A most peculiar entry in the western genre is Andrew V. McLagen’s “Bandolero!”, a film which gives a fresh- though unpersuasive -perspective to the notion of the Stockholm Syndrome, is also a vehicle which is plagued by an inevitably distasteful indecisiveness as to a moral focus which might address the material in a manner which does not elicit an unresolved temporal provocation; a particularly troublesome problem of a lack of contextual integrity which results in a constant shifting of tone that chaotically veers from savage drama (the film is peppered with a great deal of not always mercifully off-screen violent slaughter) to supposedly folksy humor, the last reserved for the “bad” guys of the piece, though a natural sympathy seems to be awkwardly granted these characters since they are played by usual audience favorites Dean Martin and James Stewart, Thus when a woman’s husband is gunned down in cold blood during a robbery and the woman is later kidnapped by the same fugitive gang as a shield against the pursuing posse, the presumption might be for a tense relationship between captor and victim instead of a warm and fuzzy meditation on burgeoning romance and a sentimental grab at second chances.
Just what is going on in “Bandolero!” is an example of the unease with which more traditionally filmmakers are dealing with the seismic shift within the western genre: from morality to immorality plays. Traditional heroes were swiftly replaced with, not anti-heroes, but characters of disproportionately unsavory mercenary aims. If McLagen’s film is clear about anything it is that in dealing with the violently transitional period in American commercial filmmaking that occurred with the relaxation of the industry’s rigid codes of morality (and the influx of a suddenly popular world market of film, which considering the bottom-line thinking within the movie community is an agent of change conveniently sidestepped in Hollywood’s historic version of its own of cultural evolution through a sudden transformative enlightenment), is that the first casualty of the traditional Hollywood mindset was the establishment of a consistent tone between the more comfortable (nee, tried and true) elements within the material and the panicked pandering to the presumed modernity of the audience’s taste.
The murderous robbing of a bank and the subsequent escape of the gang of outlaws from a summary hanging leads to what promises to be a standard tracking melodrama even with the addition of a female hostage (still no points for originality here) with whom the fugitives intend as a type of shield of deterrence, but who. predictably becomes the primary motivation behind the sheriff’s obstinacy of pursuit. There are several aspects to the film which are out of the ordinary; the aforementioned unwieldy tottering between the tersely hard-bitten and bumptious endearment which disengages audience affiliation with either side of the moral scale. Just who are the filmmakers intending us to root for in the viewer’s natural need for an empathetic representation of any kind of concrete and consistent code of behavior (even in the nihilistic universe of Peckinpah’s West, the characters observe personal codes of loyalty and honor among the dishonorable) to which the audience might attach an interested sympathy. This last leads into the second and more problematic aspect of the film’s possible claims to a transmigration from the traditional to the post-modern and that is its restrictive view of the frontier woman strictly as a contraband object of male fulfillment; a manipulated, involuntary whore: in essence, a symbolic pawn of indentured physical and psychological intimacy. The character of Maria Stoner (significantly, the lone female character in the film, thus there are no contrary examples to examine as intended gender models and therefore the film’s view of womanhood becomes an absolute) is introduced as the widow of an unfortunate victim of the film’s opening botched bank robbery, but also fleetingly as a woman of a singularly independent sensibility; one who initially resists the calculated approaches of men, both romantic and financial, with a level eye of pragmatic practicality that instantly sees through the rather, admittedly, transparent motives of the interested parties.
However, it is how the character of Mrs. Stoner develops- or fails to, as exhibited by the inability of director McLagen to find a method of compensation for the script’s complete absence of irony, a vacancy which ensures a failure to establish an empathetic foothold toward any of the principals of the film -that illustrates what is conceptually wrong with the film. The four central characters, Mrs, Stoner, the gang leader Dee Bishop (Dean Martin),his brother Mace (James Stewart) and Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) are introduced with telling thumbnail details which lay a generous foundation for further definition, yet the script tales a regressive plunge into a puzzling inconsistency which subverts the tone of the opening sequences to the point where each successive scene contributes only to an increasing psychological incoherence. Every major action of the film is clouded by motivations that are murky, with subsequent reactive actions that are downright dubious; as the script is hampered with the direction of the narrative dictated by the insubstantial screenwriting necessity. The heart of the film’s dilemma is in an across the board failure to cement a consistency of tone between practical action and character. Nowhere is this unsatisfying schism more centrally demonstrated than in the depiction of Maria Stoner. Since she is the only woman in the film, Mrs. Stoner, rather than continuing the initial intelligent independence with which she is portrayed becomes a needlessly dispiriting symbol of women condemned to a helpless surrender to a fate directed by others (This acquiescence to subjugation, which could have been honestly provocative in more artistically ambitious hands, is merely unsavory in this context.). The representative Woman of the West becomes a lifelong victim of spiritual rape. (How else to account for her illogically casual surrender to the advances of her captor, which comes as a reversal of her initial pragmatic fortitude?)
If scenarist James Lee Barrett finds himself boxed in, it is a situation of his own devising, for there are innumerable paths to navigate, each imprudently unexplored in favor of an unwisely inflexible narrative line which leaves no wiggle room except for the transparent inevitability of a not-so-climactic showdown with the eponymous bandits (who, considering their titled prominence are clumsily inserted with little to no relevance to the flow of action except for a few barbaric episodes of needlessly gratuitous bloodletting which turn out to be irrelevant to the central flow of the narrative) that leads to an almost total annihilation of the cast. This may seem like a clever exit strategy for the filmmakers to evade the toil of wrapping up the sloppy mess of the unresolved plot threads.
Both James Stewart and Dean Martin are cast and used strictly for their popular audience appeal, a strategy which continues in the confusion as to what exactly scenarist James Lee Barrett and director McLagen intend, marking every other scene with mawkish sentimentality that jerks the film away from legitimate dramatic tension. As Mrs. Stoner, Raquel Welch shows a more resolute focus in her performance that signals a distinct growth compared to her work with more featherweight roles (the vacant, couture-driven “Fathom” anyone?) though she can make little sense of a part which calls upon her to casually shrug off every conflict while miraculously maintaining a ridiculous mountain of hair without the slightest hint of environmental fatigue. Still, despite the textual and cosmetic impediments, Welch displays an encouraging increase in dramatic gravitas that is consistent throughout her several Western roles. Is there something about sagebrush and saddles which grounds the sex symbol’s acting instincts?
“Casino Royale” (1967)
This extravagantly produced spy comedy seems literally compulsive about the concept of creative gestation by way of vulgar quantitative excess: the film’s physical production comprising hundreds of sets, thousands of costumes and even an infinite number of James Bonds (the idea is to stick every agent with the 007 monikker to confuse the enemy, yet the gambit is so indiscriminently haphazard in execution- as the grand design includes enemy agents as well -it is unclear as to whether or not the ruse is to include the members of the audience, any one of whom would be able to imagine a better plot than the one this movie offers), though when the pattern of infelicitous hoarding of resources extends to the directorial chair, it is clear that a clear and purposeful vision is something producer Charles K. Feldman never considered adding to his shopping wish list.
