Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.
I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this? Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.
There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.
To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.
Despite its schlocky, B-movie title and the premise of a cyborg cop in a semi-dystopian Detroit, the Paul Verhoeven directed Robocop would prove to be one of the smartest films from the 1980s, an era when blockbuster movies were made for adults and their appeal would trickle down to younger audiences. Everything about the cyborg police officer oozes pure 1980’s cool from the slick metal look to that unforgettable voice (“your move creep!”). It feels like an actual robot and not simply a man wearing a suit, largely in part thanks to Peter Weller’s performance in which he nails the robotic body movements (I can suspend my disbelief that it never occurs to the bad guys just to shoot Robocop in the flesh of his uncovered lower face).
Robocop himself is the creation of Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a company which in its own words deals in “markets traditionally regarded as non-profit” such as hospitals, prisons and space exploration (funny I am writing this review as Jeff Bezos and the Richard Branson have just recently flown into space); a company that is essentially part of the military-industrial complex (“you got access to military weaponry? We practically are the military”). OCP runs the Detroit police force which raises the question, does there exist a public police force that is actually privatized (to which I’m unable to find a clear answer)? The world inside OCP is a combination of sexy and sinister yuppiedom full of Godfather-esque inner dealings and in which stock boards are placed above urinals. I like how during the presentation for the company’s other police robot ED-209, one of the board members is brutally gunned down by the machine and the best anyone can say is “does somebody want to call a paramedic?” and the board just continue to talk business and finance (also notice how Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) stubbornly pays no attention during the ED-209 presentation). It ultimately comes as no surprise when it turns out OCP has links to Detroit’s most prominent gang lead by Clarence Boddicker, a figure of pure menace with his sinister look and a man who can go down as one of cinema’s great villains (notice how he’s always doing something with his mouth). Yet I wouldn’t say OCP is portrayed as an overtly evil company in Robocop, the companies’ head, the sympathetic old man (Dan O’Herlihy) appears to be oblivious the shadier dealings within his company rather than actively taking part in them (by contrast in Robocop 2 OCP is portrayed as a far more sinister company, right down to having Nazi-esque flags on displays). Robocop can join the club of sci-fi movies that warned us about the dangers of corporate power, but did we listen?
So how does OCP come to literally own the body of Robocop’s previous alter alias, Detroit police officer Alex Murphy? We are only given a single line of dialogue in which company member Donald Johnson (Felton Perry) states “Well he signed the release forms when he joined the force. He’s legally dead. We can do pretty much what we want to”. It’s also not clear if Murphy has literally been brought back from the dead (although with Robocop being a clear Christ metaphor that argument could be made). Clarence Boddicker shot Murphy in the forehead and he clearly appeared deceased lying in a pool of his own blood, yet when Murphy is being rushed to the operating room we do see what appears to be flashbacks in his head to his family life suggesting he was still alive. Regardless if weather OCP has literally possesses the ability to reincarnate a human, it is a disturbing prospect how a company can literally own your body and in effect, a person (regardless if they’re technically still classified as a human upon becoming a cyborg) can become a company product. As the film progresses there are subtle signs of Murphy regaining his humanity and like fellow similarly themed 80’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner, the question is asked, what is the dividing line between man and machine? Unlike say 2001: A Space Odyssey which makes the viewer fear technology with HAL 9000, Robocop has a message of man learning to live side by side with technology. The scene in which Murphy removes his visor and looks upon his face for the first time since becoming Robocop is heart-wrenching and easily the most moving scene in the film, with the makeup effects themselves being something of awe.
