A United Kingdom (2016)

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White Queen Black King. The story of an inter-racial post-WW2 marriage with a difference – he’s the king of a South African nation, she’s a British secretary. Guy Hibbert adapted Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar which tells the true story of a scandalous union.  David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, who is awaiting his role while his uncle is Regent of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) and Rosamund Pike is the London woman who meets him at the local Missionary Society where her sister (Laura Carmichael) does charitable work (dancing with black men). When they marry against the British Government’s wishes (it’s a sensitive time for the region because apartheid is being officially sanctioned) they don’t get any warmer a welcome in Africa from his family than they did in London from her parents. Seretse discovers the British have permitted a US mining company to exploit land on his country’s border and he wants his land’s rights established over the prospecting. The couple are forcibly separated as the British try to reason with him and when he goes to London he finds he has been banished while she languishes without him, hospitalised first from diphtheria and then pregnancy. There are political battles to be fought …  The real story, as it transpires in the credits sequence, was where the meat was. This is coy on everything – sex, family, politics, race – a politically correct take on a history that is all about exploitation. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s a strange, unbalanced piece of work which makes you constantly question, But what’s happening over there? It’s as though the real story is happening right outside the frame. They misplaced the camera and missed it entirely. Directed by Amma Assante, who does nothing to make this potentially fascinating colonial tale of race, royalty and rivalry remotely interesting.

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She (1965)

 

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This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.

Tobruk (1967)

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Leo V. Gordon was once described by Don Siegel as the scariest man he’d ever met. The actor and writer wrote this and has a pretty neat role for himself as Sergeant Krug, one of the few to get out of it alive with Rock Hudson as Canadian Major Donald Craig who helps an Allied group destroy the Germans’ fuel reserves in Libya to stop Rommel progressing to the Suez Canal. There’s a good turn by George Peppard as the leader of German Jews working for the British Army and naturally there’s a traitor in their midst. There’s a good subplot involving Liam Redmond and Heidy Hunt as father and daughter who have a mission to accomplish a Holy War for that great Unmentionable participant in WW2 and architect of the Nazis’ plan to eliminate Jewry from the planet, Yasser Arafat’s cousin, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, not that anyone wants to talk about him in relation to Germany and Islam nowadays (or even then, given that he hid out in Switzerland and France then Egypt until his death in 1973). Ah World War 2, the gift that keeps on giving on Saturday afternoons. In real life, Operation Agreement was not a total success. Here, there’s an explosive finale and Nigel Green gets a great, terse scene when he comes face to face with the Nazi who has infiltrated them. It’s not easy to make a desert war work but underneath the stencilled livery and the tension there’s a good drama, well directed by Arthur Hiller and there’s a great scene when the raiders get the Germans and Italians to shoot at each other. PS I’ll gladly swap my car for one of those tanks. They rock.

Sahara (1983)

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One of those films that never made it to my small town when I was a kid, I’ve finally seen the motor racing movie with Brooke Shields, the It Girl of the Eighties. From jeans to beauty, she had it made. Those eyes – those eyebrows – that mane of hair  … it didn’t really surprise to learn from Who Do You Think You Are? that the fabulous cover girl and controversial star of my childhood was descended through her paternal grandmother, an Italian aristocrat, from the Holy Roman Emperor, several Popes and Louis XVI. There seems to be a lot of cross dressing in my current viewing slate and this is no different. When Brooke arrives in the desert in 1927 for the international car race her late father dreamed of winning in his own design she needs to pass for male in this Arab world so she dresses in a linen suit, fedora and a moustache. It works, for a bit. Challenged by German driver Horst Buchholz,  she is conveniently abducted by John Rhys-Davies (back in the desert after Raiders of the Lost Ark) and falls in love with his nephew the sheik Lambert Wilson – and why not? Though it takes a while for the penny to drop with Brooke that his claim on her is physical in more ways than one. High jinks ensue as she wants to escape during a tribal war involving machine guns and cool improvised tanks and her team is being held hostage, while John Mills turns up as the sheik’s secretary, a university professor…  and there’s still a race to be won! I’m a petrol head and don’t care who knows it so I love the machines and all the high drama surrounding this landscape-driven piece and the photography by David Gurfinkel and Armando Nannuzzi is lovely. Nor do I object to this inadvertently being my third Perry Lang film in ten days! Brooke was too young to legally drive in Israel where this was shot by production team Golan-Globus (the Go Go Boys as they were known) so the Government had to give special permission. Written by the ultra-fascinating personage of James R.Silke, illustrator extraordinaire (including for Capitol Records), Grammy winner for best album cover (Judy at Carnegie Hall), novelist, the man who started up Cinema magazine in LA, producer and even a role on The Wild Bunch as an uncredited costume designer for friend Sam Peckinpah. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor and all-round Hollywood action and western expert, who learned his trade with Johns Ford and Wayne starting as assistant director on The Quiet Man. There’s a jaunty score by Ennio Morricone to liven things up even more.  The tagline for this was: “She challenged the desert, its men, their passions and ignited a bold adventure.” I can confirm the veracity of this claim. However Shields’ performance earned her the record-breaking score of two Razzies for the same role – Worst Actress and Worst Supporting Actor – harsh! I thought she was pretty great as a Blue-Eyed Demon! Pretty baby indeed. Ironically Shields’ aristocrat grandmother died in a car crash in Italy travelling home from her nephew’s wedding to director Luchino Visconti’s niece. Royal in so many, many ways.

