Apocalypse Now (1979)

I Didn’t Choose The Jungle, The Jungle Chose Me

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

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. 

Gone With The Wind (1939)

The Great American Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

GWTW

The Great American Movie

So it’s about time I finally got around to reviewing the big cheese itself, the towering achievement of American cinema, those four glorious syllables – Gone With The Wind.

Gone With The Wind testament to how much filmmaking had changed in just 10 years from the beginning of the talkie period. From the astounding cinematic shots such as the long take of the bodies of fallen soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta to those red Technicolor skies which I could stare at all day to the huge matte paintings which are hard to distinguish from real sets – it’s a world to get lost in (I can even ignore the very clear continuity error at the beginning of the film in which it goes from dusk back to early evening to dusk again). Even those opening titles themselves are breathtaking, let alone for a time when opening titles where comprised of basic on-screen title cards.

Gone With The Wind is a film with a fascinating history as it’s backdrop. The pink elephant in the room however for many modern viewers is the troublesome historical image of the American South both pre and post-antebellum, whether just or unjust. The emphasis on the Wilkes family marrying their cousins doesn’t help things but the real but the real point of contention is the dreaded “R” word, racism. To dismiss Gone With the Wind as a racist film is such a reductive argument, especially when certain commentators liken it to The Birth of a Nation, a film which shows black members in the House of Representatives eating fried chicken. To actually watch Gone With The Wind and study it closely, the way the film examines the racial issues is more 3 dimensional than popular critique contends.

Gone With The Wind is told from the point of view of slave owners who don’t see anything wrong with owning slaves (nor is it ever made clear if the plantation owners start paying their former slaves following the end of the Civil War). The slave owners are a product of their time which the movie doesn’t pass judgment on. Only one line of dialogue in the film deals with the question of morality when it comes to slavery in which Ashley responds to Scarlett’s use of prisoners for labour which implies Ashley sees nothing wrong with slavery providing the slaves are treated well;

“Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labour and misery of others”

“You won’t so particular about owning slaves”

“That was different; we didn’t treat them that way”

I find by far the most interesting aspect of race portrayed in Gone With The Wind is the stark contrast between the black carpetbaggers (northerners who came to the south following the war who were perceived to be exploiting the local populace) and the recently freed slaves who are still childlike, dim-witted and happy to help out their masters of whom they are dependent on. The first black carpetbagger seen in the film is a sharply dressed, liberated northern black man traveling with a white accomplice but more significantly, in a scene not long after this Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) sneers at a pair of African-American carpetbaggers who are wearing fancy suits, smoking cigars and laughing. Mammy, who just had to beg for money along with Scarlett, looks down upon these black men having the time of their lives. While the phrase is not used in the movie, these individuals would be referred to in many quarters as “Uncle Toms”, perceived sellouts to their black brethren. The appearance of independent, well to do black men from the North goes against the narrative of Gone With The Wind being a racist film. I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Gone With the Wind or how well it portrayed the time and place it depicts but there’s too much nuance within the film’s depiction to simply shout “wasis!” rather than having a more productive conversation or what the film did or did not do right. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

The film’s opening prologue and the scenic shots of Tara could be seen as Confederate propaganda with its Utopian presentation of a world alongside the opening prologue which reads;

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”

Yet if there’s any authorial or filmmaking intent to propagate Confederate lost cause mythology (historical revisionism that the Confederacy’s cause during the civil war was a just and heroic one) it is countered by much of the film’s content. There’s no explicit condemnation of slavery or the confederacy but does the movie have to do this? The biggest so called Uncle Tom in Gone With The Wind is Scarlet O’Hara herself for doing business with the northern carpetbaggers in order to save Tara and rise above poverty. What makes Scarlett O’Hara a character I can empathize with? By many accounts, I shouldn’t as she’s bratty, entitled and manipulative, yet you can’t help but admire her desire to survive and make better of herself despite what onlookers might say (her gumption as Margret Mitchell describes it). Scarlet is shown to have little interest in the southern cause (as does Rhett Butler). This is memorably symbolized in the shot in which war has just been announced as everyone runs frantically through the foyer of Twelve Oaks and Scarlett angrily walks by them as if they aren’t even there. Really the one cause Scarlett is dedicated to is that set of her family of Irish immigrants who came to America and accomplished the American Dream of owning land (“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for”).