If too many cooks spoil the broth, “Casino Royale” ups the ante by having too many soups spoil the appetite; the film is continually altering its tone from one sequence to another, shifting gears in mid-sentence without a semblance of acknowledgement that a clear and consistent sensibility might be prudently consulted in the execution of a narrative fabric that intends any coherence in the forward, sideways or backwards momentum in it’s plotted details. The central conceit of Fleming’s novel- the geopolitical confrontation of the Cold War essentially personalized into a clash over a baccarat table between Bond and SMERSH paymaster Le Chiffre -is carelessly introduced and quickly discarded while unrelated, lengthy segments introduce dozens of characters who contribute nothing to the plot and are unceremoniously forgotten only to emerge in unexplained cameo length roles. The films is, in fact, one lengthy expository introduction without a second act, occasionally reverting back to a momentary gossamer thin suggestion of Fleming’s plot reemerging without any relationship to the action with which it is bookmarked, but seemingly only due to the fact the producer owned and felt compelled to make use of the rights to the novel. Upon the available evidence, there was never any intention for the film to follow something as bourgeois as a linear narrative- nor as a close representation of Fleming’s conception- neither with dramatic fidelity nor imbued with a relevant sardonic comedic point of view -but simply to construct a hodgepodge of disparate satiric targets which by the circumstance of their lack of subjective commonality fail to merge into a viable creative direction: the film neither presents a parodying alternate to the existent Bond series, nor is it an editorially humorous (if ill-timed) take on the already sated spy spoof genre.
The climactic melee at the Casino Royale provides a useful demonstration of the film’s desperate throw everything including the kitchen sink thinking with the sudden irrelevant participation of several major movie personalities (George Raft and Jean-Paul Belmondo, in appearances so brief they’re might be accurately regarded as subliminal) including a puzzling reprise by William Holden (who in a spectacular error of continuity, was presumed to have been killed in the first reel- oops!), none of whom have a thing to do with any resemblance to the barest traces of anything resembling a plot, but merely act as spot-the-star distractions intended to divert the audience away from the fact that at this point the film has descended into a shapeless mess resembling the confused notes of a late night story conference rudely influenced by an excess of mescalin, the results of which were mistakenly filmed instead of being more properly discarded into the nearest dust bin. The script, attributed to Michael Sayers, John Law and Wolf Mankowitz, also features rumored contributions by Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Val Guest, Billy Wilder, Joseph Heller, Ben Hecht and Terry Southern- hardly a slouch in that group -so it is doubly troubling that there emerges nary a moment of coherence nor even a line of dialogue which either funny (surely the intention of the film) or memorable. Now, it is possible to grant critical dispensations (if one wishes to be analytically arcane) to a film in such a state of unfathomable disorder, presuming that this must be part of a greater purpose; to raise a rather fundamentally formulaic genre-type into the arena of greater experimentation with cinematic form commensurate with the nouvelle cinema movements occurring about the globe at the time, but if producer Feldman’s approach (and it clear this film is a product indelibly molded by Feldman’s singular vision/folly) is a sincere attempt to dislocate the audience from a subjective perspective (à la an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel), this would suggest an occasion of intelligent design by which the kaleidoscopic maelstrom indeed has a basis in artistic purposefulness. On the other hand, it is healthy to be reminded that occasionally trash is simply trash.
Seldom has the cinema been witness to an example of the willing total collapse of the disciplines of narrative storytelling, even taking into account the generous avoidance of logic in which the superspy genre indulges to make convenient the unveiling of a variety of credibility stretching preposterous schemes of globe conquering villainy. What is truly lacking in “Casino Royale” is that it never seems to decide upon the destination it wishes to target while laboriously arriving at none. Instead, the film consistently stutters on its own announced intentions, forever stuck in a mire of reinvention which has much to do with the needless and disastrous decision to use multiple directors with the predictably resultant violent shifts in visual style as much as a screenplay which eventually sets up an elaborate strategy to confuse the enemies of MI6 with an army of agents posing as James Bond, only to reveal that major narrative thread to be meaningless to the later temporary reversion to the Le Chiffre conflict, all of which is eventually abandoned in an effort to reveal a super villain bogey that ends up being equally irrelevant.
Red herrings are expected in the twisty realm of espionage film, but a film cannot survive being constructed entirely of these disruptive loose ends without an equal desire to eventually unveil even the suggestion of a stratagem for cogency. Instead confusion and obvious indecisiveness are the rule of the day. When the genuine James Bond (incarnated quite gamely with abundant effortless suavity by David Niven) berates the heads of the international spy community for their immersion into “joke shop” espionage, there are promising indications that the film will be taking a satiric rather than parodying course in deconstructing the prematurely entrenched genre tropes including the increasing and unnecessary gimmickry of the series, though this editorial direction is certainly undermined with the baffling introduction of such oddball ingredients as a flying saucer, Frankenstein’s monster, a platoon of paratrooper Indians yelling “Geronimo!”, a bagpiper cameo by Peter O’Toole, and a faux Bond agent dressed as Adolph Hitler. However, even more disappointing is the initial suggestion of a surprising streak of radical puritanism running through Bond; undercutting the inherent chauvinism of both the literary and previous film incarnations. This possible foundation of satiric subversion is dropped as quickly as it is raised with a painfully awkward encounter in a bubble bath between the senior Bond and a minor girl- a scene that is insulting in its pointless discomfort -and the subsequent hypocritical relish with which the filmmakers (all of the directors seem in peculiarly fraternal agreement on this point) shamelessly exploit the sexual desirability of its actresses without even a hint of irony. Nor does the film reconcile Bond’s professed Belvederian aloof chasteness with the existence of his progeny with Mata Hari; a plot point which stretches credibility to its limits as it requires consideration of an actual historical reference point- the execution of Mata Hari occurring a full fifty years before the release of “Casino Royale” -thus presuming that the resulting coquettish lovechild, Mata Bond [played by a mid-twenties Joanna Pettet] is either included by a team of writers to whom a working relationship with the very concept of passing time serves no relevant purpose, or that Mata Bond is the most absurdly well-preserved Bond girl in the history of the franchise.
The sole highlight of the film is the featured song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “The Look of Love” which is featured over an irrelevant pseudo romantic montage between Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) and Vesper Lynd (Bond alumnus Ursula Andress, who appears along with former Bond cast members Burt [“Goldfinger”] Kwouk and Vladek [“From Russia With Love”] Sheybal) that leads to yet another dead end plot thread. The entire cast is reunited for a heavenly send-off which signifies nothing, but at least that makes it consistent with everything that has come before it. Such a last minute ascension somehow feels unjust since for the previous two hours the filmmakers have ensnared the audience in an unfathomable purgatory.