Robocop’s competitor at OCP, ED-209 is one cool looking beast but is a product that clearly hasn’t been well thought through since it’s incapable of accessing areas such as a simple staircase. It’s the little touches though which give it a personality from its lion growl before attacking from its pig squeal when it falls over to its little foot twitch. It goes without saying stop motion effects will never cease being cool to look at (likewise, Robocop I also great a showcase for the lost art that is the matte painting). Contrarily, Murphy’s partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), while instrumental in helping Murphy rediscover his humanity, I do find myself slightly resenting her character as she does bear some responsibility for Murphy’s death and for a ridiculous reason. She just had to look down at that gang members’ package and as a result, be knocked out and disarmed. Had she not been distracted Murphy might still be a regular cop. That said, Murphy’s twirling of his gun to emulate the fictional futuristic cop T.J. Lazer in order to impress his son is a massive firearms violation (tut, tut), even if “role models can be very important to a boy”.
One of the memorable aspects of Robocop and something which really makes the film unique are the television segments, of which the news bulletins are in themselves an effective manner to deliver exposition while the commercials are incredibly entertaining and quotable (“That’s it buster! No more military aid!”). Perhaps most memorable of all is the fictional sitcom It’s Not My Problem! and that infectiously quotable line “I’d buy that for a dollar!” – the punch line to a joke we never hear yet the characters in the movie watching this low brow sitcom find hilarious. Much of the acting in Robocop is deliberately very campy. I can remember on one occasion channel surfing and I stumbled onto Robocop, my mother could not stop laughing at just how campy the acting was.
No specific date is given for when Robocop is set, whereas like Blade Runner, there exists technology that is still science-fiction in the real world and the President of the United States makes speeches from outer space (likewise male and female police officers sharing the same changing room appears to be the norm), yet within this universe, televisions are still bulky boxes with Cathode-ray tubes. Perhaps the film’s most memorable tech anomaly is the appearance of what you could possibly call a DVD, in which Boddicker uses a CD to carry visual information which was not possible in 1987. I also find the interior of Murphy’s house (owned by a company called Zem Industries) looks so heartless and sterile. This world isn’t quite Soylent Green but it’s still not desirable.
Even for a film that is as violent and drenched in blood as Robocop, the one moment which still manages to come out of left field is the death of the Boddicker’s henchman Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane). The death of Emil is equally disturbing yet darkly comic as he turns into a creature resembling the toxic avenger after driving into a toxic waste container. What makes it so funny is the horror-like organ music that plays over the graphic, horrifying sight of a man who rivals Joseph Merrick followed by his body splattering all over a car windshield after Boddicker accidentally drives into him. Conversely, the film’s action climax does end on a more beautiful moment of violence as Boddicker penetrates Robocop with a spear, a shot that has a very mythic quality to it.
Robocop as a series is also one of the great tragedies of contemporary cinema in that the first film set up so much sequel potential which failed to be utilized upon (I do like Robocop 2 but it is a downgrade from the first film) – regardless, we will always have the original. The ending of Robocop is just about the perfect explosion of catharsis to an already sublimely paced film as our titular hero gets revenge on the corporate bad guy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). I do love that brief cutaway shot in which Donald Johnson looks on with glee at Robocop guns down Jones while that charmingly dodgy falling shot in which Jones has unusually long arms is so wonderfully cliché. This is followed by one of the best single lines in film history as the old man praises Robocop for his shooting and asks him for his name. A Robocop who has regained his humanity gives a simple utterance of “Murphy” as Basil Poledouris’ superb theme plays over the end credits and the audience cheers on.
Go West could be seen as Buster Keaton’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid but with the child in question being replaced by none other than a cow in this contemporary era western. The pathos laden film is Keaton’s most innocent picture and one that really tugs the heartstrings in which Friendless (Keaton), an aimless drifter who doesn’t fit in anywhere finds himself working at a ranch where he befriends Brown Eyes, a dairy cow who is tossed in with the beef herd because of her inability to give milk.