Then there’s my boy, Rhett Butler; the cinematic embodiment alongside Han Solo and Indiana Jones of masculinity and individualism (and what an introductory shot!). Men want to be him and women want to be with him. A man out for himself and a realist doesn’t really believe in the Confederate cause and is by far the most self-aware character in the film. In a defining scene Rhett points out how the south isn’t equipped for war while the other southern gentlemen are blinded by illusions of grandeur and he’s not afraid to call them out on it, while remaining a gentleman the whole time and even removes himself from the meeting after the other gentlemen feel insulted by his comments. Even when Rhett joins the Confederate Army near the end of the war as he describes himself as having a weakness for lost causes, he’s still self-aware of how foolish his actions are. Just before Rhett leaves Scarlet at the carriage after escaping from a burning Atlanta, the film treats us to what I consider the greatest kiss in film history with its layers on intensity; melodramatic dialogue, sweeping music, and the blood-red sky.

Rhett’s actions do however lead to one scene which gets many viewers in a tussle; Rhett’s drunken marital rape of Scarlett after she refuses to have sex with him (not to mention Scarlett is seen the following the morning have enjoyed the experience!) I don’t believe however the film at all rewards or gratifies Rhett for his actions and subtlety condemns it. Not only does Rhett show remorse for his actions the following morning, but the rape is also the final act which leads to the destruction of a marriage which was already on shaky ground.

Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes on-the-other-hand is in many ways the counterpoint of Rhett Butler as the tender, effeminate, proud southerner (with a transatlantic accent, go figure). Ashley is a romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the old south. Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the reconstruction era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no goals or ambitions for the future. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those old days. Rounding out the film’s four main cast members is Olivia de Havilland in her undersung performance as Melanie Wilkes, crossing the line of being saintly without ever being sickly. Did she know about Scarlett and Ashley or not? Was she really a saint, or just naive, or perhaps exceptionally wise? Perhaps Melanie knew she could trust Ashley while seeing that Rhett was the right man for Scarlett by trying to promote their relationship. Scarlet is the sister Melanie always wanted with each of them possessing qualities the other lacked, especially during their bond over joint survival during and after the war. Scarlett saved Melanie’s life and Melanie kept her cool under fire in a way that earned Scarlett’s private (though reluctant) admiration. She also did not hesitate to do hard work she never would have had to touch before the war. She was, therefore, more valuable to the family’s survival than Scarlett’s two sisters. Now if only I could do without Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the most cowardly, unlikeable characters ever – and that nails on chalkboard voice! Thankfully Scarlett gives her a good slap! Gone With The Wind is one of few films in which every character, no matter how minor is significant in their own way, with Star Wars or The Ten Commandments being one of few other films which achieve this.

Noah’s Ark (1928)

Need An Ark? I Noah Guy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Noah’s Ark was Warner Bros’ attempt to create a Cecil B. DeMille picture and one with very odd results, to say the least. It was a common convention for silent epics to tell two or more concurrent stories, one set in modern times and the others set in the ancient world with these being tied together with the same thematic elements (even Buster Keaton parodied this format in his feature Three Ages). Noah’s Ark from 1928 is not a very good film but it can at least go down in the history books as a bizarrely interesting one.

Noah’s Ark begins with some striking images of the Tower of Babel of which the movie compares to modern day skyscrapers. This is followed by an appearance of the Golden Calf with the title card (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice) “And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man’s religion”. Cut to images of frantic modern day stock brokers followed shortly by a ridiculous montage of gambling and partying to the dissolve of a statute of Jesus which sheds a tear. Oh boohoo! This moralising couldn’t get more over the top if they tried.

