Wednesday, August 27, 2014


One of the latest DVD-R releases from the Warner Archive Collection will be of special interest to old movie buffs--not because of the film's star, but because of two of the film's supporting players.

BROADMINDED (1931) is a comedy released by Warners-First National and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Comic Joe E. Brown is the star. What notoriety Brown has today is mostly due to his role in Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT, but in the 1930s he top-lined a number of feature films built around his persona. That persona is a bit hard to describe to someone who has never seen or heard of Joe E. Brown...the best way I can define it is the persona of a goofy hick. Brown was also know for his large mouth--and by that I don't mean he was gabby, I mean he really had a physically large mouth.

Joe E. Brown is one of those performers who a person from the 21st Century looks at and says, "How did that guy ever become a movie star??" Nevertheless, he was a star, and he was big enough to rate a top director and two famous writers (Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) for BROADMINDED.

BROADMINDED stars out with a prime example of Pre-Code era weirdness. A group of young adults are having a "baby party", where everyone is dressed as a toddler and sucks on baby bottles (presumably filled with Prohibition-style bootleg hooch). Attending the party are rich playboy Jack (William Collier Jr.) and his wacky cousin Ossie (Joe E. Brown). Seeing Brown sitting in a perambulator and acting like a baby is....rather unique.

The party gets raided by the cops, and the raid gets into the next morning's newspapers. Jack's Dad is so sick and tired of his carousing that he decides to send Jack on a long trip--and he assigns Ossie to keep him in line on the way. (What self-respecting rich guy would want Joe E. Brown to look after his son?)

Jack and Ossie travel to California, where they run into a temperamental Latin, played by none other than Bela Lugosi. Joe E. Brown's confrontations with Lugosi are far more interesting than the main plot of the movie (any you can't help but want Bela to strangle Joe). Jack and Ossie then run into a pair of cuties played by Ona Munson and Marjorie White. Munson would gain later fame in playing Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND, and White wound up appearing in the very first Three Stooges short subject for Columbia, WOMAN HATERS.

The foursome wind up at a posh Pasadena hotel, where various complications ensue. Of course the gang run into Bela Lugosi again--along with his wife, portrayed by the Ice Cream Blonde herself, Thelma Todd.

As soon as the statuesque Todd shows up about halfway through the film, the other females in the movie don't stand a chance. Thelma has more screen presence and charisma than just about anyone else in the cast combined (excepting Bela). Ossie and Jack hire Thelma to help Jack get a hold of some incriminating letters--a plan which also involves Thelma walking around in a negligee. As expected, Bela walks in and goes batty (pun intended). But everything works out in the end, and all the guys wind up with their girls...even Bela gets to walk away hand-in-hand with Thelma Todd!

BROADMINDED isn't really that much of a comedy. Writers Kalmar & Ruby penned a number of famous songs and movie scripts for the likes of the Marx Brothers, but BROADMINDED is far from their best work. The real reason to watch this movie, especially for old movie buffs, is the chance to see Bela Lugosi, not that far removed from the filming of DRACULA, playing a comedy role and acting as the husband of the legendary Thelma Todd. I've read for years and years how Bela didn't know English, or American humor very well, but there's no evidence of that in BROADMINDED. Bela's comic timing here is excellent, and when he recites dialogue, he gives the right words the right emphasis.

It's great to see Thelma Todd turn her charms on Bela. One has to wonder what Bela and Thelma thought of one another--and one also has to wonder whether Bela made a pass at Hot Toddy during filming.

BROADMINDED is definitely a picture for movie geeks instead of a general audience. Both Bela Lugosi and Thelma Todd have rabid cult fanbases, so this DVD-R might make some sales. The picture quality on this disc is not bad, but not all that great, either. The only extra is an original trailer for the film.

Left to right: Thelma Todd, Bela Lugosi, Ona Munson, William Collier Jr., Marjorie White, and Joe E. Brown.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

World War One 100th Anniversary: HEROES FOR SALE

One of the sub-genres of the World War One film is the "Forgotten Man" storyline--a movie dealing with the returning veterans of the Great War. The topic of the "Forgotten Man" cropped up in pictures such as GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and THE ROARING TWENTIES. The struggling World War One veteran was a major news story in the early 1930s, due to several of them being to reduced to homelessness or unemployment because of the Great Depression.

