February 18, 2014

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in something approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.


Endfield was a polymath with a gift for card tricks and inventions as well as directing – he impressed fellow magic lover Orson Welles so much he was hired as an assistant at Mercury Productions. Later he invented a portable word processor called the Microwriter, and a computerized pocket organizer called the Agenda. A tinkerer since birth, he clearly shared Welles’ viewpoint that the movie set was “the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had.” The product of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he became attracted to magic when he was 12 or 13. Endfield told Jonathan Rosenbaum that, “the element that attracted me was the dexterity aspect of it.” After seeing a magician at summer camp he designed his own card tricks and gained notoriety by describing the tricks in magazines. He would continue to hone his gift even while attending Yale (where he joined the Young Communist League) and moving to NYC to pursue a career in theater – which was just a bigger stage for illusions. He was aligned with the New Theatre League, a left wing federation of small theaters and theatrical groups organized in 1935. Its main role was to distribute scripts of “Living Newspapers” to its affiliated groups in support of nationwide political campaigns, whether in aid of Spanish Democracy or boycotting the Hearst Press. Everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Brecht lent a hand in the cause. This is the period that probably landed him on HUAC watchlists. He denied ever becoming a member of the party into the 1990s, which Rosenbaum discovered to be false, a lie presumably made so not to scare off any future employers.

Of his Hollywood work, the easiest to see is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury, 1950), one of his most explicitly political films made right before his exile. A furious noir about a botched kidnapping, it poses violence as the natural state of American life, ending in a lynching scene of infernal grotesquerie. A theater manager showing the film told Endfield “I never have a performance when I don’t get two or three people coming around to tell me it’s a disgrace to run this kind of anti-American picture.” Named a communist in a HUAC report, Endfield fled the country before he had to start naming names. For the first few years in England he used a front for his films, using his friend’s name Charles de Lautour, for two films, and used it as a co-directing credit on a third, Child in the House (1956), which would be the first pairing of Endfield and Baker. It is an uncharacteristic kitchen sink drama for the duo, who would spend the next five on various self-destructive adventures throughout the British Empire.


Hell Drivers (’57) finds Baker as an ex-con trucker vengefully taking down his former mob boss’ rackets, while Sea Fury and Jet Storm (which I regrettably have yet to see), involve explosive tankers and a grieving father who threatens to take down an airplane. Zulu is their largest scale operation, for which Baker formed his own production company, Diamond Films. Baker, now an established star, was personally invested in the project, proud as he was of the Welsh character of the company that defended the outpost. Though it was made up of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, B company of the 24th regiment was based in Brecon, South Wales, and so retained a Welsh character, which was exaggerated in the film. Baker brought Endfield’s script to producer Joseph Levine while he was filming Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), who quickly agreed. It was shot on location in South Africa, with the cooperation of the Zulu nation. Chief Buthulezi acted as the Zulu leader in the film, and in his autobiography Michael Caine says a Zulu princess acted as a consultant on their war strategy from the period.

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It is subject matter fraught with racial tension, a fabled British military victory that involved the slaughter of thousands of black colonial subjects. Endfield avoids a triumphal tone, stripping it of context, and presents it as an abstract depiction of the human condition – as abject as that in the finale of Try and Get MeThe film has had a noticeable cultural impact in the black community. Afrika Bambaataa recalled watching Zulu as a kid, and named his youth organization and hip hop incubator the “Zulu Nation” after their model. He had kids battle each other “in a nonviolent way, like rapper against rapper rather than knife against knife.” Bambaataa remembers the impact the movie had him, how the Zulus, “fought like warriors for land that was theirs.”

Endfield utilizes all of his technical facility in filling the 70mm frames, using dollies down the lines of interchangeable soldiers. The script aims to collapse class difference in the arc of the relationship between Stanley Baker and posh English lieutenant Michael Caine, who was here cast in his first major role. Baker recommended him to Endfield after seeing him in the play Next Time I’ll Sing to You, then all the rage on the West End. Caine was supposed to audition for the role of the Cockney sergeant, but Endfield had already cast the part, but liked Caine’s blonde-haired blue-eyed looks for the high-horse lieutenant. The class lines between Baker and Caine collapse along with the outpost’s initial defenses. As does any lingering racial resentments, as both sides’ troops are gutted, exhausted, and respectful of the other side by the end of the Brits’ bloody Pyrrhic victory.