Noah’s Ark is a movie trying way too hard to be profound. It’s already used the Old Testament to try and decry capitalism; the remainder of the film tries to state an anti-war message through the story of the Ark. I’m not a theologian but the connection the film tries to make between Noah’s Ark and World War I isn’t even strenuous at best. The movie’s justification for this is that the war and the story of the Ark both resulted in vast destruction and death. Paul McAllister plays a minister who serves as the biblical counterpart for Noah and proclaims before the movie transitions to the biblical tale itself (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

 “The Flood – it was a deluge of water drowning a world of lust!”

“This war – it is a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”

“The flood and the war, God Almighty’s parallel of the ages”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

I do quite like the basic, melodramatic war story which is charming and mildly engaging. George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are two American friends by the names of Travis and Al. The two are residing in Europe and may have a sexual thing going on between them as through much of their interactions they remain physically close, are very touchy and even have a romantic look in their eyes. On top of that during the actual Noah’s Ark portion of the film their biblical counterparts Japheth and Ham are even more homoerotic with their exposed chests. Travis, however, is going to marry his German love interest Marie (Dolores Costello), however, war breaks out and not only is married to a woman from an enemy nation but he’s also initially avoiding conscription. – This is one of those films in which the plot if maximised for upmost melodramatic effect.

65 minutes into what is the longest existing version of Noah’s Ark and we finally get what we came for. The portion of the film about the creation of the ark and the proceeding flooding is the best part of the film. Right of the bat, it’s very dreamlike – I just notice that Dolores Costello’s hairstyle is a few millennia off. It also has the most bizarre representation of God trying to communicate with mere mortals, by carving a giant book into the side of a mountain via lightning. If the film was only comprised of this it would be a really good short film. The movie’s much-touted flooding sequence if a spectacular sight with its huge sets, extras galore and water; lots and lots of water. However what’s made Noah’s Ark most infamous in the history books are the sources which say that several extras drowned during the making of the flood and reportedly 35 ambulances were called out to treat the wounded. You only have to watch the sequence itself to see the extras on screen do appear to be in real danger.

Noah’s Ark was a part-talkie and as a result, you have some very stilted acting during the talking scenes but you can’t blame them. The direction of the film is fine but that distinctive Michael Curtiz style is not as apparent as his later talkies. The obvious model train seen early in the film is cute but in comparison to the flood sequence, if realism was their goal then they failed. Also, can a lightning strike destroy a bridge made out of stone?

Myrna Loy is billed at the bottom of the main players screen at the beginning but only appears in one scene, in which she gets to speak and her first time to do so on screen. Sources do state, however, she also appears in the flooding sequence as a golden-winged dancer before the sacrificial altar but this viewer failed to spot her among the carnage. It does seem odd that for a rather high billing that she appears only very briefly in the film. I can only speculate that perhaps she appeared in more scenes in which were removed for re-releases of Noah’s Ark and have since become lost.

Once the story of Noah comes to a close we are brought back to the present and lo and behold, the war has ended and the armistice is signed. The Minister then makes a proclamation to echo Woodrow Wilson’s  famous statement “The war to end all wars” (* once more in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

“I mean that war is now an outlaw, and will be hunted from the face of the earth. Those ten million men have not died in vain.”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Writes With a Keyboard