With the exception of the trademark window candy of 1950’s SF films whose only functions were to engage in such high stakes life-and-death actions such as pouring coffee, engaging in terrified embraces/lip lock with square jawed heroes or emitting high pitched screams worthy of a Civil Defense siren, there have been surprisingly few prominent female characters in American science fiction cinema; and the cumulative depth of these aforementioned gender specific “role models” could easily find accurate representation on the colorful posters of the day featuring impossibly curvaceous images of the actress, bosom pointedly thrust to high noon, arms flung up is a paralyzed pose of sublimation in her role as the helpless damsel in need of both rescue and “therapeutic” romancing to erase those images of intruders of domestic bliss by way of Atomic Age horrors.
Equally one-dimensional are the male archetypes- either divided by military (or in lesser budgeted cases: law enforcement) authority, or scientists who manage to eclipse all possible human knowledge by saving civilization (but more importantly, an invitation into the starlet’s pants) by eleventh hour technology (inspiration is at its zenith, apparently, when the ceiling of your lab is being molested by giant tentacle or mammoth mandible). This combination of formulaic gender typing was put to the test in the rather silly George Pal production “When Worlds Collide”, where pneumatic carnality and derring-do braininess- ruled the day over the value inherent in plain folks who would have the more practical skills in civilizing a new planet. (After all, once you establish your planetary colony, who has further need of a rocket scientist, rather than farmers, doctors and carpenters?) But as limited as fully realized males are in American SF films- all of the most colorful personalities reserved for robotic automatons -they can’t hold a patch to the woman as utilitarian and sexual object, a subject which reaches a rather distasteful zenith in Donald Cammell’s film of Dean R. Koontz’ slight 1973 novel Demon Seed, a book which owes more than a small debt to John Fowles’ 1963 debut novel The Collector.
Both books concern the forced imprisonment of a female character at the behest of an antagonist who is imposing his romantic and sexual desires on that woman. These desires are of an entirely sociopathic dimension, expressed with argued self-deluded innocence of purpose in the portions of the book directly attributable to the tormentor’s point-of-view: in the case of The Collector, the novel is split equally between the same story from differing perspectives- the obsessed Frederick Clegg and the literal object of that obsession Miranda Grey – where is Koontz’ Demon Seed there is a similar narrative shift in perspective between that of the imprisoned Susan and the artificial sentient intelligence that is the supercomputer Proteus. Similarly, both of the male dominators (given that Proteus is regarded with an identified gender, as conceived by Koontz this seems to be taken as a given despite the lack of explanation of the development in a consciously sexualized gender identity except as an excuse for the graphically intimate degradation of Susan) treat their captive as objectified ideals: in the repressed Frederick (who nevertheless takes nude photos of Miranda while she is unconscious) as a romantic image, in Proteus (who sexually manipulates Susan while she is under the influence of subliminal controls) as an initially romantic image almost immediately transmuted into an insatiably craven sexual target. Both are perverted idealizations which can only exist in an artificially confined climate (both Frederick and Proteus make it clear that the relationships will necessitate- even under submissive conditions -a permanent isolation from the rest of society), but Koontz goes further with his psychosexual pas de deux than Knowles ever imagines (not necessarily a good thing) as where Frederick’s fantasies are pathetically stuck in a short-sighted artificially middlebrow consciousness (it is questionable as to whether he’d know what he wishes to do with Miranda even if she’d concede to his desires), Proteus has grander chauvinistic designs, demonstrated through an escalating series of if we are to take Proteus at his word that he scans the accumulated breadth of literature to fine tune his romantic sensibilities, his tastes would appear to have a curious limited fixation on Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’êcole du libertinage and Histoire d’O. Proteus claims to show an initial concern for Susan’s emotional and psychological well-being by subliminally manipulating her subconscious to unearth repressed memories which have triggered hermetic, man-hating tendencies in her (horrid recollections of the death of her parents and subsequent sexual abuses by her grandfather), the resurfacing of which initially results in an implosive psychic pain followed by an almost miraculous catharsis in which she finds a renewed vigorous enthusiasm toward life, only to have that renewal rewarded with serial assault and forced pregnancy. Written by an author to whom it appears prurience is indistinguishable from insight, the themes of the book fail to transcend the boundaries of the exploitative any of the points it raises nor does it seriously reflect upon the moral quagmire it so lovingly constructs in its main character’s degradation: Koontz’ novel pretends to find Proteus’ behavior condemnable, in principle, while simultaneously salivating over every juicy detail of Susan’s physical and mental violation.
In “Demon Seed”, the filmmakers manage the tricky task of elevating the material, or more accurately, putting a mask of sophisticated profundity on its squalor which ironically results in an increased sense of ugliness with its basic concept. In adapting the gratuitously misanthropic novel (any accusations of misogyny are ill-founded as the novel is equally appalling toward the male end of the species) into a cool academic exercise- which just happens to include the presence of a sexually predatory computer -they expose the material to be even more tasteless by attempting to bring an eventual forgivable rationale to Proteus’ actions; the Koontz novel may be repulsive for enjoying what it pretends to condemn, but the film’s method sinks even further by ultimately becoming an argument for justified rape. In the film “Demon Seed”, Susan is no longer presented as psychologically damaged and withdrawn, but a well-balanced professional who is dissatisfied with her her husband’s lack of emotional intimacy; the void between Susan and Alex (Fritz Weaver) suggested to have emerged somewhat from the death of their young daughter from leukemia. That the film’s Proteus differs from the novel’s in that there is no overt sexual interest in Susan outside of an available womb does not lessen the vileness with which she is manipulated (and a later suggestion that she softens toward the plan due to her tragically interrupted maternal instincts is equally repulsive), nor does the altered portrait of Proteus- from the novel’s constantly developing sentient mind grappling with human instincts to the film’s aggressively combative superego -make a persuasive case that the very concept of a forced computer-human mating any the more palatable, especially with the last-minute infusion of attitudes straight out of “Rosemary’s Baby” where Susan seems to be unfathomably conciliatory toward what is going on, until she believes the child is unattractively formed at which point her violent instincts of resistance are suddenly reengaged. (Just what message is this sending: that the bond between mother and child is inviolable except in the case of unexceptional looking progeny?)