One of the most notable "Forgotten Man" films is HEROES FOR SALE, made in 1933. The director of HEROES FOR SALE was none other than William Wellman, the man who had helmed the Oscar-winning World War One silent epic WINGS. HEROES FOR SALE, however, is a far cry from the high-sky heroism of WINGS.

The plot of HEROES FOR SALE revolves around ordinary guy Tom Holmes, played by Richard Barthelmess. During the Great War Tom takes part in a daring raid behind enemy lines to capture a German officer. Tom is severely injured in the attack, and is captured. After the Armistice is announced, Tom is given morphine by his German doctor to help him deal with his pain. On the boat home Tom finds out that the man who led the raid, a banker's son from Tom's home town, took credit for Tom's actions and has become a hero. The fake hero begs Tom not to tell anyone, and once home Tom gets a job at the bank. His addiction to morphine unfortunately leads to Tom losing his job.

Tom is forcibly sent to a "narcotic farm" and is cured of his addiction, but without a job or any money, he has to go on the road. He winds up in Chicago, where he manages to get a job in a laundry. Tom soon marries a nice girl (the achingly beautiful Loretta Young), and gets a promotion...but his troubles are only beginning.

HEROES FOR SALE was made during the now-famous "Pre-Code" era...and there's no doubt that a couple years later this screenplay would have never seen the light of day. For the rest of the film Tom winds up stuck in one major crisis after another--and none of it is of his own making. Tom has to deal with so many things that one has to wonder why he doesn't just give up or go crazy. Apparently the message of HEROES FOR SALE is that Tom, and America, may take a few knocks, but they will carry on and prevail.

The problem with that message is that HEROES FOR SALE presents an America straight out of a nightmare. The America here is cruel and capricious, where any law-abiding citizen can have the rug pulled out from under them at any time. Tom's status as a veteran just seems to make him more of an easy prey--it's almost as if he is being punished for serving in the Great War. Toward the end of the film Tom is with a group of transients, trying to stay out of the rain. Tom starts talking about President Roosevelt's Inaugural Address--and just when you think that the movie is going to end on an optimistic note, Tom and his compatriots are rousted out of the county by vindictive law officers.

William Wellman directed a number of hard-hitting Pre-Code melodramas, but HEROES FOR SALE has to be one of the most striking. One could look at the movie as a far-left social statement--except for the fact that Wellman wasn't exactly a far-left guy (Wellman himself was a World War One veteran, and his life turned out pretty good). More than likely Wellman was given a script, and he did his best to make it as well as possible. What's really amazing about HEROES FOR SALE is that it is only 71 minutes long--it has more plot than a Christopher Nolan movie. HEROES FOR SALE moves....but it never seems sloppy or dashed together. 21st Century film makers could learn a lot by watching early 1930s Hollywood product (especially those made by Warner Bros., the studio behind HEROES FOR SALE).

The opening sequence, which deals with the raid that injured Tom, is a rain-soaked, muddy masterpiece....and it has nothing in common with WINGS. There's also a well-staged riot in the film, which features the movie's most shocking scene (I don't want to give it away, but even for a Pre-Code film, it's a wallop). No matter the plot or the situation, Wellman's films always have that extra something that distinguishes them from the work of other directors.

The very subject of the "Forgotten Man" is a bleak one...and HEROES FOR SALE has to be one of the most bleak "Forgotten Man" films of them all. Is it a call to help World War One veterans or just pure exploitation? All I can say is, if any prospective immigrants went and saw this movie back in 1933, they probably wound up to scared to want to set foot in this country.

A rather deceiving HEROES FOR SALE poster

Sunday, August 17, 2014


The Kino/Lorber company has been releasing rare & unusual films on home video for years, particularly those from the silent era. This year the company started a "Kino/Lorber Studio Classics" line which will release a number of MGM/United Artists titles. One of the latest is the off-beat 1960 Western THE UNFORGIVEN. Please note that this movie has nothing to do with Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, and it has nothing to do with any Metallica song either.

When you look at the credits for THE UNFORGIVEN you can't help but be impressed. It was directed by John Huston, and it stars Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, and a fine supporting cast. The film's screenplay was based on a novel by Alan Le May, the man who wrote the book that THE SEARCHERS was based on. THE UNFORGIVEN was made by Burt Lancaster's production company and it boasts a music score from Dimitri Tiomkin.