Brown Eyes (played by the cow of the same name) is cinema’s first and last bovine movie star (at least to my knowledge). Keaton shares a natural rapport with the animal and the chemistry between the two does come off on-screen. There is a human female in the story (Kathleen Myers) but Brown Eyes is the only woman who wins Friendless’ heart. I do have to ask though is Friendless an early example of a vegetarian since I do personally hold the standard that I can’t become attached to an animal if I eat others in its species. Then again Friendless takes no issue with the rest of the herd going to the slaughterhouse. The naivety and childlike mentality Friendless holds is best portrayed when he discovers Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse along with the other bovine – like a child who has only just discovered there is no Santa Clause. It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when man and his cow are separated.
One of the most memorable gags in Go West is the 3-part running gag involving Friendless sitting down at the dinner table just as the other men get up – one of those gags that’s funny even when you know how it’s going to play out. The gag’s third act ends beautifully when Friendless rushes to the table and manages to finish his meal just as the other men sit down, but just look at the face on Keaton as he leaves the table – so elegant and satisfied. The other alpha males on the ranch barely even notice Friendless as they all tower above him, likewise throughout Go West, Friendless is only able to come into possession of a tiny gun, could there be phallic symbolism with this or am I looking into it too much?
Go West features some gorgeous western scenery and landscapes with that hazy shimmer of heat, along with the early adoption of deep focus cinematography and the use of painted backdrops which impressively blend into the real-world background. The climax of Go West involves Friendless trying to navigate herds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles to be sold at market. The herded insanity itself is impressive considering the logistics that must have gone into filming such a sequence but also the simple sight involving huge herds of cows walking through an urban metropolis is a funny image in itself. Move over John Wayne in Red River, Buster Keaton shows us how to rustle up some cattle!
Buster Keaton goes to college, it’s almost like the jokes write themselves in the classic conflict of jocks vs. nerds to stand alongside Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman as the other great college comedy of the silent era. At the film’s opening Ronald (Keaton) delivers a speech at his high school graduation on how books are more important than sports in perhaps the only instance in which Keaton plays a rather smug character. However, what really makes the speech memorable is that he delivers it while performing what is now recognized as the Michael Jackson anti-gravity lean. Needless to say, the speech is not well received and is followed by one of the most striking images in the film as Ronald and his mother (played by one of cinema’s earliest stars Florence Turner) walk through the torrential rain as the camera pans backwards.
College feels like a time capsule with its use of vintage college insignia and tropes from men wearing sweaters, varsity jackets, soda jerks, dorm rooms and pennant flags. The Los Angles State Normal School fills in the fictional Clayton University and like any college movie, there is no sign of students actually studying or attending classes. As is the case in Keaton’s other features, his motivating factor is all down to the love of a girl, Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall) is the most popular girl on campus, yet she still has a liking for the dweeb. Keaton – an inspiration and a beacon of light for unpopular kids everywhere.
Watching Ronald attempt and fail at a variety of sports with his two left feet is such a joy to watch (with the location filming in the LA Coliseum providing a great backdrop), however, it’s made especially impressive considering Keaton’s athleticism and acrobatic abilities, it must have been particularly challenging portraying a character who is so uncoordinated when it comes to sports. The print of College featured on the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray features a great contemporary score by Rodney Saur with some terrific recurring motifs and fantastic comic use of fiddles during the film’s baseball scene, making it all the more funny.
One of College’s most memorable scenes involves Ronald disguising himself as a waiter in blackface in order to get a job in a restaurant only hiring “coloured” waiters. Keaton evens performs this doing minstrel show walk (and even manages to roll over 360 degrees while carrying soup and not spilling it). The fact that such a thing is taboo just makes it all the funnier (of course the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray release has to include a content warning). Likewise, the use of slow motion with the gag featuring the umbrella is surreal and out of place, not to mention it doesn’t quite work since everything with the frame slows down and not just Keaton with the umbrella, none the less it in interesting to such an early use of slow motion. The film’s climax even features a Ferris Buller style running sequence as Keaton runs through various residential streets and gardens, followed by the most bizarre ending to any of Keaton’s features and even a somewhat dark yet endearing final shot of tombstones. What! No Beans?
Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.
The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society.
Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?
It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.
Apocalypse Now is one of the most, if not the hypnotic film I’ve ever seen, providing an eerie and otherworldly glimpse into hell itself. It’s a film I will think about when I’m in a daze of boredom such as being stuck in a classroom or a call centre while I’m slowly losing my mind as The End by The Doors goes through my head, all while I try to audibly recreate those helicopter sound effects from the film’s opening moments (once you hear Walter Murch’s sound effects you never forget them). Even the film’s synthesized score courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola’s own father Carmine Coppola, brings a real sense of unease and wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie. From the opening shot in which a serene green landscape is infiltrated by yellow fumes and bursts into flames, the war epic is a sensory experience like no other, making you feel the humidity of the jungle with its rich orange palette that bounces of the reflections of the river thanks to the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Yet Apocalypse Now looks shockingly contemporary, absent of any indicators that it was filmed in the 1970’s.
Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a man, whom to say the least, has been driven mad by his time in Vietnam. With Sheen’s everyman persona, Willard is a vehicle for the audience to view this world through, with a face which is able to express so much without dialogue (often with an unamused expression by the antics of the less experienced members of his crew) and perhaps most importantly, some of the best voice over work ever recorded with sheen’s unforgettable, grisly narration. While I am fortunate enough never to have experienced war, I can see the argument being made that Apocalypse Now is not only an inaccurate depiction of war, it is an absolutely ridiculous depiction of war. It’s said that war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror, yet Apocalypse Now presents a decade’s worth of crazy and surreal events condensed into a single mission. The attack on the Vietnamese village for example is one of the finest battle sequences committed to film and a masterpiece of mayhem captured on screen, and that’s only one of many escapades encountered by Willard and the crew of his boat. Likewise as is the case with other films from the 1970’s such as Black Sunday, it’s surprising from a modern perspective how companies would allow their IP’s to be used in films with dark subject matter, such as the case of Apocalypse Now with the use of the Playboy brand.
The mission briefing scene at the beginning of the film is a master class in the delivery of exposition. Alongside the striking nature of the dialogue itself such as General Corman’s (G.D. Spradlin) monologue about “good & evil” to the extensive use of props and food (that tape recorder sound effect is another unforgettable Murch sound effect), this 9-minute scene is never anything less than dramatically intense. I do love me some good military jargon (“This mission doesn’t exist, nor will it ever exist”) plus there is even some subtle humour slipped in such as Willard’s delayed, deadpan response to being informed that his assassination target Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone insane. However, what really makes the sequence ever so slightly nerve-racking is the presence of the CIA civilian Jerry (no name is mentioned in the scene yet the name is attributed to him). He shows no emotion with his penetrating stare and feels like the scene implies he holds the real power in the room and speaks only a single line, the chilling phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice”. The other notable addition to this scene is a very nerdy looking Harrison Ford as Colonel Gary Lucas (a reference to George Lucas). Ford delivers expository dialogue in an underplayed but striking manner and like his small role in Coppola’s The Conversation, he leaves an impression and leaves you wishing he was in the film more (Ford’s part was shot after the filming of Star Wars but prior it’s release). Ford was reportedly nervous about filming a scene that contained so much dialogue and Coppola incorporated this into his performance (I do wish however the deleted moment in which Lucas makes reference to John Wayne’s The Green Beret wasn’t left on the cutting room floor). Talk about a film with so many great lines to quote in your daily life as non-cinephiles look on at you in puzzlement.
So which version of Apocalypse Now is superior? While the original on its own is a masterpiece and one I can turn towards for a more streamlined experience, I find the Redux version adds more layers of richness and complexity to an already stellar film, even turning it into something of an adventure film with all these extra detours. I’ve read criticisms of the pace regarding the Redux cut but I can tell you this viewer has no such pacing issues with this 3 hour and 16-minute version of the film. For starters, I do enjoy the addition of the sequence with the playmates at the rain-drenched camp. While it doesn’t add anything to the overall story, it provides some fascinating insight with the portrayal of harsh living conditions for the soldiers and what these men in the wilderness with their pent up rage fighting each other do when they finally get some female companionship.