Beyond the thematic offenses, there are also the glaring narrative gaps which are adroitly handled by simply ignoring them. For instance, when the computer technician Walter Gabler (Gerritt Graham) becomes suspicious that the isolated Susan may be in danger and is swiftly dispatched by Proteus, how can his absence go unnoticed by Alex, and just where does his car disappear when it was left in front of Susan’s house? The film is briskly edited- there isn’t an ounce of narrative fat to be found -which make director Cammell’s attempts at signalling ominous portents by lingering an extra beat on certain items (a computer terminal, a surveillance camera) rather obvious, though he does display a proclivity toward introducing abstract graphics into the film on regular occasions, presumably to add an air of the metaphysical for which the contextual material simply cannot bear the burden, including a “2001”-like light show presented as a visual distraction during the actual impregnation process which may be an attempt at profundity during a sexual assault but merely feels like a wrongheaded act of desperation to make the events of the film seem less blatantly sleazy.
“The Naked Jungle” (1954)
Carl Stephenson’s short story Leiningen Versus the Ants is made for the movies: a brief, incidental but excitingly pulpy tale of a transplanted plantation owner who is battling an overwhelming wave of nomadic army ants- not the variety typified by the 1950’s American cinema’s preoccupation with Atomic mutants -but the most terrifyingly real kind, the Marabunta, born of an unforgiving Nature unimpressed by Man’s assertion of dominance on the planet. “Elementals” they are referred to by an understandably antsy (sorry) District Commissioner who warns the stubborn Leiningen that he is facing a primeval force unbending to any human resistance. Leiningen is, for all intents, cast in the typical pulp hero mold: stalwart, unbending, resolute in his conviction that his intellect will vanquish the oncoming enemy; a blind certainty that in life may be seen as foolhardy, but in fiction is the stuff of highly admirable masculinity. Like much work of the pulp fiction era, it is a story entirely concentrated on the incident rather than character- there is no back story nor concluding epilogue, only the battle to be won or lost, which restricts what we know of Leiningen by way of the famous observation by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “action is character”. Carl Stephenson’s short story Leiningen Versus the Ants is a natural for the movies, if that film is content with being an unembellished action fest of the variety which have found popular favor in the post-Spielberg/Lucas age of excitement on a juvenile scale. However, occasionally creative providence does descend from the most unexpected directions, as with the case of the 1954 George Pal production of Leiningen Versus the Ants, cannily renamed “The Naked Jungle”, a title which resonates with meaning far beyond the aggressive defoliation of the South American setting.
The film immediately introduces two characters, one an original conception in the person of Joanna Leiningen, the other the District Commissioner with whom readers familiar with Stephenson’s story will be well acquainted. From the start, the film establishes a bridge between the almost plotless essence of the source story and the necessary expansion in bringing the narrative to the screen. Joanna, as it turns out, is the key to the film’s surprisingly ambitious rethinking (the ant dilemma now doesn’t even figure into the story until two-thirds of the picture has elapsed) and that the newly conceived Christopher Leiningen marks a revelatory rethinking of Hollywood’s archetypal conception of a man of action is one of the great overlooked milestones in cinematic revisionism as well as what should have been a bold leap forward in the frankness with which sexual relations could be addressed in American movies. Uncannily, in the previous year, the slighter than slight romantic comedy “The Moon is Blue” has been mythically accused of generating national condemnation over the utterance of the word “virgin”- a nonsensical attribution which is only fractionally correct, the objections to the material were more in line with what was considered prurient material presented with a cavalier tone advancing the promotion of immoral attitudes- yet for all of the manufactured scandal (much of it, no doubt, generated by producer-director Otto Preminger himself who thrived on controversy but also understood its box-office value as well) nothing was said of “The Naked Jungle” which took the concept of the sexual novice to untold prominence by making the subject of such scrutiny not only the male character, but the lead character of a jungle adventure which, as originally conceived, can be observed as challenged in a lower-case Hemingwayesque test of manhood. However, to turn that concept completely on its ear by the introduction of a backstory which undercuts traditional boundaries which define the ingredients of the archetypal adventure hero- especially of the pulp tradition -is a bold direction which merits serious consideration.
Joanna Leiningen travels downriver to the South American coffee plantation owned by her husband Christopher, though her traveling companions, including the local District Commissioner, are surprised to find that she has never met her spouse for she is, in fact, a mail-order bride whose betrothal was arranged by proxy through Leiningen’s brother. Upon meeting, Leiningen’s behavior toward Joanna is stern and distancing; not without an undercurrent of disapproval, though eventually- after a series of petty disagreements and discordant exchanges -Leiningen finally satisfies his curiosity as to why Joanna would have married a man she’d never met when it is revealed, among other details, that she has been previously married and widowed, a revelation which leads to Leiningen’s reproachful confession that since he entered the jungle at the age of nineteen and has spent his obsessively building his empire, he knows “nothing about women.” “Nothing,” he emphasizes, and it with this piece of information that the repressed facets of character and reasons for his behavior fall into place with a sudden crystalline clarity. The ease with which the unspoken passions and anxieties swirling beneath the surface emerge with an emotional resonance both psychologically credible and intelligently satisfying, making for surprisingly incisive adult drama masquerading as heated melodrama- not unmindful of the work of Maugham -packaged in the trappings of a potentially gaudy escapist adventure.
Despite the thawing of his hardened resolve, Leiningen insists that Joanna return to America, though it is with a reluctance born of his anxieties about women, especially concerning Joanna whose own worldliness in the conjugal bed might be suffocating to his panicked inexperience. However, what make Leiningen such an interesting creation is that he sincerely yearns for that which he most fears. His isn’t a stubbornness born of a hardened heart, but of fear that the brittle fragility of his nature may be exposed by a woman’s love he desperately desires but feels inadequate to obtain. Much of the fascination to be found in the film is the process of the gradual chipping away of that self-emasculating masculine pride: after inquiring whether he is still disappointed with her, Leiningen quietly answers “I never was”, a real moment of tenderness, uncharacteristic of his earlier stoic facade. Later, on an aborted attempt to take Joanna upriver to safety, she teases him when he offers her a local native lotion to repel insects. making him spread it all over her back and shoulders, a comically seductive scene heightened by Leiningen’s awkward discomfort that barely masks his natural impulses going into overdrive (you can practically see the hormones shooting out of his ears) while Joanna is immensely enjoying the experience, knowing she is driving her husband mad with repressed desire. It is a classic scene of seduction; a jungle version of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, with a mad chorus of jungle creatures riotously increasing their ferocious chattering with each rub of the shoulder.