Despite all that THE UNFORGIVEN doesn't reach the heights of a major classic Western. The film revolves around the Zachary family--brothers Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy), and Andy (Doug McClure), adopted sister Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), and their mother (Lillian Gish). The Zacharys are getting ready to drive a huge herd of cattle to market when a mysterious stranger (Joseph Wiseman) intrudes on their lives by telling the local community that Rachel is actually a Native American, taken from her Kiowa tribe during a raid. The Zacharys wind up having to fend off the Kiowas, who want Rachel back, and their neighbors, who want Rachel sent away.

John Huston doesn't show much love for the West in THE UNFORGIVEN. There's no natural beauty shown here--the landscape is parched and arid. All of the film's characters are presented as colorful, or odd (perhaps too much so). Huston is apparently suggesting that someone has to be a little bit off to even want to live in such a place.

It's hard for a viewer to to like the Zachary family--their stubbornness precipitates tragedy instead of solving it. Lancaster's Ben happens to be in love with Rachel--and I don't mean the brother-sister kind of love. Rachel's not really Ben's sister, but she been raised as a Zachary almost her entire life. Just about everyone in the film seems horrified at the fact that Rachel could be a Native American (including Rachel).....but the fact that Ben wants his adopted sister for himself doesn't rile up much of a fuss.

There's a lot of politically incorrect thoughts and deeds in this movie. Huston must have intended to show the racism that was prevalent in the era...but that racism is undercut by the Kiowas acting just like a typical Hollywood Indian tribe. The climax of THE UNFORGIVEN features the Kiowas laying siege to the Zachary homestead. It's a well-made sequence, but because of the attitudes of the characters it winds up being emotionally hollow.

Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn are very good here, but the most impressive acting comes from the supporting players. Audie Murphy is excellent, playing totally against type as the angry Cash. A very young John Saxon plays a charismatic horse wrangler who has eyes for Rachel. Saxon gets his own action sequence, and it seems that he is being set up to play a part in the movie's climax--but his character disappears from the last part of the film. Lillian Gish as the headstrong Zachary matriarch seems right out of a silent movie (for obvious reasons).  The actor who makes the biggest impression is Joseph Wiseman as the old coot who reveals Rachel's true origin. Wiseman played Dr. No, the very first James Bond movie villain--and if I hadn't told you that you would have never believed that the creepy codger and Dr. No were portrayed by the same man.

There's a lot of things to like about THE UNFORGIVEN, but it is the kind of movie you wish you were able to rewrite the script for. THE UNFORGIVEN winds up being a strange, dramatic Western that isn't as good as it should be.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pre-BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: A Few Thoughts

Since the news recently that the characters of both Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both going to appear in the future Batman/Superman film, I've been having a few thoughts on the production. I know it's silly to write a blog post about a movie that won't be released until a year and a half from now, but hey, that's what movie blogs are for.

First of all, the title--which as of now is officially BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE. That's a fairly unwieldy title, and a very pretentious one. Why not just call it JUSTICE LEAGUE? Probably because the Justice League won't be formed until the end of the Batman/Superman movie, and more than likely JUSTICE LEAGUE will be the title of the follow-up to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. Okay then...why not call it WORLD'S FINEST? Probably because Warners doesn't want to confuse people who don't read comic books, and besides, there might be someone in Mongolia who has no idea about WORLD'S FINEST, and you know how important the overseas box office is.

Second, this is going to be a very, very long movie. You've got Batman, Superman, and all their ancillary characters (Lois Lane, Alfred, etc.). Apparently Lex Luthor will be in the story--and he's going to be different than the Gene Hackman/Kevin Spacey Luthor, which means he's going to have a major amount of scenes to set him up. And then of course there's Wonder Woman and Aquaman....and who knows right now what other DC characters might make a cameo or a surprise appearance (I'm betting there's going to be at least one more major villain).

That's a lot of people to give proper coverage to. Before Marvel Studios made the first Avengers movie, they had already created a fully-fledged cinematic universe, and given a number of characters their own films, or at least supporting roles in those films. Thus when it came time to do the first Avengers movie, the audience didn't really have to sit through a whole lot of exposition. DC/Warners doesn't have that option. They can just go right ahead and jump in and pretend that everybody knows all the major information about the DC Universe--but they more than likely won't, which means we will be explained a lot of things that most moviegoers have a decent understanding of. That's not going to help the story construction. DC/Warners has had a hard enough time getting Batman or Superman right, let alone an entire cinematic world.

