Born Free (1966)

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We spent the day in agony like the parents of a teenage girl out on her first date. At a national park in Kenya, English game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) and his wife, Joy (Virginia McKenna), care for three orphaned lion cubs. After the two larger lions are shipped off to a zoo in the Netherlands, the smallest of the three, Elsa, stays with the couple. When Elsa is blamed for causing an elephant stampede in the nearby village, head warden John Kendall (Geoffrey Keen) demands the young lion either be trained to survive in the wilds of the Serengeti or be sent to a zoo… Joy Adamson’s 1960 book caused a sensation and was part of the beginning of a widespread conservation movement that radically informed westerners about the problems in maintaining wild populations on the continent of Africa. On a more personal level, this is an extremely moving story about her own romance with the wonderful lioness who became part of her life and how hard it was to let her go and live the life she’d been meant to have. Adapted by blacklisted Lester Cole (under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley) this is a wonderfully made, utterly engrossing true story with all the jeopardy you’d expect given the setting which is tantalisingly photographed by Kenneth Talbot.  The co-stars are Girl, Boy, Ugas, Henrietta, Mara and the Cubs and they are completely fabulous. Even my little Graymalkin didn’t evince a shred of jealousy toward her large African cousins and she’s the flyingest supercat around. The soundtrack and theme song by John Barry (with lyrics by Don Black and performed over the end credits by the incomparable Matt Monro) will bring you to tears if the unsentimental drama does not (reader I blubbed all through it, all over again – I do it every time. ) The credits thank Hailie Selassie I among others. Golly. The making of the film transformed the lives of its stars, a real-life married couple who had previously co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth. They started the Born Free Foundation which you can support here:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/. The outcome for the Adamsons was rather different:  they were both murdered. By humans. Directed by documentary maker James Hill with uncredited work by Tom McGowan.

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The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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It’s not a hangin’ matter to be young… but it maybe should be a hangin’ matter for a – man of middle age – to – try and steal the youth from a young girl. Especially, a man like me and a – girl like you. You were meant for the wide world, Rose. Not this place, not this. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the daughter of publican Tom (Leo McKern) in a small seaside Irish village during World War One where the nationalist locals taunt the British soldiers stationed nearby in the wake of the failed Easter Rising of 1916. Rosy falls for Master Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) the local widowed schoolteacher and imagines they will have an exciting life but he has no interest in sex. Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) arrives from the Front crippled and suffering from shellshock. Rosy assists him when he collapses in her father’s pub and they commence a passionate relationship as Charles becomes suspicious and the local halfwit Michael (John Mills) finds Doryan’s medal and wears it around the village. The Irish Republican Brotherhood want to retrieve arms from a wrecked German ship offshore but while the villagers assist, Ryan tips off the British and Doryan and his men are waiting for them.  When the villagers put two and two together they conclude that Rosy is the culprit and wreak revenge …  In a week’s time it’s the 110th anniversary of the great British director David Lean’s birth and this was released 47 years ago this weekend. It’s almost St Patrick’s Day and in honour of our favourite national holiday it’s time to watch this again, the hugely controversial film which caused his career immense difficulties. The British critics reserved a rare kind of contempt for the directors who mastered the visual – as though it were inimical to the cinematic form:  look what they did to Michael Powell. But this elicited ire from the other side of the Atlantic too – Roger Ebert believed the scale of the production was antithetical to the size of the story (as though one’s feelings are supposed to be as controlled as those in Brief Encounter. Someone should have told Shakespeare.) It’s hard to understand why this should be from this vantage point – it’s a women’s picture, as so many of his films were – it looks wonderful, the acting is attractive even if Jones’ chops don’t match up to his good looks and the scenario of a problematic marriage between a young woman and a much older stick in the mud is hardly unusual. In fact it originated in Robert Bolt’s desire to make a version of Madame Bovary to star his wife, Miles. It was Lean who suggested transposing the idea to a different setting using the same kinds of characters and construction. Perhaps it’s the issue of the gloriously melodramatic backdrop – the impact of the First World War and the British Government on a remote Irish seaside village. Perhaps it was the timing. Or perhaps reports from the set alienated the budget-conscious journos – Lean waited a full year to get the right kind of storm and took the unit to South Africa to film it because it never materialised while on location in Kerry and Clare. However this was big at the box office and there are moments and scenes to savour even if you feel that John Mills’ performance as the cretin can make you wince betimes. Surrender to the tragic romance and the feeling of a love worth fighting for in an epic drama scored by Maurice Jarre. It’s David Lean, dammit!

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

A United Kingdom (2016)

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White Queen Black King. The story of a post-WW2 inter-racial 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.