It’s more than apparent that Kevin Costner has such love and reverence for the Hollywood western, as he resurrects the genre one decade on from the infamous flop that was Heaven’s Gate and continuing the long tradition of epic Hollywood filmmaking in Dances With Wolves. I find it refreshing to see westerns which include the Indian point of view and the insight Dances With Wolves provides into the culture and lifestyle of the Sioux as well as hearing a language not often heard is fascinating. The Indians in Dances With Wolves are humanised with moments such as when John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) endures a relatable awkward moment as he sees Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) having sex in the tipi they are sharing, to moments in the film in which the Indian children of the tribe have the desire to be grown up and act older than they are. The Indians, however, are not sanctified either and the film avoids the noble savage stereotype; some members of the tribe are vicious killers and openly express their prejudice. The white man on the other hand is shown killing mass amounts of Buffalo only for their horns, throwing their trash on the ground and polluting the water. More significantly the film shows the Sioux’s rival tribe The Pawnee working in co-operation with the US military to take out the Sioux, presenting the conflict between settlers and natives as not a simple good/bad dichotomy – Dances With Wolves presents both villainy and nobility on both sides.

Although not many people share the fondness I have for Kevin Costner and dismissing him as a dull, monotone actor, I point to Dances With Wolves as a showcase that the man is a great screen presence as he carries a four-hour-long movie on his shoulders with no dialogue for long stretches of time while exuberating his commanding narration voice. The passage of time in which John Dunbar very slowly over the course of a four-hour runtime becomes assimilated into the Sioux culture, learns their language and becomes more emotive and open from his previously quiet, stoic self represents an astounding piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, certain individuals will look upon a movie like Dances With Wolves and decry it as offensive for its display of so-called “cultural appropriation” because apparently, the embracing of other cultures doesn’t represent unity between races but thievery of one culture’s ways by another. Dances With Wolves is a film that speaks to our humanity and shows how race can transcend culture. The scene in which Dunbar is being held by the US soldiers as they assault him, denying him to return to his newfound way of life as well as killing his wolf companion Two Socks and using his diary as toilet paper is beyond painful to watch. I’ve become so attached to the character at this point that I can’t bear to watch everything he has worked towards being destroyed.

I can’t say if Dances with Wolves is a movie intended to carry an environmental message but that is an impression I get from it from the film’s contrast between the resourceful Native Americans to the more polluting white men (Costner would go on to later produce and star in the eco-thriller Waterworld). John Dunbar’s desire to see the western frontier before it disappears is comparable to the last great frontiers today which are apparently at risk of eventually disappearing if modern climate change accounts are anything to go by. John Dunbar is a man who doesn’t want to take advantage of the land but to simply admire and bask in it – who needs CGI when there’s a world of scenic and natural beauty out there begging to be captured on film? Simply look at the film’s majestic landscapes of the badlands accompanied by John Barry’s score which evokes a real sense of wonder. “Why go out to a location when you can just create it on a computer. Isn’t that so much easier?” – sigh. Likewise, the famous buffalo hunt scene is the real deal. How do you recreate a buffalo hunt? Why get huge herds of buffalo of course. Like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, history is brought back to life with herds buffalo as far as the eye can see with stuntmen on horseback right in the middle of it all; pulling off something as huge as this and retaining continuity is astounding. Dances With Wolves doesn’t come off as cold, callous Oscar bait but sadly it is another movie in which its Best Picture win has hurt its reputation; “Dances With Wolves is just that movie which beat Goodfellas”.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur, I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of Roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying to dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion.

The story also includes that age-old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall off the roof during the Roman parade and killed the governor then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words of “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people were actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators nor was any rear screen projections used; it’s all the real deal. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen; the chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful, wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective in which lifeboats full of extras were used rather than the remake’s use of miniatures and rear projection shots. Not to mention the 1925 sequence is more brutal, with people being tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the Roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing pair of sequences in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister are cured instantly via a miracle? Regardless, such use of Deus Ex Machina does not hurt my enjoyment of Ben-Hur.