The fact that Zach Snyder is directing this has a lot of people on the internet in an uproar. I don't hate on Snyder the way a lot of people seem to do, but I will admit he has a penchant for grandiosity. Snyder is at his best when he is adapting a well-written work with a clearly defined vision, such as 300 or WATCHMEN. When he has to do things on his own, however....

It would be nice if the story of the Batman/Superman movie is based on an existing graphic novel or comic book story-arc which deals with Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. (Far all I know, Snyder and Co. might be doing this.) The DC movies seem to try to get away from the comics instead of moving closer to them. Whether BATMAN V. SUPERMAN will signal a change in that department, I don't know.

The last thought I have is this. No matter how good BATMAN V. SUPERMAN might or might not be, it will never live up to the worldwide expectations it already has.

The reason for this is simple. Ever since this movie has been announced, it has been endlessly debated and discussed on the internet over and over again...and it will continue to be, even after it finally makes the big screen. That means nearly two years of uninterrupted media coverage. No movie can live up to that (and that's why I worry about the new Star Wars feature, which is in the same boat). As I've said before, geek culture now rules mainstream entertainment, and that has changed how we view and interpret movies.

What geek culture--or more accurately the expectations of geek culture--has done is turned every single one of us into the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons". We all would much rather discuss and argue about a movie than actually just sit and enjoy it--and I fully include myself in that "we". BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is going to be poked, prodded,and pulled about a million different ways by about a million different people way before it is seen by even one film goer. No matter how it comes out, the fan community will be disappointed in it one way or another. If it doesn't work, we'll all hear over and over again about how Marvel is better.....but maybe the DC characters are really more iconic than those from Marvel....and maybe the general public expects a higher standard for a movie made about Batman and Superman.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

World War One 100th Anniversary: DISHONORED

DISHONORED (1931) is the third film collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. It's also a World War One movie--one of the very few Hollywood pictures set on the Eastern front of the war.

Set in 1915 Vienna, DISHONORED features Dietrich as a poor war widow who is reduced to becoming a streetwalker. She joins the Austrian Secret Service and is given the code name X-27. For the rest of the film she matches wits with a Russian spy (Victor McLaglen). The Russian is eventually captured after a battle but X-27 allows him to escape. X-27 is then charged with treason and executed.

DISHONORED may be set during World War One, but it's just really an excuse for von Sternberg to photograph Marlene Dietrich as exquisitely as possible. Like just about every other von Sternberg film, DISHONORED is more of a mood piece than a complete story. The pace of the movie is very, very, slow--there's not much slam-bang action here. Dietrich spends most of her time looking glamorous and bored--it is only when she is told that she is going to be executed that any flicker of real emotion shows on her face. She does get one out-of-the-box sequence when X-27 disguises as a Polish peasant girl. Without her usual fancy hairdo, makeup, and clothes, Dietrich is all but unrecognizable.

Victor McLaglen is best known now for playing boisterous loudmouths in a number of John Ford movies. In DISHONORED he is supposed to be a dashing Russian spy, and he is supposed to be able to make Dietrich go against her country. The problem is that McLaglen is totally miscast--he and Dietrich seem to have no chemistry at all, and you don't believe she would care about him whatsoever.

The one thing you can be sure of when you watch a film directed by Josef von Sternberg is that you are going to see some magnificent cinematography. The DOP on DISHONORED was Lee Garmes, who worked on several projects with Dietrich. Marlene looks magnificent at all times, and there's a number of striking camera set-ups and images. DISHONORED is a great film to look at and study, especially if you are a connoisseur of pre-code cinema.

I try not to give away endings when I write a blog about a film, but in this case I have to. The climax of DISHONORED is probably the film's most famous scene. Just before being led out to her execution, X-27 asks if she can wear the clothes she wore as a streetwalker. As she faces the firing squad X-27 primps as if she is getting her picture taken. It's the ultimate von Sternberg-Dietrich moment--lurid, stylistic, and outrageously over-the-top. X-27 does get shot down, and we see it--this is a pre-code film, after all. There's no last-minute plot device to save Dietrich. A scene like this would be unthinkable in a Hollywood film just a few years later.

DISHONORED is more melodrama than an authentic World War One tale. Marlene Dietrich makes a very fine pseudo-Mata Hari.

