Waterloo (1970)

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I am France and France is me! Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) is being defeated at every juncture and following an enforced period of exile on the island of Elba he escapes. With the support of Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) who defects from Louis XVIII (Orson Welles in a colourful cameo) he sees a chance to reclaim his name at Waterloo in Belgium after defeating the Prussians and where he faces the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) leading the British… The most precious quality in life is loyalty. This is a fabled war epic notable for the problematic performance by Steiger which fails to elicit the empathy that even the most ardent of his supporters (c’est moi!) requires. His competing voiceover with that of Wellington basically asks you to choose between will and grace – because he is the man under pressure and Steiger’s performance doesn’t permit you to digress from that impression. The contrast between the two military leaders is exemplified in the scene when Wellington is found dozing under a newspaper beneath a tree before battle commences on the ground of his choosing while Napoleon is pacing, sweating, dying inside. I did not usurp the crown, I found it in the gutter and picked it up with my sword.  It was the people who put it on my head This is an absolutely beautiful historical work, resplendent in its narrative and aesthetic choices but also rather smart as a quicksilver screenplay. Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig’s work has great clarity of construction, synoptic sequences and epigrammatic dialogue, which I can’t get enough of – there’s some brilliant byplay between Wellington and one of his Irish infantrymen, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly) especially when the man is found secreting a squealing piglet on his person:  This fellow knows how to defend a helpless position! Their irregular encounters punctuate the drama, first with humour, then with sorrow.  There’s a rousing, appropriately imperial score by Nino Rota which greatly enhances the philosophy being worked out here:  the utter futility and brutality of war. Even the poor piper gets it. And as for the unfortunate horses … Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati made additions to the screenplay, and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s wonderfully shot by Armando Nannuzzi whose compositions allow you to see exactly how (not) to engage the enemy. Epic. Wellington. Wellington! Why is it always Wellington?


Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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The Nun’s Story (1959)

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On Good Friday in Ireland two things happen:  some people go to a long church service;  other people either shop, wash the car or watch this on TV. This is as close to a religious experience as I have ever had so now you know where I spend the day. Kathryn Hulme’s novel was a roman a clef in all but name about Belgian nun Gabrielle Van Der Mal aka Marie Louise Habets who makes all kinds of sacrifices to pursue a life ruled by the Catholic Church. Her ambition to be a doctor is punished by being sent to nurse in a mental hospital. When she is finally sent to the Congo she struggles with her spirituality and her friendship with a brilliant doctor (Peter Finch as Dr Fortunati) and gets ill from TB. On returning to Europe, the war is on, the Nazis have murdered her father and she is forced to make a decision. Brilliantly adapted  by Robert Anderson, Hepburn delivers a masterful performance under Fred Zinnemann’s conscientious direction.Hepburn did not win the Academy Award for which she was nominated, but should have. In reality, she befriended the subject of the film, which she prepared for meticulously, and when she had a near-fatal riding accident the following year it was the real-life Sister Luke who nursed her back to health. Now that’s showbiz. Stunning.

Tintin and the Golden Fleece (1961)

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Or le mystere de la Toison d’Or as the original French title had it. This was an original Tintin story, using elements of the albums but having a life of its own. And what a life! Jean-Pierre Talbot was a Belgian schoolboy plucked from the obscurity of a holiday camp when his resemblance to the journalist hero was spotted. It helped that he had an obsessive interest in the books. Georges Wilson was a respected theatre actor whose larger than life style assisted greatly in his interpretation of Captain Haddock. The line of Herge’s drawings is respected in the shooting style, the production design and the clear actions. The colours are simplified to echo the pure codes in the albums. Andre Barret and Remo Forlani do the adaptation honours from a number of sources in the stories. Milou or Snowy has an apt lookalike who acts very well (the Uggie of his time). Directing duties are aptly handled by Jean-Jacques Vierne. The story takes us to Turkey where the ramshackle titular tug awaits rescue and the usual antics ensue involving Dupont and Dupond (Thomson and Thompson to our Anglophonics) and Professor Calculus. This is perfectly realised fun, which makes one wonder why Spielberg went down the performance capture/CGI route with Secret of the Unicorn, an exegesis that scared the hell out of this Tintinophile (it’s not as spooky on repeat viewings, but still.) Why do that when Herge had anointed him the filmmaker to adapt his hero after seeing  (the very live action) Raiders of the Lost Ark? It was particularly galling once one saw what could be done in the French industry with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2011), an exercise in steampunk whose biggest effects are in the marvellously expressive faces that populate the story. Catch this if you can. And then try to find the Belgian animated series, far more faithful, politically incorrect and fun than the later watered-down Canadian series.