January 21, 2014

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The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

Director William Wyler was a serviceman for three years, as part of the Eighth Air Force Technical Training Unit, whose orders were to produce films for “public morale and education” and capture “events of historical value.” He accompanied bombing raids from England into Western Europe, filming as much as he could. His technical crew was exposed to the same dangers as the pilots, and Wyler’s sound man Harold Tannenbaum was killed after his B-24 Bomber was gunned down over Brest, France. Wyler grew fond of his crew mates, writing at the time, “they’re the most alert, most alive and most stimulating group of young men I’ve ever met.”  This footage was edited into his War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle bomber, which occasioned the first front page film review in the NY Times’ history (“thorough and vivid”, Bosley Crowther wrote).


After the war Wyler formed Liberty Films with fellow veterans and filmmakers Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. But before starting out on this new venture, Samuel Goldwyn convinced him to sign on to make The Best Years of Our Lives for his production company. Goldwyn became interested in the project  in 1944, after his wife Frances recommended a Time Magazine story entitled, “The Way Home”, about soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life. He hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment, now titled “Home Again”, and he produced 100 pages of blank verse that eventually turned into the novel Glory For Me (1945). His treatment was thoroughly re-worked by Robert Sherwood, who wrote the shooting script with input from Goldwyn and Wyler. A major change from treatment to script was the transformation of the disabled character, Homer, from a spastic into an amputee. Wyler saw Harold Russell in an educational short, “Diary of a Sergeant”,  who displayed impressive dexterity with his prosthetic hands, after losing both in a 1944 training accident. The non-professional Russell was cast in the film, and would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, which he would later sell in 1992 for over $60,000.

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The script follows Homer (Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) as they return to their old lives in Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city modeled on Cincinnati. Homer is a sweet, innocent kid who wants to be treated as a normal joe, but is tormented by how his disability unsettles those around him. People subtly shift the direction of their glances and adjust their bodies, Homer’s hooks displacing the normal flow of social intercourse. Bazin writes that “Almost all Wyler’s shots are built like an equation, or perhaps better, like a like a dramatic mechanism whose parallelogram of forces can almost be drawn in geometrical lines.” In these early scenes Homer is expelling force, not gathering it. Sensitive to these disruptions, he avoids his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear she will marry him for pity rather than love. Fred, a much-decorated Air Force Captain, is busted down to an under-employed working man once he’s back in civilian clothes, a glum perfume jockey at a department store – one that swallowed up the soda joint from his youth. He got married a week before shipping out, and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) acts like they were never hitched. She’s an underwritten nightclub gal, a thrill-seeking golddigger that’s more of a plot point than a character. She is contrasted against Peggy (Teresa Wright), the no-fuss nurse who falls in love with Fred. Al is Peggy’s father, an Army Sergeant who has the cushiest re-entry, with a stable bank job and a loving (if strained) marriage.

Wyler felt he “knew these people”, and spent the production searching for a lucid realism. Today “realism” invokes images of a handheld camera bobbing around the streets of Italy, but Wyler was not after neorealism’s immediacy, but the power of Hollywood technology to create maximum legibility. In Citizen Kane Gregg Toland’s deep focus is maximal, the chiaroscuro and canted angles touches reflecting Kane’s deteriorating psyche. In The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler wanted “a realism that would be as simple as possible.” One that “could follow an action to its end without cutting. The resulting continuity makes the shots more alive, more interesting for the viewer, who can choose of his own will to study a particular character and who can make his own cuts.”


In many ways Wyler was after the one-shot tableaus of early cinema and the Lumieres, only with more depth of field. This strategy emphasizes groupings and separations, weighing each side of the screen. Imbalances in composition undergird those of the characters, whether it’s the panopticon perch of the department store manager overlooking Fred in the extreme distance, or the famous unbalanced shot of Fred in the far left background (phoning Peggy that he can’t see her anymore) and of Al watching Homer play chopsticks on the piano with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). This sequence is emblematic of Wyler’s process of reduction – hiding an important plot point in the back of the frame while the soundtrack and visual cues direct the eye to the piano, creating tension without need for cross-cutting. That scene marks a temporary fissure in the servicemen’s friendship, initially composed in a tight clump of three aboard the plane to Boone City. They are reunited in another unbalanced composition, a mass of wedding revelers embrace to the right, while a glance from Fred to Peggy connect fore and background in Wyler’s geometric and deeply moving film.