Marlene Dietrich in DISHONORED

Monday, August 11, 2014

World War One 100th Anniversary: VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN

On the surface Roger Corman's VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (1971) would seem to be nothing more than a low-budget version of THE BLUE MAX. Director Corman rented the same planes and equipment used in THE BLUE MAX, and VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN was filmed in Ireland, just like THE BLUE MAX was. Corman's movie is very different, however.

In his autobiography HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD AND NEVER LOST A DIME, Corman explains why he was drawn to the story of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Corman felt that the Baron was the last true knight, an aristocratic warrior with a code of honor. Corman wanted to show how the Baron's way of thinking was archaic compared to the wholesale slaughter of World War One. Corman also wanted to contrast the Baron with the man who had been credited with shooting him down, Canadian RAF pilot Roy Brown. (Most historians now believe that the Red Baron was shot down by ground fire.)

Usually when a movie has two characters like the Red Baron and Roy Brown, the ordinary plain-spoken Canadian will be presented far more sympathetically than the upper-class German. But that isn't so in VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN. Corman turns the tables and has the Baron (played by John Phillip Law) be the true hero of the film. Roy Brown (played by Don Stroud) comes off as standoffish and distant (I don't know what any of Brown's family thought of the movie, but I'm sure they couldn't have been too pleased). Law's charismatic von Richthofen is far more appealing than Stroud's surly Brown.

The movie's screenplay plays fast and loose with the real events, despite having many real-life characters such as Hermann Goering, Ernst Udet, and Anthony Fokker. (Fokker, by the way, is played by Dorian Gray himself, Hurd Hatfield.) Corman isn't really interested in historical fact--he just wants to set up his theme that World War One was the first "modern" war, the first war in which carnage was taken to an industrial level. (This theme is a common one in WWI films--but the theme could be used for a movie about any historical war, when you think about it.) As the story progresses, the pilots on both the German and Allied sides go from battling each other in one-on-one duels to strafing hospitals and killing ground personnel. (I'm sure the fact that this movie was made during the Vietnam era had a lot to do with Corman's portrayal of modern war.)

John Phillip Law cuts a dashing figure as the Red Baron. What makes Law's film career unique is that almost every movie he starred in has a major cult reputation--among Law's credits are such titles as BABARELLA, DANGER: DIABOLIK, DEATH RIDES A HORSE and THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Don Stroud was best known for playing villains, which is another reason why Roy Brown seems so unlikable. Stroud as Brown seems more like a disaffected 1960s American than a WWI-era Canadian RAF officer.

Roger Corman had way less money--and way less time--to shoot the flying sequences for this film than the producers of THE BLUE MAX did. Despite that, the aerial scenes are just as good, or in some ways better. Corman will always be known as a B-movie/exploitation king, but he really was a very underrated director--almost all of his films are fast-moving and entertaining, and he could handle just about any genre. VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN is certainly not a very historically accurate film--it's more like historical melodrama--but it is worth a look. If you want to find out about the real Red Baron and Roy Brown, you're better off reading a book on those men.

John Phillip Law as the Red Baron

Sunday, August 10, 2014

World War One 100th Anniversary: THE BLUE MAX

The title of THE BLUE MAX (1966) is actually the nickname for the Pour le Merite, the highest order of merit in the German Empire during the period of World War One. Contrary to popular belief, the award was not just for aviators--Erwin Rommel was awarded one--but it has always been associated with German flying aces.

The main character of THE BLUE MAX is Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), who is obsessed with winning the Pour le Merite. Stachel is a former infantryman who has transferred to the German Army Air Service in 1918. The working-class Stachel rubs his fellow pilots the wrong way almost immediately by not disguising his quest for personal glory. (If Bruno Stachel was a baseball player, he would be the type of guy who cared more about his stats than his team.)

Bruno Stachel is a unusual choice to be a leading character in a epic historical war film made for English-speaking audiences. First of all, he's German--and he's not what one would call a "good" German. If you are any sort of a film buff you know what a Good German is. Just about every WWI or WWII picture has one--he's the guy who expresses doubts about his country's actions, or gives the Nazi salute in a half-hearted manner. Stachel isn't a good or bad German--he's a self-centered sourpuss with a chip on his shoulder. Stachel has no problems with war or killing, or his country's role--all he wants to do is get as many "kill" credits as possible so he can prove something.