The introduction of the Marabunta brings the film back to its origins and it’s a bit of a letdown after the spirited and wholly original course the film has taken up to this point, especially when the action sequences and rather shaky special effects (there are some dreadfully unconvincing matte shots which lessen the devastating capabilities of the ants at ruinous moments) take over and the elements of action-film conventionality begin rearing their overly familiar heads. Still, there are a few interesting moments yielded during those instances when the newly constructed story and the original material weld in harmonious union: the initial moment when the truth of the Marabunta’s approach is realized as- despite Leiningen shooting into the trees -the jungle is morbidly mute; Joanna’s awakening to find the house barren of furnishings as everything flammable has been consumed in fires to repel the advancing hordes; and best of all, the convincing of the terrified native plantation workers to remain and battle the ants when Christopher proudly announces that “Leiningen’s woman” is staying. This last is the moment the film has been journeying to from the first, the virtual consummation of all of the grand passions which have been simmering since the pair’s first meeting and an empowering meeting of the minds where finally the couple are a couple, as inextricably linked in selfless sacrifice as both chests swell with visible pride over their unspoken union. In case this is missed by film enthusiasts whose tastes run to scenes vulgarly scored by hysterical strings punctuating every lid flutter, glistening eye and close ups of lips fluttering over each other in a crazed butterfly dance (though oddly never smearing the sculpted lipstick), this is what real romance in the movies is all about.
There are very fine performances by both Eleanor Parker as Joanna and Charlton Heston as Christopher, even though Parker may be slightly miscast (she looks a bit too mature for the role and she has a quality of being too sensibly grounded to be trifled with, a characteristic which has poked holes in the immersive credibility of otherwise dedicated efforts in such films as “Caged” and “The Man With the Golden Arm”), though this only touches upon her character in early scenes where she must maintain the illusion of more innocent maidenhood; she sparkles in one-on-one conflict with the initially impenetrable Leiningen, remaining fetchingly feminine while anchored by a spine of steel, thus making the later Christopher’s later devoted conversion far more convincing. Heston is letter perfect as Leiningen, clothed in a stiff armor of inhospitable hospitality that seems as if he’s being chaffed with every breath, yet there are infinitesimal cracks in that persona and when Heston finally breaks into a quick, perhaps timid smile you feel the electric charge of conquest that must be soaring through Joanna. It’s a solid, skilled performance dense with nuance of a character practiced in the art of deceiving himself. William Conrad is very appealing in the role of the District Commissioner (he portrayed Leiningen in a radio production in the 40’s), but John Dierkes seems to mistake his role as Gruber, a competing plantation owner, as a supporting villain in a Three Stooges short.
The underrated Byron Haskin directs with a sure hand, making certain the central drama is given sufficient time to percolate while keeping the action moving quickly enough to prevent the obviously phony river settings and underwhelming floods of ants enough of a diversion to ruin the natural tension of the film. The ants, in the end, may be merely the boogie man that instigated the project, but they are severely outclassed the actors and the solid, intelligent screenplay adaptation by Ranald MacDougall and Ben Maddow (the latter is uncredited due to blacklisting and fronted by Philip Yordan). However, one misstep occurs in the last moments of the film: there is a long shot of the decimated plantation with Joanna and Leiningen barely visibly embracing in the distance: surely as potent a love story as this deserves a finale where the characters are not regarded as an afterthought. (This is not untypical of Pal productions which often spend endless time setting up a situation and then rush through the climaxes.)
“THIS ISLAND EARTH” (1955)
“This Island Earth” may be the first American SF film to be firmly grounded in the not-so-scientific concept of hubris. If there is a central theme to the film, it is that the scientific mind might be regarded as superhuman by those in the scientific community (we mere mortals may refer to it as “egoism”) and that a scientist’s capacity for reason and caution are entirely secondary to the pursuit of reckless experimental projects which seem to have no benefit to Mankind except to create laboratory fires and explosions of vivid neon colors happily compatible with the use of saturating Technicolor. The blatant concession to the concept of the scientist as unquestioned authoritative figure is boldly expressed in the opening scene in which chief smartypants Cal Meacham (square jawed and stalwart Rex Reason, not to be confused with square jawed and stalwart Rhodes Reason) appropriates the personal use of an Air Force jet with the smiling, fawning approval of the press corps, shamelessly panting for the tiniest morsel of news concerning his scientific conference, as if such meetings didn’t occur dozens of times a week within the Washington D.C. city limits. Nor does the Fourth Estate even pretend to comprehend what Meacham is talking about, devaluing the reason for their unexplained excitement, but making it very clear that this exhibition of groveling is only a device used for the benefit of the audience to immediately establish Meacham’s status (if not credentials). This genuflection toward the scientist above all others is a fundamental trope of the 1950’s American Sf film, though this is usually expressed after the emergence of a catastrophic situation- whether alien or of terrestrial origin -in which they appear as the sole savior (usually ably assisted by a female assistant- happily disguised in the form of a buxom starlet -to run important errands like making coffee or making out with the hero of the film) to develop a solution to the imminent crisis. This, however, goes hand in hand with another familiar, though less pronounced, theme of 50’s SF in that science is usually blamed for the crisis in the first place.
“This Island Earth” diverges from this seemingly impenetrable Catch-22 of scientific hero/causality by mere taking for granted from the opening frames that Meacham is of a superior intellect (though his field of expertise seems to fluctuate all over the Periodic Table) and thus not subject to the more familiar rules played by mere mortals such as humility or caution; for that he has been provided a gregarious but excitable associate Joe Wilson (a winning performance by Robert Nichols who disappears far too early in the story, the movie losing his much needed capacity for humor and irony along the way) who is on hand as the sounding board of reason when Meacham becomes too blinded by his own intellectual conceit to see the dangers staring him right in the face. Oddly, this is exactly the characteristic which the extraterrestrials of the film are able to manipulate in order to assemble the small community of brilliant minds (though presumably they all fell for the same rather obvious mousetrap) with which they intend to use for intentions less honorific than the initially altruistic enticements suggest.
Upon arriving from his trip from Washington (and after a near-fatal incident involving ill-advised aerial buzzing and a mysterious green ray), Meacham discovers mysterious replacement parts for his experiments have been forwarded by a mysterious supply firm who then send him a mysterious catalog filled with devices that defy the boundaries of all known sciences. Never during any of these incredibly suspicious events does Meacham alert the authorities or even presume to inquire of the delivery man just where either the catalog or the small mountain of crated merchandise were sent from, instead assembling the contents of the myriad boxes (all coded in a mysterious foreign script) until he finally completes construction of an interocitor, an alien device that seems to have no limit of capabilities (think an electronic version of a Ron Popeil device that not only slices and dices but juliennes) and quaintly looks like a triangular TV set mounted on a washing machine. Appearing on the screen is a well coiffed fellow with an elongated forehead and bulbous protrusions at the brow, named Exeter (Jeff Morrow, who approaches the role with a gracious suavity- he’s polite even when threatening to scramble the scientist’s brain -and seems to be having a great deal more fun than he would in the later “The Giant Claw”) who piques Meacham’s intellectual curiosity by simply offering him a job; sending the clueless but “brilliant” (the cautionary quotations at this point are a necessity) scientist/physicist/engineer (at this point, it’s less clear than ever what Meacham’s field is) an empty, pilotless airplane in which he is to be transported to a destination yet to be determined. Now, even the most naive individual would see danger flares by this time, but despite the desperate pleas of assistant Joe, the thickheaded Meacham willingly climbs aboard the craft- in equally impenetrably thick fog no less -and journeys to a secret island destination where he is met by buxom (aha!) scientist Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), with whom Meacham has had a torrid past, but acts as if she has never met him before; which momentarily bruises his ego yet still sets off no suspicions toward his hosts.
