (Brenda Marshall). The Spanish Captain believes that since the ambassador is on board, none of the Sea Hawks will dare to trouble his ship. He's greatly in error, however--the masts of the Albatross are sighted, the ship commanded by none other than Geoffrey Thorpe. Soon both ships are engaged in fierce combat, with the cannons of the Albatross scoring major hits on the Galleon. Thorpe runs his ship alongside the Galleon, and has his crew board and capture her. The hand-to-hand fighting between the two crews is still breathtaking, even in this day and age. Hundreds of men battling one another, with swords flashing, flintlocks shooting....there's so much going on during this sequence it is almost too much to take in. The two ships were full-size replicas built by the studio and then placed in a large water tank located in a giant stage on the Warners lot. The final effect is simply astounding--once you see it you'll swear there was no way it could have been filmed on a California soundstage.
The opening sea battle showcases Errol Flynn at his best--swinging over the rails of a ship, engaging in a swordfight with the Spanish Captain, and barking out orders to his crew. What's interesting about Flynn's screen persona was that even though he usually was an individualistic rogue, he was still able to appear natural when commanding large groups of men. Naturally the Spanish ambassador and his niece are upset at Thorpe's actions. Thorpe promises the duo he will safely take them to England--but not before confiscating the treasure the Spanish have stored aboard their vessel.
Some film buffs have complained about the fact that Brenda Marshall is the love interest in THE SEA HAWK instead of Flynn's usual co-star, Olivia de Havilland. The romance angle really isn't important in this movie, however. At first Brenda Marshall acts "hard to get", but that doesn't last long. Marshall and Flynn are not able to develop the same chemistry as Flynn had with de Havilland, but that's more because Marshall's role is somewhat underwritten.
The major relationship in THE SEA HAWK belongs to Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Thorpe. When the Albatross gets back to England, Thorpe has to explain his actions to the Queen. The Queen "officially" acts perturbed toward Thorpe, but in reality she is as charmed by him as any other woman would be in the presence of someone like Errol Flynn. The scenes that Flora Robson and Errol Flynn share are delightful, and one wishes that there were more of them.
Flora Robson had already played Queen Elizabeth on the big screen in Alexander Korda's 1936 British film FIRE OVER ENGLAND. That movie has a lot of similarities with THE SEA HAWK, and there's no doubt Warner Bros. was influenced by it. Warners had also made an earlier film involving the Virgin Queen, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring as Essex, none other than....Errol Flynn. The role of the Queen in that picture was filled by Bette Davis. In that movie Elizabeth and Essex are supposed to have a serious relationship, but you never buy it. Flynn and Davis did not work well together, and the movie itself is very turgid. Robson and Flynn, however, are quite entertaining, and even though several female stars have essayed the role of Queen Elizabeth (such as Davis, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench), I think that Flora Robson is the best screen Elizabeth of them all.
Thorpe convinces the Queen to unofficially give her sanction to his latest plan--a raid on the Isthmus of Panama and the Spanish treasure haul located there. Lord Wolfingham and the Spanish ambassador learn of Thorpe's plans, and they are able to get warning to the New World before Thorpe and his crew get there. Thorpe and his men are ambushed, and they are sentenced to serve on the slave galleys of the Spanish navy. The indefatigable English Captain leads his men in an escape, and they even wind up capturing a Spanish ship!
Thorpe finds plans that prove that the Spanish Armada is ready to attack England. He also finds out that the Sea Hawks have been declared outlaws by the Crown, as a way to try and appease Spain. Thorpe and his crew sail back to England, and the Captain attempts to sneak his way into the Queen's chamber. He is confronted by Lord Wolfingham, and the two have an epic sword duel.