February 19, 2013

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The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.


Hawks’ first sound film was supposed to have been Trent’s Last Case (1929), and the director did extensive tests with the new technology, but Fox had failed to negotiate talkie rights when licensing the 1913 mystery story by E.C. Bentley. So instead it became his final silent, made in a market so hungry for sound that Fox didn’t even bother releasing it in the U.S. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, it only opened in Britain to poor notices, with Hawks regarding it as his worst film.

He wrapped filming on Trent’s Last Case in February of 1929, and was fired in May, after refusing to work on the titles Fox assigned him (Life’s a Gamble and Big Time).  Hawks and the studio sued and counter-sued over wrongful termination and failure to fulfill contracts, but all the litigation was dismissed with prejudice by the courts. He was free for the moment, and looking for a project. Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he got the idea for The Dawn Patrol from a story by Irvin Cobb, “about an evening with a British squadron that was being hit hard.”  Contra Hawks, Todd McCarthy found a sworn deposition from screenwriter John Monk Saunders that “he had dined with former war journalist Irvin S. Cobb…and had that night heard the story of ‘young British pilots.’” Whoever originally conceived the scenario, the script was a collaboration between the two men, both of whom were steeped in flyboy lore.


Saunders and Hawks had both entered the Army Air Corps during WW1, and became flying instructors in the states, neither of them seeing action. After hearing news of the Armistice, Saunders went “out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane.” Robbed of his chance to burn up in a war, Saunders lived vicariously through combat anecdote, soaking up stories from every pilot he met. He was a prolific writer in the 30s, his newspaper stories leading to the scenario for Wings and his Lost Generation novel Single Lady (1931), which he adapted for William Dieterle’s masterful Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here). His wife Fay Wray described him as a man “who wanted to live dangerously and die young”, which he accomplished by hanging himself at the age of 44.

Hawks was a mechanically minded kid who drove race cars before entering the war, and flying became the latest of his obsessions. He did not acquire Saunders’ insecurity about missing combat action, but he was not unmarked with tragedy. The five friends he signed up for the Air Corps with were all dead by the time he started shooting The Dawn Patrol, all in plane accidents. His brother Kenneth was directing Such Men Are Dangerous when he perished in a plane crash during a failed stunt, mere weeks before The Dawn Patrol was set to film.


If Hawks wanted to get a WW1 subject filmed in 1930, having Saunders on board would guarantee studio backing. First National (A Warner subsidiary) bought the rights with Richard Barthelmess slated to star. Howard Hughes was still working on the similarly-themed Hell’s Angels, and tried to disrput Hawks’ production at every turn, buying up any extra WW1-era planes and threatening to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing came of it though, and both titles had healthy success at the box office. Having already done sound tests before Trent’s Last Case, Hawks had the technical capacity for talkies, but he already had an aesthetic plan as well. He was intent on having his actors underplay, instead of projecting to the back of the theater. The conventional wisdom held that theatrical stage forms would take over, from performance to direction. But Hawks innately knew that cinema could bring you close with a whisper as easily as a shout.  Barthelmess was already well-versed in the subtle forms Hawks was looking for, since he had worked with the similar-minded D.W. Griffith.

Barthlemess plays Dick Courtney, a veteran British combat flier leading raids into German territory. His squadron bunks at a remote outpost led by Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), all exposed nerves as the death toll rises. As each mission team returns, he counts the sound of engines to determine the number of casualties. The dead disappear as quickly as the time it takes Courtney to wipe their names off the squad chalkboard. The pilots deal with this constant metronome of death through drink and camaraderie, gathering in the makeshift bar to talk of former flings and initiating group sing-alongs to their scratchy record player. These are necessary distractions, a way in which to immerse oneself in the present rather than stare at the abyss of the past. At one point a fragile Royal Air Force member, having just lost a friend, blows up at these callous displays. It’s a scene repeated by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, after the air service fliers do their own carousing following the loss of a pilot. All female characters were cut from The Dawn Patrol, giving it its atmosphere of sweaty locker-room claustrophobia. Although it is similarly constrained to one location, Only Angels is more open and convivial, as the group teaches Arthur about how they cope, bringing her into their self-sustaining circle. The Dawn Patrol instead presents the group as a continuously disrupted family, little more than a replaceable collection of flesh.