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Academy Award win for Best Picture. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award?  I guess Paramount are fully aware of the film’s reputation as one of the “worst Best Picture winners”. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?” – such tiring statements. I believe Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as “the film which beat such and such for Best Picture”.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a carefree feeling that I was at an actual circus (minus the smell of elephant dung) with actual circus equipment being used for the movie’s filming. The Greatest Show On Earth beautifully captures this un-PC relic of another age (“you mean we all got to play in blackface?”) full of clowns, animals in captivity and human freaks. There is even an appearance of performers wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! Likewise, the acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. – The film packs a lot of material and dramatics into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

You could look at The Greatest Show On Earth cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary-like look at how the circus operates with the guidance of DeMille’s passionate narration. This was a change of pace to DeMille’s usual fare of historical and biblical epics but he still manages to throw some Christianity in there with the scene in which a priest and his Alter boys bless the circus train before it begins its season.

Tasked with Herculean effort of running a circus, you couldn’t get a more commanding choice than Charlton Heston in the Clark Gable type role as a man under great pressure to keep the operation running and pull the strings behind the scenes; not even a train crash or near-death deter him from putting on a show. However, when your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons the Clown is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his makeup never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Yep, it’s obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence (which really set a standard for special effects) but also the implication that Buttons, a former doctor had assisted his wife to kill herself. It’s very subtly implied but it’s still surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era dictated by the censorship of the Hay’s Code.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of inferior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok, I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, the rich storytelling, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would moviegoers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old-fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments, all these DeMillen elements work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off the screen when it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in The Ten Commandments were filmed on location with the majority being filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures help create scenes which look like beautiful paintings. Also keeping with DeMille’s Victorian sensibilities, the contemporaneous composer Elmer Bernstein is a surprising choice to compose music for The Ten Commandments but delivers an appropriate, bombastic score complete with horns galore.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; his Moses is a superman of whom you would happily follow in a heartbeat and the humanitarian saving grace to the Hebrews when he is still in line to the throne. Yul Brynner, however, is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure, no one could look better or strut wearing that Egyptian headdress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. This is a man who would do just about anything to attain power and even no has no problem telling his potential future wife she’s no better than a dog. Heston and Brynner are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back. – There’s no method acting here, it’s completely old school theatrics.

The Ten Commandments boasts one of the most impressive ensembles casts ever to grace a Hollywood production in which every role feels significant from Edward G Robinson as slimy, cocky, shameless snitch Dathan (no one could pull these traits better than him) to the devilish Vincent Price. The other surprisingly entertaining, campy and sultry performance in the film is Anne Baxter as Nefertiti, of whom I swear has to be a nymphomaniac in the way she swoons and gets excited over the thought of Moses and even getting off on Ramses’ insults, not to mention to odd line of innuendo thrown in there (“The very dirty one there. He may serve my purpose”). Likewise, the film’s constant use of the word bondage will get some laughs for the more immature viewer.

A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the easy way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. In reality, without divine intervention, would Moses’ best option be to keep his identity a secret and free the slaves once he becomes Pharaoh? Then there’s the age-old question, if God is all-powerful, then why does he let bad things happen? Moses asks the film’s fire and brimstone representation of God this when he encounters the burning bush but gets no answer. Regardless, such Deus Ex Machina doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of The Ten Commandments.

I am past the militant atheist phase of my life in which I would have to proclaim my lack of religiosity at any given point and thought I knew better. Regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, stories such as that of the Book of Exodus helped to create the Judeo-Christian values of which define western civilization, in this, a prime variation of the hero’s journey. Prior to the opening credits of The Ten Commandments, DeMille gives an opening prologue in which he speaks to the audience in person of how the upcoming story is about “the birth of freedom” in which the theme of this picture is “whether men are to be ruled of God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses? Are men property of the state or are they free souls under God?” DeMille concludes stating “This same battle continues throughout the world today”. Surely it’s no coincidence that the final line spoken in The Ten Commandments is Moses proclaiming, “Go. Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof”. This was in 1956 when the communist, centralized state society of the USSR was engaged in a cold war with the USA, a country which inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator which government can’t supersede. – Yet, this battle of Moses vs. Ramses still continues on the world stage into the 21st century.