The climatic sword fight in THE SEA HAWK is even more impressive than the one between Flynn and Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. It is set up with Thorpe taking on four of the Queen's guards at the same time, rousing the audience's expectations for the ultimate confrontation with the traitorous Wolfingham. Henry Daniell was truly as much of a villain as Basil Rathbone was, but sadly he wasn't anywhere near the swordsman Rathbone was. In the final duel Daniell is relegated to only a couple of close-ups, but he is doubled so effectively the viewer doesn't really notice. Curtiz's well-known use of shadows is on full display here, as Wolfingham and Thorpe fight each other throughout the castle. (I love how in one point in the duel Flynn chops down the candles lighting a room!) Backed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stirring music (which is as much of a main character in the movie as Flynn is), one can't help watching this duel and wanting to jump off the couch and join in. And having Queen Elizabeth burst in, and Thorpe drop his sword and kneel at her feet? Can it get any more swashbuckling than that??
THE SEA HAWK ends with Queen Elizabeth giving a impassioned speech on the eve of the battle against the Spanish Armada. The speech is a thinly-veiled reference to what 1940 England was experiencing against Nazi Germany. Robson's delivery of the Queen's speech is both moving and uplifting, and her performance, combined with the final flourishes of Korngold's majestic score, brings the film to a memorable close.
I realize that I've told way too much of the plot that I usually do in one of my blog posts, but there's so many things I enjoy about this movie, and I have to share them. THE SEA HAWK was made at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and everything about it--art direction, production design, music, stunts, special effects, editing--proves that when the studio system was at its best, there was nothing like it. THE SEA HAWK is pure old-fashioned adventure on a grand scale, and you can't help but feel good after seeing it.
The greatness of Errol Flynn is that you believed in whatever he was doing. He took his swashbuckler roles seriously, but he was still able to have a sense of humor about himself and his situation. Men (and kids) dreamed of being Flynn, and women dreamed of loving him. Before his personal problems caught up with him, no other film actor exuded the sense of fun and adventure that Errol Flynn did. He remains the epitome of the entire swashbuckling genre, and I submit that THE SEA HAWK is one of the best all-time swashbuckling films.
An iconic image of an iconic performer.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
There is a theory among Doctor Who fans. The theory is that whenever someone starts watching, or discovers Doctor Who, whoever happens to be playing the character at that particular time becomes that person's favorite Doctor. I don't know if that theory works for the James Bond universe, but I do know that when I first became aware of 007 as a kid in the 1970s, Roger Moore was James Bond--and for a long time it was Moore that always came to my mind whenever the character was mentioned.
When I became a teenager I read all the Ian Fleming novels and watched all the other James Bond movies on TV. My perception of Moore as THE James Bond changed. I became a huge fan of Sean Connery's Bond, and I couldn't wait for Moore to quit playing the role. A lot of kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s are now re-assessing Moore as Bond--such as myself. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but my respect for Moore as 007 has gone up a bit recently.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Moore's last outing as Bond, the horrid A VIEW TO A KILL. For many years after that Moore was the one given the most blame for how the Bond series fared in the 1970s. The problem with that assessment is that it does not take into account 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, made before Moore took on the part. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is basically a Roger Moore-type Bond movie without Roger Moore, and it proves that the series was heading in a very different direction from what it had been in the early 1960s--even if someone other than Moore had wound up cast as Bond.
Certainly Moore had a huge effect on how the Bond series turned out during his tenure. Before becoming 007, Moore was most famous as a leading man for TV. He was handsome, with an appealing personality, and he had a way with one-liners--but he wasn't anything like Fleming's brooding misanthropic secret agent. Moore was well aware of his limitations as an actor, and instead of trying to be like Bond, Moore just played his usual "Roger Moore" persona.
One advantage Moore had was his screen presence. I've always believed that the character of James Bond doesn't need a great actor as much as it needs someone with enough presence to make the audience think he is Bond. Moore had that in spades. There were all sorts of wild and silly things going on in the world of Roger Moore's Bond, but the man made you buy into whatever was going on--and that's not an easy feat for any performer to pull off.