Safari (1956)

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Victor Mature is the Big White Hunter whose young son has been murdered by houseman Earl Cameron as part of the Mau Mau terrorist attacks on settlers. Mature’s licence is revoked by the British to prevent him hunting down his sworn enemy and avenging his son’s death but when an aristocratic client (John Justin) wants him to lead him to a lion, he uses his influence to have him lead the party. Justin’s fiancee is a sparky chorine (Janet Leigh) who’s ambitious for herself but starts to fall for Mature as both her male interests pursue their prey. Anthony Veiller’s screenplay is based on a story by Robert Buckner and has all the tropes of the great African tales plus dazzling wildlife photography by John Wilcox. It’s all tied together in an exciting adventure directed by Terence Young. Caution: there is hunting and colonial attitudes, as Film 4 found it necessary to warn viewers. Gee whiz I thought they’d all be talking in Swahili and eating chimpanzees. (In reality, the second unit actually was attacked by the Mau Mau. Nice!)

Eye in the Sky (2015)

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The knotty moral problem of taking out Al-Shabaab militants who happen to have numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the US government’s kill list in their number in a Kenyan shack with a suicide bombing being prepped gets the moral-thriller workout here. Written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Gavin Hood, this production is unique inasmuch as the four main characters never actually met during filming. This is because it’s about a drone strike – ordered by Whitehall, run by the British Army, carried out by the US from a Nevada base, in Africa. The Brits can’t make up their mind at a COBRA meeting so keep referring everything up – nobody wants to make a decision and Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) has her finger on the trigger for the past 6 years. Their Foreign Secretary is sitting on the toilet at a trade fair in Singapore – perhaps the only time outside of a bromance that diarrhea is a plot point:  he won’t make a decision either and it’s not just because he’s had dodgy prawns. The US Secretary of State takes a call in the middle of a table tennis match and okays the strike. And the delay? A conscience-struck drone pilot (Aaron Paul) doesn’t want to risk the life of a child selling bread within striking distance in the Moslem-controlled district of Nairobi and requests for another estimation of collateral damage. What is good about this genre work is how it bangs up against so many things that we know about:  the shelf life of batteries (this really matters here); the ‘White Widow’ operating as a terrorist in Kenya;  the suicide bombing that killed people in Nairobi (mentioned here); the PR – is it better to allow 80 people to be blasted to bits in a shopping mall than to know a child is killed in a targeted drone strike on British and American citizens even if they belong to an organisation dedicated to wiping out every Jew and Christian on the planet? Produced by Colin Firth’s company (he was supposed to star in it), this is a thoughtful piece of work and better than you might think.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the chaos prior to, during and after the Biafran war in Nigeria in the late 1960s makes for a compelling screen adaptation, particularly for anyone with an interest in the region. Filmmaker Biyi Bandele adapted and directs a fine cast, principally British, in this story of two sisters freshly returned from an English education to pursue  different lifestyles. Thandie Newton as Olanna is a sociologist who shacks up with randy revolutionary professor Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor); while Anika Noni Rose as Kainene becomes a businesswoman engaged to British journalist turned novelist Richard (Joseph Mawle). Their conflicting politics become enmeshed with their sex lives and the violent war looms with some shocking scenes that supersede personal differences.  Beautifully shot on location by John de Borman and the attacks, murders and raids are striking and memorable. The film doesn’t always find the right balance between family drama/soap opera melodramatics and the wider burgeoning conflict but ultimately it works.

The Heart of the Matter (1953)

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I read most of Graham Greene by the age of 12 and I can still recall the day in the public library when I put my mitts on this:  it was the last book of his I read until I reached my third decade. I just didn’t get it. And why would I?! I was far too young to appreciate the nuances beyond the immediate plot. Trevor Howard plays Scobie the Brit policeman abroad (in Sierra Leone) who sends his grieving wife home and embarks on an affair. In the novel he ends his own life but due to censorship this is not the ending here. It’s capably handled by director George More O’Ferrall (who made The Holly and the Ivy and Angels One Five) working from a screenplay by Lesley Storm (probably rewritten by Ian Dalrymple). It is unique in featuring a soundtrack entirely composed of indigenous music. It was produced by London Films, the company set up by Alexander Korda. Howard was never better than here.

Zulu (1964)

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This is the film that really introduced Michael Caine to the world. He’s the posh officer whose advice Stanley Baker refuses to heed and the senseless Battle of Rorke’s Drift of 1879 takes place between a depleted British Army unit and 4,000 Zulus. Patrick Magee as the overworked medic gets the most telling line – “Damn all you butchers!” as the wounded pile up beside the bodies. Great, intense epic filmmaking, written by John Prebble and director Cy Endfield, adapted from Prebble’s article. Co-produced by the wonderful Baker. Superb cinematography by Stephen Dade, music by John Barry and narration by Richard Burton. Shot in Super Technirama 70.