Needless to say, someone like Stachel is not going to be very attractive to the average viewer. Stachel's flying exploits come to the attention of a General (James Mason), who picks the young man as someone who can be trotted out as a hero to war-weary German civilians back home. Stachel enters into an affair with the General's much younger trophy wife (Ursula Andress). The couple are made for each other, since the General's wife is just as self-centered and cold-blooded as Stachel is.

Stachel does get his comeuppance in the end, but the climax doesn't have the emotional impact that it should, simply because the viewer doesn't like Stachel and doesn't care what happens to him.

What makes THE BLUE MAX exceptional are the film's spectacular flying scenes, directed by Anthony Squire. Most of the planes used were customized to look like WWI flying craft, but still, those are real planes flying around, and the end result is amazing even when one looks at THE BLUE MAX today. When it comes to the technical details and the battle scenes, THE BLUE MAX has to be rated as one of the best WWI films ever--at least in those departments.

Most of THE BLUE MAX was filmed in Ireland, and the movie has a overcast, dreary look about it. No doubt that was due to the Irish weather, but the gloomy atmosphere does fit the outlook for the German military in 1918. We're even shown a bit of home front life in 1918 Berlin, something which is almost never portrayed in a WWI movie. THE BLUE MAX features standout cinematography from Douglas Slocombe and an excellent music score from the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.

Director John Guillermin certainly had a lot to work with in this film....but one thing he wasn't able to do was make the audience care about the characters. George Peppard is very good at playing a jerk...perhaps too good. It is inferred that Bruno Stachel acts the way he does because he's working class, but Bruno appears more aloof and aristocratic than his supposed higher-class comrades. Ursula Andress looks stupendous (she probably was the most beautiful woman in the world in 1966), but emotionally she's just like Stachel. James Mason gives a bit of class to the proceedings, and it's interesting that Mason shares scenes with Karl Michael Vogler, who plays Stachel's commander. Both Mason and Vogler played Erwin Rommel in different films. Anton Diffring, who must have played German WWII officers dozens of times in his acting career, this time gets a chance to play a WWI officer. THE BLUE MAX also has a "cameo" from none other than the Red Baron himself, Baron von Richthofen (played by Carl Schell).

THE BLUE MAX is certainly a worthy film to watch if one is interested in the subject of World War One. The flying and battle scenes are a must-see....but the movie falls short of being great because the leading man is so unlikeable.

Monday, August 4, 2014

World War One 100th Anniversary: WAR HORSE

This is the first in a series of blog posts this month on various movies about World War One. I'm going to try to avoid the obvious ones, and cover a few pictures that don't seem to get a lot of attention. If anyone out there has a particular WWI film they wish written about, please leave a message in the comments section.

This series starts out with a fairly recent film: Steven Spielberg's WAR HORSE. The movie was released in 2011 and did decently at the box office, and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards. Yet it seems to me that WAR HORSE did not make that much of a lasting impact, at least compared to most of Spielberg's other work.

WAR HORSE is one of the most visually striking films I have seen in recent years. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski compose some magnificent shots (the scenes set in Devon are simply breathtaking). There's almost nothing that looks as good on the big screen as a galloping horse--just ask Akira Kurosawa and John Ford--and Spielberg takes full advantage of this.

WAR HORSE is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was adapted into a stage play. Young Albert Narracott, the son of a struggling British farm family, becomes attached to a thoroughbred horse named Joey. On the outbreak of World War One, Albert's father sells Joey to a British Calvary Officer, and the horse is transported to France, undergoing a series of incidents during the great conflict.

The story of WAR HORSE is episodic in nature, which means that as soon as the audience gets used to a set of characters, another set comes in when Joey's situation changes. The real star of the film is Joey--Jeremy Irvine is fine as Albert but most of the rest of the cast get very little chance to shine due to their roles being so small. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, who are now known for other things, appear in WAR HORSE, but they are probably almost unrecognizable to even their most rabid fans.

I remember reading some reviews when WAR HORSE came out that accused the film of being sentimental and emotionally manipulative--but what Steven Spielberg film isn't? WAR HORSE has a very old-fashioned feel to it--it seems like it was made in the 1940s-1950s instead of the 21st Century. If you take WAR HORSE too rationally you most likely will not enjoy it. It definitely works best with a viewer who has an "old movie buff" sensibility.