However, the greatest asset to Redux is the portion of the film at the French Plantation. This 23-minute long sequence taking place in a Shangri-La amidst a war zone offers closure to the character of Miller (Laurence Fishburne) with his burial but more significantly examines the often overlooked French colonial history of Vietnam. This is the only part of the film which directly delves right into politics as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys engage in some fascinating and increasingly intense political conversations. The French characters remain stoic as they declare their refusal to leave the plantation despite the war being in full swing due to France’s history of losing various conflicts as well as a monologue of how the United States apparently invented the Viet Cong. The heightened conversion even becomes humorous at one point as two of the Frenchmen started arguing in un-subtitled dialogue as they shout “communiste” and “socialiste” back at each other. The entire plantation sequence plays out like a dream with the use of mist, twilight lighting and later a purple sky. Throughout the aforementioned conversations, one of the woman, Madame Sarrault (Aurore Clémen) stares at Willard throughout the dinner with an attractive glaze. After the dinner, the two converse alone as the sky turns purple and she tells him of losing her husband to war before the two proceed to make love in a breathtaking and foreboding piece of romance, with the music during this moment being my favourite from the film’s score – equal parts haunting, equal parts beautiful.
As a counterbalance to all the death and destruction, there’s quite a bit of humour in Apocalypse Now from the movie being chocked full of mad lads. Late in the film, we are treated to a perfectly cast Dennis Hooper as burned out gonzo journalist who’s losing his mind in the jungle and spouting full-on hippie, pseudo-intellectual nonsense man! However, the king of Apocalypse Now’s eccentric characters has to be Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore and his magnificent Calvary hat. For Kilgore war is not only just another day for him (he is completely unphased at one point when a bomb goes off close to him as those around him flinch) he disturbingly feeds off it and has fun along the way. He blasts Richard Wagner from loud speakers and casually drinks coffee while invading a Vietnamese village and once the crux of the invasion is complete, he wants to go surfing with his own branded surfboards. Even more Kilgore madness is present in Redux in which he is given a much more dramatic introduction as his helicopter complete with his calvary hat symbol and the phrase “Death From Above” imprinted on the front as it carries his royal chadness. Yet despite all this, Redux also includes an additional moment in which Kilgore is shown with a more human side as he guides a Vietnamese woman and her baby to safety.
Come the final act of Apocalypse Now, we finally reach the human MacGuffin that is Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. I have never been a huge fan of Marlon Brando, with his mumbling persona I often find it hard to take him seriously as an actor, but Apocalypse Now is one film in which I find him to be a compelling presence. Much has been said about Brando arriving to the film’s set overweight and unprepared for the role, yet Kurtz’ many ramblings are strangely compelling even though I have to ask myself when listening to them, “what the hell is this guy going on about?”. It could easily have come off as Grandpa Simpson telling stories that don’t go anywhere but the immaculately light god-like figure doesn’t come off as such. What makes Kurtz final demise so fascinating is that he is a rare example of an adversary who willingly allows himself to be taken out – a man who has accepted his fate. There’s something beautiful to watching Willard pummel Kurtz as he falls to the ground along with the intercut shots of a water buffalo being mutilated as it too falls to the ground – it’s elegant and graceful despite its graphic nature. Despite the iconic typography of the film’s title, Apocalypse Now has neither a title screen nor any opening and closing credits, making it feel like a film that could be edited into an endless loop, going around in circles for hellish infinity.