That the film eventually exposes the mysterious Exeter and his compatriot Brock (Lance Fuller)- who share the same elevated skull and suborbital protrusions -as intergalactic visitors from the planet Metaluna, is not the greatest wonder, the greatest reach of the imagination, the most credibility stretching aspect of a scientifically ghastly film. No, that would be the conception of a scientist whose sense of smirking self-satisfaction is so monstrously out of proportion with his inability to identify the most simplistic of scientific gaffes- even something as elementary as the scientific misnaming of the mascot cat Neutron -that he, not the Metalunans, becomes the most unbelievable and potentially dangerous character in the film. No scientist working on atomic energy sources, and privy to high level security clearances, could possibly be this stupid. This, however, is consistent with the appallingly poor level of science related throughout the film; a legitimate concern in a film whose premise rests on the fact that aliens are attempting to recruit the Earth’s brightest minds to solve an intractable problem that threatens to destroy their home planet. That this theme is minimized by the lessening of the scope of the interstellar crisis from a vast intergalactic war to a planetary conflict between two civilizations, aborts most of the material in the second portion of Raymond F. Jones’ source novel (actually a serialized story) and such truncation of story and themes actually renders the allegorical mirroring of Earth’s civilization to otherwise insignificant Pacific islands and their people in World War Two, and thus the title of the book (and film) meaningless. Certainly any message of Man’s minimal standing in a vast cosmos is subservient to a simplistic story of a scientist blinded by his own ego and endangering the Earth by becoming a pawn in empowering an alien civilization to possibly take over the planet.
The second half of the film is a relatively undramatic voyage to and from Metaluna, punctuated by random incidents of colorful special effects, all emphasizing the complete dismissal of basic scientific principles, including one insanely gratuitous episode involving the Metalunan ship piercing a fictitious “thermal barrier” complete with a flaming saucer, billowing smoke trails and sound effects all impossible in the vacuum of space. The abbreviated visit to Metaluna is both inconsequential- given the removal of the novel’s contextual ideas -and anticlimactic, since nothing meaningful occurs except to decide on almost immediately returning to Earth, there doesn’t seem to be any purpose to the voyage in the first place. The insertion of an irrelevant mutant for the sake of a few supposed “female in distress” moments are unworthy of a SF film based on grandiose philosophical concepts, but typical of a film which surrenders ideas for the cheap thrills of “Flash Gordon”-style juvenilia.
“THE ENFORCER” (1976)
It begins as a Squeaky Fromme wannabe is picked up by two gas company employees who are swiftly dispatched in rather gruesome fashion by blonde haired, blue-eyed psychopath Bobby Maxwell (DeVeren Bookwalter in full drooling grimace mode). These are the opening moments of James Fargo’s “The Enforcer”, the third film featuring Clint Eastwood as Police Inspector Harry Callahan and the first to show definite signs of anemia for a series that refuses to allow the central character to evolve in any meaningful way, but is reduced to repeating the same increasingly tired routines ad infinitum, as if the good Inspector were condemned to run around the ridiculous hills of San Francisco as a blood-stained Sisyphus.
The film depicts the wave of terror perpetrated against the good people of San Francisco by a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force; a callous moniker for a collective of misfits whose true purpose is to extort money from the city while killing as many innocents in as luridly explicit detail as possible. Director Fargo’s willingness to hungrily linger over the oozing wounds of the victims or to catch their moments of death with the most adoring angle makes one wonder just whose side he’s really on?
It’s a given that an Eastwood/Dirty Harry film exists to excite the audience’s vigilante instincts with scenes of violent action against the criminal element, but the filmmakers have increasingly used this as a flimsy excuse to give equal exposure to the carnage unleashed by the lawless perpetrators, for no reason except for the anticipated extra visceral charge. In Don Siegel’s 1971 “Dirty Harry”, the film opens with the sniper murder of a young girl diving into a rooftop pool, and though the film was condemned in many circles as excessively violent and sadistic, this was the only homicide recorded onscreen by the villain; the remainder of the film’s Scorpio killings are offscreen, mainly represented by the fatal aftermath and the intensifying efforts of law enforcement to snare the man before he strikes again. When there are more overt scenes of violence- with the exception of one scene in which Scorpio pays to have himself roughed up to set-up Callahan -they occur between Scorpio and Harry themselves, particularly during an extended cat-and-mouse game of evasion and pursuit, and its direct aftermath.
In “Dirty Harry”, Callahan realistically identifies Scorpio as a continuing danger because, as the Inspector explains to his superiors “he [Scorpio] likes it”. Despite the atmosphere of violence in the film, there was still a foundational revulsion toward actions (both by the killer and the authorities seen as too weak to protect the public) that lead to the slaughter of innocents. There are, of course, other scenes of mayhem (an early bank robbery) but the bullets are targeted at perpetrators and not those either innocent or not actively engaged in criminal activity.
This last observation leads directly in the follow-up feature, 1973’s “Magnum Force” in which there is a noticeable escalation of meticulously detailed depictions of murder, though in the film’s circuitous logic these acts are excused as extensions of Callahan’s own justified shooting of criminals, as the murders featured are also against criminals, though with a significant difference: the killings are not spontaneous reactions to citizen endangering crimes in progress, but preplanned executions. That these killings are perpetrated by a conspiratorial cadre of police within Callahan’s own department is an interesting development as it raises the opportunity for the film and it’s lead character to engage in a level of philosophical self-reflection almost unheard of in an action film: to question the very nature (and thus validity) of its/his own moral canon. The film brazenly put a mirror in front of Callahan to make him question his own methodology, yet depressingly wastes the opportunity by dealing with this introspective conundrum by regressing into the most simplistic of responses: by simply having him shoot the remainder his antagonists. The one opportunity the series allowed itself (or more accurately, backed itself into a corner with) to examine its own philosophical underpinnings and the occasion was summarily dismissed in favor of the easy out of continued violence and a sacrifice to a lesser vacant action flick standard of thought.
With “The Enforcer”, the stakes are lowered still. Callahan’s observation that the murderous Scorpio “likes it” is a mindset obviously now shared by the filmmakers themselves. The homicidal perpetrators are increased in number from the one psychotic sniper of “Dirty Harry” to the group dynamic of “Magnum Force”, although unlike that film, in “The Enforcer” there is no pretense that the acts of murder are founded in the pursuit (no matter how labyrinthine the logic) of justice, but instead in the pursuit of graphic, sadistic killing for its own sake; a mass motivation not unheard of (witness slayings by the Manson Family) but in the confused conception of the film- unsurprising considering the reconfigurations the script suffered through four separate credited writers -inconsistent with the simultaneous mercenary demands of the group. In fact, the motives of the criminals/killers seem entirely irrelevant to the filmmakers. It is only important that they kill to motivate greater and greater levels of bloody mayhem on both sides of the badge.