As for the film's approach to WWI....some might be disappointed that it takes a while into the movie before the war scenes start, but that's because Spielberg is trying to establish the relationship between Albert and Joey. Spielberg is also showing as much of the bucolic English countryside as he can to set up a contrast between it and the everyday horrors of WWI.

Once the war starts, we see a magnificent cavalry charge--which ends with the riders being mowed down by machine guns (an obvious example of the movie showing how WWI was a "modern" war). There's an impressive "over the top" charge, which has some similarities to the opening sequence of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. There's a gas attack, and a very nightmarish representation of No Man's Land. The war is shown through the eyes of British, French, and German characters, but it is mostly shown through the eyes of Joey.

WAR HORSE is not what one could call a realistic, documentary-like film about World War One. The war is really more of a backdrop for a heartwarming story between a young man and his horse. I think WAR HORSE would be considered more of a classic if it wasn't for cynical 21st Century audiences. In my opinion it is the best film Steven Spielberg has made in a while, and it truly is one of those films "they don't make anymore".

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The British Invaders Blogathon: THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939)

Picking a movie to write about for The British Invaders Blogathon was not easy. There's several obvious choices, to be sure....but I wanted to choose a subject that was undeniably British to the core. The 1939 production of THE FOUR FEATHERS is a perfect example of a Great British film--despite the fact it was made with the talents of three Hungarian brothers and set in North Africa.

THE FOUR FEATHERS is based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason. The novel has been adapted for the screen numerous times, but the 1939 version is usually considered the best one. The 1939 entry was produced by Alexander Korda's London Films, and directed by Alexander's brother Zoltan. Another Korda brother, Vincent, was responsible for the art direction.

London Films and the Kordas were responsible for some of the greatest British films of the 1930s and 1940s. These pictures were almost always of a historical nature, and often involved far-flung settings. It's easy to see why Alexander Korda was drawn to make THE FOUR FEATHERS. Despite his native heritage Alexander Korda was a staunch British Imperialist, and THE FOUR FEATHERS is a salute to the glory and adventure of the British Empire.

The movie begins with the death of General Gordon and the downfall of Khartoum in 1885. Ten years later, an expedition is being formed under General Kitchener to retake the Sudan. On the eve of this expedition British Army Officer Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission, causing his friends to accuse him of cowardice, and his fiancee (June Duprez) to express her disappointment in him.

Harry decides to make amends by undertaking his own personal secret mission. Disguised as a mute Arab, Harry saves the life of his once-comrade Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), and helps free several British POWs during the Battle of Omdurman.

THE FOUR FEATHERS is an old-fashioned action-adventure story with exotic locations (it was partly filmed in North Africa) and beautiful Technicolor photography. It has a number of epic elements to it--battle scenes, marching armies, cavalry attacks, sweeping vistas, etc. It certainly cannot be called "politically correct", but it is in no way as over-the-top as some other films of its type. There's an understated, matter-of-fact tone to THE FOUR FEATHERS...a British tone, so to speak. The leading men, John Clements and Ralph Richardson, are not exactly Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. The fact that Clements and Richardson are not major action heroes gives the story a touch of realism.

John Clements is fine as Harry Faversham, but it is Ralph Richardson who makes the biggest impression. Richardson's Captain Durrance not only loses his sight due to sunstroke in the desert, he also finds out that the woman he adores does not share the same feelings for him. On the surface Durrance takes these situations in a English stiff-upper-lip manner.....but Richardson is a fine enough actor to make the audience realize through subtle gestures that the character is devastated by his fate.

Another actor that makes a huge impression here is the one and only C. Aubrey Smith, the Grand Old Man of British Cinema. Any classic movie buff will tell you that Smith WAS the screen definition of the British Empire, and having him in THE FOUR FEATHERS just about makes the film "official". Smith spends most of his screen time here recreating the Charge of Balaclava with walnuts and table fruit, one of those fine little moments that enriches a big movie.

THE FOUR FEATHERS was made right before the outbreak of World War II. At the time of the film's production Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode. There's no doubt that Alexander Korda meant for THE FOUR FEATHERS to be something of a message to British audiences--the message being that even if some citizens felt doubt and fear, such as Harry Faversham, they had the ability to rise above their feelings and get the job done when the time came. It's a message that doesn't necessarily have to apply just to war--it can also apply to real life as well.

There's very few films which can say they are more "British" than THE FOUR FEATHERS. Any self-respecting Anglophile has to see the 1939 version at least once.