Any public fascination with the Amish and their stark contrast with the modern, civilized world sadly translates more than often to the group being the butt of jokes in movies, sitcoms and oddly enough, many TV commercials (look it up). Regardless of how accurately Witness represents the Amish, it’s as serious and as comprehensibly researched as Hollywood has ever taken the subject matter (customs, language, dialect and all) – a human portrayal without any condescension. Witness is the story of an Amish community being forced to cooperate with the outside world after a young Amish boy is a material witness to a homicide. The expertly paced story neatly falls into the classic heroes’ journey, as police detective John Book (Harrison Ford) has to leave the world he knows to take refuge in the unfamiliar but eventually has to set things right in his world.
Witness was Harrison Ford’s opportunity to showcase his acting chops playing a contemporary, real-world character as John Book, the upstanding figure of morality in a world of police corruption. Ford projects much warmth with his interactions with the little Amish child Daniel (Lukas Haas), posing as a Freudian father figure, while Ford’s trademark dry wit never fails to amuse (“learning a lot about manure, very interesting”). Early in the film there is a scene in which Daniel mistakes a Rabbi for an Amish man, this is the reverse of a gag from another Harrison Ford movie, The Frisco Kid, in which Gene Wilder plays a Rabbi who mistakes an Amish man as being a fellow Rabbi. Kelly McGillis on other hand has that country girl look and conveys a sense of purity to the character of Rachael. The forbidden love she shares with Book builds up the sexual tension between the two, most memorably during the sequence as the pair dance by Book’s car to the song Wonderful World by Greg Chapman (I’ve never seen anyone drink lemonade more manly than Harrison Ford) – This repressed longing is far sexier than any sex scene could ever be.
The mid-1980’s was a period when real-world dramas featured futuristic, synth music scores. Maurice Jarre’s score for Witness wouldn’t feel out of place in Blade Runner but the odd combo of futuristic-sounding music over the rural landscapes of Pennsylvania is effective (likewise, that barn construction sequence may lack the dancing from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers but is no less splendid). It’s just ironic that this music is juxtaposed to a world in which modern technology is shunned.
One of the most interesting scenes in Witness is that in which an Amish elder speaks to Samuel about Book’s gun, tying in with the film’s broader theme of pacifism vs. conflict. In what could be seen as an anti-gun argument from the Amish perspective, the elder states “this gun of the hand is for the taking of human life” and that it is only for God to take life. Samuel however, who has witnessed a man being murdered, refutes this and states “I would only kill a bad man”. The film presents two sides of an issue without taking a side or being propagandistic, letting the viewer draw their own conclusion.
I often hear similar stories of people’s first experiences watching Blade Runner, finding the film dull but coming to appreciate it years later – my story has the same trajectory. I first tried to watch Blade Runner (of what I believe was The Final Cut) on TV in Christmas 2009, only to stop watching after half an hour due to boredom. Over the years, however, I would be compelled to return to Blade Runner several times and get more out of it with each viewing. The tech-noir world of Blade Runner is one to get lost in with its use of neon and many billboards of geishas, albeit a more depressing, dystopian one than say that of Star Wars; one in which the city of Los Angeles appears to be stuck in a state of perpetual darkness and it very frequently rains. Now when watching Blade Runner, I’m watching a movie set in the past date of November, 2019. Once again, like Star Wars, the technology present is highly contradictory, this is a world in which flying cars exist and photographs have unimaginably high pixel counts, yet they still use CRT televisions and mobile phones don’t appear to exist. It contradictions like these which we can observe in the real world just adds to the unique and fantasy aspect of the Blade Runner universe.
