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.

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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?

Millions Like Us (1943)

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You can’t cook or sew, I doubt if you can even knit. You know nothing about life, not what I call life. You’re still only a moderate hand on a milling machine and if you had to fend for yourself in the midst of plenty you’d die of starvation. Those are only your bad points. I’m not saying you haven’t got any good ones. At the outbreak of World War II, Celia (Patricia Roc) and her family must join the domestic British war effort. Celia is recruited to work in a munitions factory building aircraft, where her co-workers represent a variety of social classes. She falls in love with Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), a young pilot, and the two are married. Fred is soon deployed to battle, however, and Celia must face the harsh realities of life as a soldier’s wife, while continuing her crucial work on the home front… Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s film is a morale-boosting propaganda effort that still stirs the heart and mind all these years later and even boasts Charters and Caldicott, the auteur’s favourite Brit double act as part of the ensemble. Roc’s performance is winning with the challenge of leaving home for the first time and sharing digs with educated Gwen (Megs Jenkins) and her relationship with Jackson believable while the exchanges on the factory floor hammer home the stratification of social class that was such a feature of film drama at the time. Their relationship is mirrored in that between snobby Jennifer (Anne Crawford) and foreman Charlie (Eric Portman). Part of the film’s ongoing attractions are the famous song South of the Border, composed by Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr.

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!

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee! During the Battle of Britain, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning apprentice witch, decides to use her supernatural powers to defeat the Nazi menace. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three  children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz and they go along to get along after a difficult introduction – they’re city kids stuck in the wilds of rural England and she’s forced to take them into her very big house where she serves healthy food which is utterly alien to them. Joined by the hapless Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school in London, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops as well as dealing with an unscrupulous conman … Well it’s a very snowy day here at Mondo Towers so there was nothing left but haul out Uncle Walt to toast up my chattering tootsies. This is a childhood favourite, a long and entertaining part-animated fantasy comic WW2 drama with not a little music thrown in to complete the Poppins-a-like formula perfected by the studio during the previous decade. Lansbury has the role purportedly rejected by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson returns as the slightly bewildered adult male – albeit Mary Norton’s wartime books which provide the source material have no relation to the earlier film. The Magic Bedknob, Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks provide the arc of the narrative which is enlivened by integrated cartoon and musical sequences. Let’s face it, it takes the House of Mouse to turn WW2 into a delightful musical fairytale with songs by the Sherman brothers, a fantasy football match on a desert island, a resourceful Territorial Army and a very cool cat making for totally bewitching family fun. Hurray! Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson.

White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

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When Nam volunteer Bill (John Jarratt) fetches up on duty with fellow Fosters drinkers courtesy of local politicians, he’s among a group of special air servicemen led by old geezer Harry (Graham Kennedy), numbed by boredom only intermittently relieved by occasional mortar attacks and booby traps set by the virtually invisible Vietnamese. His girlfriend sends him a barely comprehensible Dear John letter, the guys make a wanking machine for the padre, they get a scorpion and spider to fight to the death, and Bung (John Hargreaves) is distraught by tragic news from home. A night with whores in the city with some black American soldiers lifts the spirits. Rogers (Bryan Brown) loses his feet and jaw in a mine and then Bung is lost, pointlessly, when they take a bridge only to be told it’s not needed any more. This plays more like Dad’s Army than Platoon but under-budget and clearly not shot in Vietnam (it was made in Queensland) the limitations serve to amplify the sheer stupidity of this historic sortie and heighten questions of class and politics by dint of the relentless focus on a small group of men in this most irreverent of tragicomedies. Adapted from William Nagle’s autobiographical novel by director Tom Jeffrey. Artless, in every sense.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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Charlie Hunnam is Conor McGregor;  Jude Law is a gay biker. Well, sue me, but that’s how it looks – at least when they eventually put the lights on. Anyone would think it was the Dark Ages!! I don’t like the aesthetics of this, several shades of gunmetal grey (not quite fifty) with CGI action sequences of swords and sorcery disguised in smoke-filled slomo montage concealing the joins. I needed a filter just to see those enormo elephants wreaking havoc on Camelot courtesy of Mordred. Uncle Vortigern (Law) murders King of the Britons Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) after Uther’s slain Mordred, in front of toddler Arthur (Oliver Zac Barker, an early Hunnam) and the boy is reared in a Londinium brothel. He becomes an MMA superstar until his whereabouts are eventually detected and he pulls the sword from the stone. Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is the witchy figure who helps him find his true self while he gathers his father’s old circle including Little Finger, sorry Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), sorry,  and his East End Lock Stock geezer crew led by Neil Maskell, and eventually sees the path to taking power from his evil uncle. Not that he wants it because he can’t remember a jot. All of which is well and sometimes quite good. The symmetrical structure and the Oedipal narratives (more than one) make this potentially fertile territory – as if the Arthurian legends weren’t already sufficient. The backstory to Arthur’s situation is revealed in his relationship with the sword (stop me before I say Freud – TOO LATE!!!) and his regular dreams/visions supply the origins to the tale. And that contributes to the impoverishment of Hunnam’s inhabiting of the role:  aside from his problematic vocal delivery  (where was the director? and it’s not just him, a lot of people give bad line readings here not helped by being buried in the mix) he never has the epiphanies required in this heroic journey, their substitutes are inserted at the wrong times in the wrong way (sorry about the fixation issue) preventing full characterisation. He is a side character to the gathering visions when he should be leading the action. Every time there’s an exciting moment and a revelation it’s ruined by a stupid repetitive flashback. One great realisation, at the right time, would have made this work while his essential self emerged. Arthur never has his big orgasmic truth. The moments of personal evolution are soaked in stupidity and obliterated by the context. We know Hunnam can act so this is at the writers’ door. And I am chair of the Eric Bana fan club (ahem) so I wanted to see way more of him and his dastardly brother’s infighting. I’m loath to call this a remake since it’s been conceived as a wholly unnecessary origins story but it could have been made into a really decent piece of storytelling if Guy Ritchie had been taken away from it at some point instead of getting high on Game of Thrones (even Michael McElhatton has a role here as if we needed any more proof of where this is coming from) and going full throttle digital because there are scenes that really pull things together. And then … Sometimes less really is more. It’s not as bad as mainstream critics are claiming but it needed cooler heads in the editing room:  it’s a romance, Guy! Never mind getting the missus to drag Arfur into the lake! Give him some air! Written by Ritchie and Joby Harrold and producer Lionel Wigram from a story by executive producer David Dobkin, Harrold and some mediaeval dudes. There’s an outstanding score by Daniel Pemberton.