Moore had another advantage over all the other actors that have played the role--he actually enjoyed doing it. Roger Moore didn't just love being Bond, he reveled in being 007. Whenever one of the Moore Bond movies were getting ready to come out, the newspapers would always print a publicity photo of Moore on the set, with a big grin on his face, surrounded by a dozen or so gorgeous women. Moore constantly had a look on his face that said, "Yep...I'M James Bond, and I'm having a hell of a time." Moore's enjoyment was felt by moviegoers, who wanted to be with him on his experiences.
Today all the other James Bond actors either refuse to even talk about the role, or reflect on it with a sense of disdain. Moore will talk about Bond anytime, anywhere--I bet if you saw him walking down the street and you asked him a Bond question, he'd chat with you for 30 minutes. Moore has never felt that Bond was "beneath" him, and average guys like me respect that.
Now...was Roger Moore the best person to be Ian Fleming's 007? Well, probably not. But once again, it has to be said that the James Bond movies are not made for hard-core Fleming fans. Most people who watch the Bond films have never read a Fleming novel in their lives. I'm not saying this to make excuses for some of the series' more lackluster outings--I'm just stating a simple truth. The Moore Bond films went overboard on the "goofy fun" element, but they were goofy fun, and Moore was a very popular James Bond.
Moore's first two movies as 007, LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, are somewhat weak--if it wasn't for Christopher Lee, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN would probably put you to sleep. Series Co-Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman then split up, with Broccoli taking control of the franchise. Broccoli wanted to bring the series back to its larger-than-life status, and the result was THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, without doubt the best Roger Moore Bond film. The success of STAR WARS influenced Broccoli to go even bigger with MOONRAKER, the movie now generally considered the worst Bond film of all time. I re-watched MOONRAKER not that long ago, and yes, it is incredibly silly, but I came away impressed with how much money was lavished on it--it truly is a spectacular production, and people forget that it made a killing at the box office.
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY was an attempt to go "back to the basics"--but it was a half-hearted attempt that still tried to incorporate typical 70s Bond silliness, such as a fake Blofeld and a fake Margaret Thatcher. OCTOPUSSY had some interesting elements, but by the climax it was goofy season once again, with a group of circus showgirls fighting off a bunch of heavily armed bad guys.
Once the 1980s came along it was readily apparent that Moore wasn't getting any younger. Moore had always tried to avoid too much heavy lifting as 007, and now it seemed Moore's stuntmen got as much screen time as he did. A VIEW TO A KILL was so bad it put Moore out to pasture permanently. What can you say about a movie that gives us the unforgettable sight of a blimp sneaking up behind Tanya Roberts?
It would be easy to totally blame Roger Moore on the decline of the Bond series during the 1970s and the 1980s, but that's too simple. EON Productions followed a rigid formula when making the Bond films, using certain directors, screenwriters, and off-camera personnel over and over again. Moore wasn't the type of actor to rock the boat, and even if he did try to do more with his Bond, any changes he would have suggested probably would have fallen on deaf ears.
So how do we define the career of Roger Moore as James Bond? Fleming fanatics consider him the worst by far. Movie critics generally dismissed Moore, and they continuously complained about how he wasn't like Sean Connery. The general movie-going audience, however, accepted Moore in the role, and spent a lot of money going to see his Bond movies. As I stated at the beginning of this post, many who grew up watching Moore as Bond are now in a position to appreciate him, and many have done so, especially on the internet. The fact that Moore still makes himself accessible to the public, and the fact that he is willing to admit how much he enjoyed being the character, has enabled him to retain a major fan base to this day.
Did you know that before Daniel Craig came along, Roger Moore was the only English-born actor to play James Bond in an official 007 film? (Sean Connery is Scottish, George Lazenby is Australian, Timothy Dalton is Welsh, and Pierce Brosnan is Irish.) Moore also holds the current record for having played Bond for the longest consecutive time--seven movies from 1973 to 1985.
I don't think Roger Moore was the perfect film Bond. But when I was a kid, he WAS James Bond--and that meant a lot. Moore only made one truly great Bond film, but all his series entries are entertaining in a goofy sort of way.