The visual style of Blade Runner has since become a massive cliché – often imitated but never equaled. It feels like every shot or background prop has a story to tell such as those many photographs in Rick Deckard’s apartment. The man-cave interior of Deckard’s apartment is perfectly suited to his loner personality, a classic world-weary noir protagonist. The film’s blurring of the lines between what is human and what is machine results in me always having to remind myself that these replicants of whose plight I’ve drawn emotional investment towards, are not humans at the end of the day. Why should I feel sorry for the vulnerable replicant Rachael with her smudged eye makeup created from her tears? Blade Runner provokes many a thought of what it means to be human. I suspect the appearance of Rachael must have come about from a desire to create an ideal woman since nobody else in Blade Runner casually dresses like a 1940’s femme fatale (I haven’t heard of anyone else note Rachael has a strong resemblance to Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen from 1942). Likewise, I don’t want to know if Deckard is a replicant or not, I prefer the ambiguity and the mystery along with the many unanswered questions of this universe.
The love scene between Deckard and Rachael is one of the greatest in cinema history. The sexual tension builds up as a shirtless Deckard wipes away the blood of his face and Rachael lets her hair loose. Subsequently, the manner in which Deckard prevents Rachael from leaving the apartment as he shuts the door with his fist and then proceeds to kiss her along with the saxophone solo from the love them being as close to cheesy as it can get without it being so, brings the swoon factor up to 11. My shallow desires just wish the extended, deleted version of the scene was left in any of the version of the film (in the 80’s Sean Young got to have a sex scene with both Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner).
The effects of globalization as seen in Blade Runner present L.A. (or at the very least one portion of the city) having Japanese inhabitants as the majority population. If the filmmakers were intending to make accurate predictions of the future, the world of Blade Runner would be more likely dominated by Chinese influence. What Blade Runner does reflect accurately about our modern world is the increasingly oppressive corporate culture and the surveillance of everyday life. There are no evident signs of government in Blade Runner yet corporations rule the roast as the Mayan pyramid-shaped headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation dominates the skyline. Like Cyberdyne Systems in The Terminator and Omni Consumer Products in Robocop, 1980’s pulp sci-fi tried to warn us of the dangers of unbridled corporate power. Such power is seen turning in on itself as the film’s corporate overlord, the slimy, dubious Eldon Tyrell with his magnificent glasses succumbs to a gruesome death in the only moment of the film in which I want to avert my eyes from the screen in a classic case of the Frankenstein monster turning on its creator. It’s little often pointed out that Tyrell’s death is very similar to the murder of Mr. Gaines in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In both films, the murders take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both characters are wearing a robe while having a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds.
Lucas and Spielberg gave special editions a bad name, but Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of Blade Runner actually shows they have a place (providing the option of viewing the original still exists). There are no pointless CGI additions and it fixes the niggling technical flaws of the original such as the shot of Roy Batty’s dove flying towards the sky. While I appreciate the Final Cut, there is a charm to those imperfections of the original, showing that even the masters can make mistakes. I will also defend the voice-over narration present in the theatrical version. It’s not up to the poetic quality of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and is hokey but I find it endearingly so and does make the plot easier to follow and gives the film a bit more character (plus we get to hear Harrison Ford drop the “N” word).
Blade Runner is by no means a nihilistic film, rather it is one that shows beauty in despair (the original ending shows that green pastures apparently still exist in this world of ecological ruin). This display of goodness, truth and beauty culminates in Roy Batty’s final 42 word Tears In The Rain monologue, as the obviously Christ-like figure conjures magnificent images of Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate to the magnificent score by Vangelis. The Blade Runner soundtrack is one of the few film scores in which I can listen to the entire thing (even John Williams Ladd Company jingle is awe-inspiring). It is the perfect accompaniment to walking down any urban landscapes at night (I can recall multiple mornings when I would listen to Tears In The Rain as the sun would rise back when I worked night shifts) as oneself reflects over its romantic nature and harkens for nostalgia, often and like the replicants in the movie, for memories we don’t even have.
Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.
Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.
The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night. Contraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.
Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.
I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned. It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.
Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.