Immediately following the opening slaughter and credits, the story pauses for a few moments to engage in what has become a tradition in Dirty Harry films: the initial salvo of bullets in which Harry (metaphorically) marks his territory, this time by crashing a car through a store window and gunning down three armed perpetrators; the third from behind while fleeing the scene, shooting a hole through his crotch for extra hilarity.
Next, the film proceeds with the requisite robust criticism of Harry by his superiors, (apparently, at this point, any use of law enforcement skills beyond showing up at a crime scene and looking dumbfounded is frowned upon) a concession to the anti-authoritarianism which is the foundation of the series as the figures portraying Harry’s departmental superiors (here played by Bradford Dillman and a returning Harry Guardino) are portrayed as ineffective bureaucratic ninnies, with whom the self-righteous Harry regards with a transparent contempt. In Harry’s increasingly myopic view of the world, everyone is either a hood or an impediment in aiding Harry in bringing those hoods to justice; usually by means of a very large bullet hole in a vital organ. Naturally, the view of bureaucratic impotence is also always extended to the city politicians as well, in this case with a particularly cynical portrait of communicative incompetence that borders on malapropic boobery.
Through the entire film, every character who orbits about Callahan is degraded as a caricature of the cheapest exploitation crime film variety, with the character of Big Ed Mustapha, (played by “Dirty Harry” bank robber Albert Popwell) a black militant leader, being the most obvious conceptual offense. Popwell has the unenviable task of portraying an archetype reactionary symbol of black empowerment who almost instantaneously collapses into shameless genuflecting grovelling under the insulting threat of perhaps having lifted a desktop knickknack from a Holiday Inn. (Clearly, an extreme case of product placement with San Francisco travel accommodations showing a “no mercy” prison policy when coming to lifted chochkies.) Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, mad killers are running rampant… The level of investigative detective work performed by Callahan on this case is reduced to a few square punches in the face, (another standard Eastwoodian trope from this period in his career) an appropriate number of glowering looks and the most boring, badly composed foot chase in modern police film history, culminating in a ridiculous intrusion onto the set of the most chaste porno film in modern police film history. (All of the “performers” do their best to embarrassingly cover up their privates when the cameras are rolling. Really?)
Lacking a police case of genuine interest, the film must lean on one of the most overused plot points in the series to generate any excuse for its running time: the opportunity for derisive snipes at Callahan’s newest partner, on this occasion portrayed by a woman. Tyne Daly plays Inspector Kate Moore with a puppy dog eagerness that momentarily brings a welcome breath of freshness to the proceedings, until the viewer is reminded that Harry’s partners literally serve the same function as the anonymous red-shirted crewmen at the beginning of every “Star Trek” episode: that of a convenient casualty. Despite the intriguing possibilities inherent in their continued developing relationship (Kate finally seems to crack the glacial wall that has become Harry’s personality), the pair are kept separate for an inordinate amount of screen time until the inevitable bloody climax at Alcatraz Prison; a rather sloppily staged action sequence highlighted by an absurd exchange of weaponry involving a fireboat water cannon- surely the most impractical “gun” ever used in a movie police raid.
If by the end of the film, Harry Callahan again stands victorious amid the smoking wreckage of his latest duel with the forces of evil, there is no longer a sense of Justice served or even of the Good Guys triumphant, as both the film and characters have already fallen victim to an invisible yet always present protagonist against which no caliber of ammunition can stand impervious: irrelevance.
“ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.” (1966)
“One Million Years B.C.”, a 1966 Hammer produced remake of the 1940 Victor Mature/Carole Landis prehistoric vehicle “One Million B.C.”, is a film that defies serious criticism. After all, since it’s general knowledge that dinosaurs and cave people did not co-exist and that it’s very unlikely any cavegirl ever resembled the lovely Raquel Welch (she of the impeccably combed cavehair), there is little reason for the critical mind to take the anachronistic nature of the production with even a grain of proverbial sea salt. In fact, Don Chaffey’s often amusing film is a useful barometer in the ceaseless tumult between the cinema of artistic aspiration and that which merely concedes to casual entertainment values. It is also helpful if the dinosaurs don’t clumsily bump into the scenery…
Fortunately, the interaction of giant lizards and troglodytes is handled with skillful enthusiasm by SFX wizard Ray Harryhausen. Now, in recent years it has been fashionable to mock the achievements of vintage special effects pictures with a smirking reference to the technological wonders of CGI, but one look at Harryhausen’s creations dispels such insipid assertions as the creatures of “One Million Years B.C.” move and act with “personality”, a unique trait of Harryhausen’s stop-motion behemoths. (Learned, no doubt, from the example of his mentor, “King Kong” special effects creator Willis O’Brien.) Comparing these creatures to the admittedly fine dinosaurs of “Jurrasic Park”, Harryhausen monsters are full-fledged characters with unique behavioral traits; they think and ponder and enjoy their bouts of destruction. This is no small achievement and marks the difference between a true creative voice and merely skilled technicians arranging pixels on a computer screen. Whereas later CGI prehistoric creatures may enjoy a greater range of close inspection realism, (Harryhausen’s creations often suffering with an unavoidable plastic look) they suffer in comparison to this film’s stop motion animated creatures which often surpass the human performers in emotive variety which in such a linguistically and incidentally (if one discounts the regular intrusions of toothsome reptiles) limited narrative is a welcome respite from the rather drab, indecorous backdrop of the caves of Tenerife.
The picture recounts the journey of Tumak (John Richardson from Hammer’s “She”) as he is banished from his tribe (the Rock People) due to an inner-tribal rivalry and his subsequent discovery of the golden-haired (and apparently far more hygienic) Shell People including the lovely Loana (Welch), with whom even with the absence of developed human communication skills it is clear there is an immediate incidence of kismet between the two. It also appears that the Shell people are more culturally advanced than their scruffier dark-haired counterparts, which amusingly leads to questions of the origins of Hollywood’s image of the “dumb” blonde.
