Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper-class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However, there is a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the center of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender-bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship, however, Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self-improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective presence in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of lovemaking with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.

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Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

Revolution 1789

To my surprise Start the Revolution Without Me begins with none other than Orson Welles introducing the film as well as narrating it; this along with the stylistic opening credits featuring footage of John Barrymore in Don Juan I know I had to be in for a treat. Start the Revolution Without Me is largely unheard of but surely paved the way for other large-scale historical comedies of the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; a type of film comedy which is long extinct. The recurring repetition of the date “1789” in the narration has vibes of Monty Python while the film’s ending reminds me of that from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Likewise, the film is probably the closest thing to a spoof of costume dramas; think the costume drama getting the Mel Brooks treatment. The film includes references to works of fiction including A Tale of Two Cities, The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask (portrayed here as a bumbling fool). With the film’s historical references, King Louis XVI is a slow-witted cuckold and Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a nymphomaniac.

The production spared no expense getting the shoot in actual historical locations in France. You would think they would only allow such locations for more dignified films, not a slapstick comedy. The film itself is as lavish as any big-budget costume drama but not in tone of course. Costume pictures are always a genre I’ve struggled with, dare I say I find them dull with characters I can’t identify with or care about; you know, rich people problems. Thus there’s a sense of satisfaction seeing the genre turned into a slapstick farce. Not only do you get an impressive display of madcap physical comedy, but you even get some swashbuckling action with Gene Wilder getting the opportunity to display his abilities as a swordsman.

Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth resulting in an aristocrat with a false brother who was supposed to be born into life as a peasant and vice versa. I get the impression Sutherland plays the twins intended to be aristocrats as they seem more comfortable and in tune with the lifestyle than the two twins played by Wilder. Mistaken identity humour is often looked down upon but it makes laugh whenever it is done well. Start the Revolution Without is inspired zaniness if I’ve ever seen it.

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 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. 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; a more brutal sequence in which people are tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into other 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 sequence 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 is cured instantly? Burt Lancaster, a self-proclaimed atheist turned down the role of Judah Ben Hur as he felt he couldn’t star in a film which promotes Christianity. I feel the same way but dammed if it doesn’t stop me from loving this movie.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

If was to sum up Mutiny on the Bounty it would be ‘immensely satisfying’. The actual build up to the mutiny itself is just so immense. Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist with no reverence for his crew, even more so due to his prejudice against convicts. I can’t stress just how much I love this performance. Shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments, it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate this character with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. Bligh is shown however to have a human side though. He does have a friendship with the King of Thatti, the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh. Their interactions are the only time in the film Bligh is shown to have a softer side. There’s just something about angry ship captains which make for such memorable characters (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts).

Of course, there is also The King himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!” at. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hand of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances. This was Gable’s first role in a period film and he fits well into the historical period. Likewise, I’ve never thought much or Franchot Tone as an actor but he’s very good as Rodger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh.

Then there are the scenes on the Island Tahiti. These were filmed on location and are as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep. A seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced on board The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic and it’s defiantly implied Christian and native girl played by Mamo Clark had sex. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want? Although I do have to ask; were there really natives who had relations this good with the British Empire?

The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department. Likewise, the rousing musical score unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second. Just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better.

In defense of the film for being historically inaccurate; this is a movie, a work of fiction, not a documentary (although I highly recommend 1984’s The Bounty, which tells the story with Bligh being the hero and Christian as the villain). Besides, how can we ever truly be sure what happened aboard that ship 200 years ago? Regardless of what really happened, I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.