The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

MV5BYjY0OTRhZWYtZTFlNi00MjcyLWJmYzctYzM0ZjU1ZmQ5NmE1L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDI3OTIzOA@@._V1_

The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

Q5jGS_bg

One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?

Trouble Along the Way (1953)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Duke Is Ziggity!

Westerns have never been a favourite genre of mine unless one is really exceptional or unique. So it should come as no surprise what ends up becoming my favourite John Wayne movie was his foray into Cary Grant-esque style comedy, something much more up my alley.

The Duke isn’t a favourite actor of mine yet I’ve always found to be strangely charismatic and engaging; although coming from Ireland, John Wayne is the one classic actor most people have not only heard off but have seen a movie from. Trouble Along The Way shows he was capable of a larger range than he’s given credit for although judging from the movie’s success audiences much preferred seeing him doing his usual stick of westerns and war movies. It’s apparent the studio must have put a lot into this movie hoping for it to be a big success, employing a top director and top cast, plus it feels like this role was written for Wayne. Despite the film being a chance of pace for him, the role still feels like a very John Wayne character; very American, very macho and very much an individualist.

The movie’s plot revolves around two things I’m not a fan off, sports and religion. I am informed the subplot involving the economics of college football (not to be confused with the sport of soccer, which in Europe is also called football, go figure) is more relevant today in a world where the financing of college athletics has gone out of control than it was in 1953. As for religion, although I am an atheist and staunchly anti-religious I can still enjoy movies about religion. Trouble Along The Way manages to express religious themes but never feels like I’m being preached towards. The movie even takes advantage of its religious based plot with some great religious jokes (“Couldn’t have booked one Protestant school for a breather”).

Charles Coburn’s role as Father Burke is an archetypal representation of Catholic clergy in old Hollywood films as an entirely trustworthy figure of respect such as Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. This being an attempt to appease the legion of decency; have a film condemned by the legion and you lose out on box office intake. I’ve always found this representation of clergy in classic Hollywood films fascinating as it provides a complete contrast to the media reports of today of priests molesting young boys. Trouble Along The Way provides Coburn with one of his best roles and a showcase as to why he’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors.

You can believe Wayne’s daughter played by Sherry Jackson really would be the daughter of a John Wayne character. Most movie kids get on my nerves, so whenever one does manage to impress me I have to give a special shout-out. I just wish Donna Reed could have had more screen time. In fact, my reason for watching this film was my enjoying of the other Wayne-Reed pairing They Were Expendable. Her character could easily have been a real “love to hate” role as a heartless social worker but brings sympathy to the role partially due to the character’s surprising backstory.

The other thing I must address which makes me wonder if John Wayne had much input into the film’s production is the speech Charles Coburn gives at the end of the film in which he discusses Steve’s unethical practices when assembling a football team in which Coburn states “He did it in his way, perhaps the only way”. Accompany this with the statement Steve makes when he’s been caught out that “I don’t regret what I did” makes me ask the question is this in any way referencing (and possibly defending) Wayne’s then-recent involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist, or am I just looking into it too much?

From the outset I was expecting Trouble Along The Way to be some light, enjoyable fare; but to my surprise, it proved to be a film with deep and complex story and characters. At nearly two hours it may seem lengthy for a comedy but the length is justified as there is so much going in the plot but never feels overbearing. The film is brave enough to leave questions unanswered. It’s not a depressing ending but unlike other light-hearted Hollywood films of the time, it doesn’t wrap everything in a neat bow. At the end of the film, the main characters have to learn to let go of something important in their lives. It’s disheartening seeing Sherry being taken away from her loving father to live with her mother and having to drop her tomboyish lifestyle in order to be integrated with other kids her age, but I guess the movie is just telling us that life is tough and you don’t always get what you want.