Tumak, despite being the focal character in the original film version (played by muscular Mature), at this point, is forced to concede the spotlight to his more curvaceous companion who is not only far more comely, but is unhampered by either unruly facial brush nor cosmetically disfiguring facial grime (the dark haired denizens always seem to be covered with soot and grease in films of this nature) thus conceding a deliberate sense of the contemporary sex symbol in what is essentially a kindred variation of a 1960’s beach party film with the addition of man eating behemoths. Despite the presence of staunch he-men and carnivorous reptiles, the focus of the promotional poster art, and the film’s ultimate marketing focus, features the hourglass figure of lovely Luana cleverly packaged in a barely concealing doeskin bikini. However, this producer’s concession of sexuality over brawn, while reaping vast financial and cultural returns, actually handicaps any dramatic tension (it certainly undercuts the central theme of primitive combative sibling power rivalry) the film might generate, instead relying on the occasional Harryhausen set pieces or more distractingly, an energetic catfight staged between Loana and Tumak’s former flame portrayed with an impressively savage ferocity by two-time Bond girl Martine Beswicke.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t compensate with exciting diversions: a village attack by allosaurus is impressively rendered despite the rather pedestrian camera set-ups (due, no doubt, in no small measure in accordance with the demands of Harryhausen’s Dynamation process), yet the superior optical work and editing make for a memorable man vs. reptile encounter, excluding the more awkward and obvious cutaway shots necessary for such sequences comprising more inadequate stop-motion animation melding. However, what the film lacks is a central dramatic arc that is sustained beyond it’s episodic structure.
Both Richardson and Welch speak their guttural lingo with a straight face and look very fit in their minimal cave wear and there are enough dinosaur battles, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to appeal to the most jaded drive-in movie fanatic. But is it a good film? The divisions between artistic endeavors and “mindless” entertainment are vast, yet there are a number of constants inherent in all of cinema, yet again, a film which so brazenly embraces such absurd historic neighbors as bikini beach babes and pterodactyls almost defies intelligent criticism.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
Darryl F. Zanuck’s monumental war epic depicting the events of the D-Day invasion of World War 2 has the disadvantage of not only following dozens of characters over dozens of different locations, but also the input of three different credited directors working to patch a cohesive picture of just what did go on during the massive invasion of Normandy on that “longest day” (as referred to in a quote by German Field Marshal Irwin Rommel) on June 6, 1944. Add to that, the fact that, unique in a big-budget studio epic, disregarding the expectations of the audience, the story is presented entirely in correct linguistic terms: the French and Germans speak in their native tongues with the assistance of subtitles. By all rights, this should be a colossal boondoggle, a confused and incoherent film not unlike Rene Clement’s “Paris brule-t-il?” or the Phil Feldman fiasco cobbled from bits of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”. Happily, this is not the case.
“The Longest Day” is, in fact, one of the most intelligently realized, dramatically cohesive, literate films on World War II ever made; certainly light years ahead of the Hollywood studio epics that permeated the 50’s and 60’s with such egregiously insulting results such as the disastrous “Battle of the Bulge”- a film so haphazard it had the most famous Winter battle of modern combat history being fought in the desert.
The first thing that distinguishes the film is verisimilitude. Taken from Cornelius Ryan’s nonfiction account of the events of June 6, 1944, the accumulation of small details is fascinating, not incremental facts about the battle strategies (most of these went either perilously awry, or sometimes, unexpectedly without major incident) but telling personal ironies of fate which enrich the human story locked within the battle scenes, making the inglorious carnage all the more tragic. Two truisms about war become glaringly apparent : the vast human waste on all sides ultimately engaged by unseen authoritarian powers whose presence is unseen or felt on the actual fields of combat, and the frightening concession to providence even in the most strategically considered military campaigns.
In producing this monumental production, producer Darryl F. Zanuck engaged the participation of what were excitedly announced as featuring “42 INTERNATIONAL STARS!” and while the sometimes cameo nature of some of the appearances (Rod Steiger appears so briefly, if you’re distracted by the search for a choice kernel in your popcorn bucket you may miss him) threaten to transform the lengthy epic into a “pick out the stars” party game- as was the needlessly distracting case in Mike Todd’s problematic production of “Around the World in 80 Days”- for the most part, the roles are sensibly cast with each star playing convincingly to type (the one possible exception is Irina Demick who in her role of a French Resistance operative comes across as a Playboy cartoon sex bomb), though as in most Hollywood films about warfare there seems to be a dearth of actors who would fulfill the reality of the great percentage of soldiers merely in their teens on the field of battle, with Paul Anka being the most age appropriate, though ironically he comes off as one of the least convincing in the cast, perhaps as much due to the conventional audience expectations of more matured players engaged in filmed battle rather than strictly a gauge toward individual performance inexperience (though there is that as well).
What succeeds surprisingly well, is the virtually seamless integration of scenes directed by different directors (there are officially three acknowledged on the credits- Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki, though Gerd Oswald is known to have participated as well as Zanuck himself) suggesting that under a singularly focused producer’s administration, directors without overt idiosyncratic styles (a problem that assisted in the wreckage and sinking of the S.S. “Casino Royale”) are capable of a smoothly rendered communal craftsmanship; a formula unlikely to result in genuine works of Art, but with the resultant superior commercial vehicle one may hardly quibble. One of the film’s most interesting features is the unprecedented fairness in it’s depiction of the German forces; the ruthless nature of spontaneous and immediate retribution to active Resistance fighters and enemy forces is not shortchanged, yet the chain of command is depicted as having as much a war with the German High Command as with the gathering Allied forces. The easy self-caricatures of SS and Gestapo, for once are replaced by the more historically interesting and less explored figures involved in the strategic defense of the Northern French coast. This is one film where the dichotomy of generals moving arrows about large maps and the airborne and infantry who comprise those markings really comes into play with the measures of victory and defeat demonstrated in realistic but unequal measures. To the German generals, it’s a matter of presumptuous satisfactions, grasping at small, even imaginary victories in egotistic battles with a leader they disrespect militarily and despise personally, of a soldier’s dutiful campaign in which the basis of their cause, bereft of applicable political foundations is pared down to pride in sheer professionalism. From the Allied soldier’s perspective, victories are measured in how many inches one might advance into enemy territory without becoming a casualty statistic.
Within this impossibly large canvas, Zanuck’s production, sensibly lensed in black and white to retain the vividness of the pseudo-documentary feel of the actual engagements, is a spellbinding portrait of the infinitely futile chaos of war, sweeping across a panoramic field that could have easily collapsed into a confusing, indistinct mire of locations, names and strategems. The script (adapted by Cornelius Ryan from his book, with assistance from James Jones, Romain Gary, David Pursall and Jack Seddon) is astutely observant with an invaluable historian’s clarity, unveiling the events from one side to the other in an impressive balancing act of smart narrative structuring and judicious dramatic compression that manages to impart crucial factual information while retaining the telling details that render a human story amid the epic flow of history.
To the filmmaker’s credit, this is the first large scale Hollywood film to attempt a less melodramatic, more balanced, straightforward documentation as to the depiction of modern warfare, and the rumored plans that the film was to be presented with a more overt anti-war slant was sensibly averted, as a film deliberately produced avoiding the cheap trappings of jingoistic propaganda manages to make its message clear without needless and vulgar Hollywood hand wringing.