A Texas cattle agent witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City, Kansas and agrees to take up the job of sheriff to clean the town up. If that doesn’t sound like the most stereotypical summary of a western then I don’t know what does. 1939 was the year in which the western went from a B-movie genre to getting the big studio treatment almost overnight and as a result, the inclusion of just about every western trope in Dodge City almost feels slightly comical. We get a train, a stagecoach, cattle drives, a saloon brawl, dancehall girls, an evil gang terrorising the locals, the “new sheriff” in town, a schoolmarm, lynch mobs, a crusading newspaperman, poker games, herds of bison, a climactic shootout, rock and roller, cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! Perhaps the only elements which are missing are a fight with Indians and big ol’ saguaro cactus (geographically inaccurate I know)
Errol Flynn transitions well to the role of a cowboy as Irishman Wade Hatton (“Thirty years ago, my father met my mother at the Londonderry fair” – excuse me, no true Irishman calls it Londonderry). Dodge City was the 5th of eight pairings of Flynn and Olivia deHavilland in which she plays feisty frontierswoman Abbie Irving. The magic is still there with any scene in which they are alone – you can tell these two really are in love, and like in The Adventures of Robin Hood, deHavilland is given many a memorable, brightly colored costume change throughout the film. Abbie’s brother Lee (William Lundigan) on the other hand is one of the biggest twats in screen history. A spoiled, trouble-making, tantrum-throwing drunkard who carelessly fires his gun into the air which causes a cattle stampede that leads to his untimely death. However, I don’t quite get why Abbie resents Wade for his involvement in Lee’s death as he ultimately got what was coming to him. None the less, Henry Travers perfectly sums up the situation – “Women’s logic and emotions are often very confusing”.
Dodge City is a story of morality and civilization – another chapter in how the west was won. The bad guys of Dodge City lead by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) are essentially gangsters, murdering for business interests, running gambling clubs and threatening the press. However, once Wade becomes the sheriff and begins cleaning up the town of its crime and degeneracy, my libertarian alarm bells start going off as he restricts gambling, gun rights (is he violating the 2nd Amendment by decreeing “No firearms permitted north of Front Street”?) and introduces taxes (at least his barber recognizes they are a necessary evil).
Dodge City may have the best bar fight ever committed to screen. One spurred on by post-civil war tensions as the Confederate half of the saloon sings (I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land and the Yankee half retaliates with Marching Through Georgia before dozens of men cause utter fist-fighting destruction, destroying ever corner of the saloon and even falling through walls and multiple floors as they pummel each other. The beginning of the scene in similar to that from Casablanca (which Curtiz would also direct) in which the Germans at Rick’s Place start singing Die Wacht am Rheinin in front of the French of whom retaliate by singing the La Marseillaise.
The film’s score by Max Steiner sounds awfully similar in parts to that which Steiner would compose for Gone With The Wind, released 8 months after Dodge City. Even some of the shots present in the film are reminiscent of the scenes in Atlanta from GWTW. From the beautiful artwork in the title screens to the grand 3-strip Technicolor encompassing many scenic horizons, Dodge City is a visual delight (it’s just a shame the DVD copy of the film suffers from some colour bleeding). The film’s climactic shootout on the train, however, lets the film done slightly as the cuts back forth between the location and a studio set fail to convincing match each other.
Errol Flynn and Alan Hale once again make a great duo and Hale even receives his own comedic spotlight moment when he wanders into a temperance union known as the Pure Prairie League, only to find he’s the only man among a group of older women. Likewise in an interesting twist to convention, it’s Alan Hale and not Errol Flynn who takes out the film’s main villain played by Bruce Cabot. I’m just disappointed Ann Sheridan’s part in the film is barely beyond a cameo despite being third billed. She performs several songs as a saloon singer but has no impact on the plot – did she have any deleted scenes? I could also do without that cutesy little kid (Bobs Watson), although to be fair at least he has a major role in the progression of the plot. Regardless of any minor shortcomings, any film is worth it when it has earned its right to culminate in the most endearing of cinematic images, the hero riding off into the sunset.