When the pilots do engage the reality of their fallen mates, it’s with the grim, mock-heroic acceptance of a song that Howard learned from his brother Ken:  “So stand by your glasses steady/This world is a world of lies/Here’s a health to the dead already/And hurrah for the next man who dies”. It’s hard not to read this as Hawks’ own attempt to react stoically to his brother’s passing, death as a liberation rather than a defeat. This is how the professional fliers stand it day after day, as new recruits arrive and then disappear. The only constants are Courtney and his pal Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). But when Major Brand gets a promotion, Courtney becomes the squad leader, tied to a desk and unable to lose himself in flight. Now he is the one counting engine motors, made stir crazy by inaction and the crushing responsibility for so many lives. His job becomes that of a bureaucratic funeral director, and he can only free himself by disobeying orders and taking on a daredevil solo mission himself. There he can lose himself in the present, never to return.

The Warner Archive presentation has remarkably clear audio for a production of this period, and though the print they transferred is a bit worn and fuzzy, it’s likely the best this film has looked in ages. At this early stage, it’s the home video release of the year.



February 14, 2012

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On February 4th, the last living veteran of WW1 passed away in King’s Lynn, England. Florence Green was 110 years old, and had joined up with the Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918, two months before the armistice. The last surviving combat veteran, Briton Claude Choles, died in Australia in 2011. The Great War is no longer part of the world’s living memory, and so drifts slowly from history and into myth (see: War Horse). This process will accelerate in 2014-2018, the 100th Anniversary of the conflict. But no images, not even Spielberg’s, have defined the war more than those in All Quiet On the Western Front, Universal’s grim gamble of 1930. Banned in Poland, reviled in Germany, and a tough sell to  studios, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel is one of the bleakest films ever made in Hollywood. Universal is releasing it on Blu-ray today in a pristine restoration, in a nearly-complete 133 minute version, while also including the rare silent edition, which was made for theaters not yet equipped for sound (For background on all the edits inflicted on the film, please read Lou Lumenick’s article in the NY Post).

In 1929 Universal’s president and co-founder Carl Laemmle appointed his son, Carl Jr., as production head, a gift for his 21st birthday. Already notorious for his nepotism (Ogden Nash quipped, “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle), it was considered a bit mad for him to invest $1.25 million in the adaptation of Remarque’s novel, only to have his inexperienced son produce it. Not only was the book brutally violent and corrosively anti-war, it also necessitated having main characters who were German, not a popular country at the time. According to Andrew Kelly’s Filming All Quiet on the Western Front, “industry commenters dubbed the film ‘Junior’s End’”, punning on the title of another WWI film (directed by James Whale), Journey’s End (1930).

Journalists were denied their Schadenfreude when Laemmle, Jr. organized a wildly talented team for the production unit. According to Kelly, Paul Fejos (who directed the sublime Lonesome (1928)) claimed to have initiated the purchase of the book rights, and wanted to make the film. He was then dropped, sadly, for Herbert Brenon, who had recently completed the East-Indies adventure The Rescue (1929), starring Ronald Colman. Universal balked at his asking price ($125,000, according to Patrick McGilligan in his George Cukor biography), and instead gave the job to Lewis Milestone, who had just won the only Oscar ever for Best Director, Comedy Picture (a category that should return!) on Two Arabian Knights (1929), a WWI POW laffer with Boris Karloff in a supporting role. Ironically, Milestone would end up pocketing $135,000 after the film went over-schedule and over-budget.

Maxwell Anderson was tapped to adapt the script, since he had written the play that was the basis for Raoul Walsh’s hit war front comedy What Price Glory? (1926). His treatment was then given a couple of polishes by Milestone’s friend Del Andrews and stage director George Abbott. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a frequent collaborator of Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad (1924), who would go on to shoot Walsh’s 70mm stunner The Big Trailafter All Quiet wrapped, an astonishing duo to shoot back-to-back. Maybe the greatest coup in staffing was the addition of George Cukor as dialogue coach. His agent Myron Selznick recommended him to the Laemmles, and they were allowed to borrow him from Paramount for the shoot, aiding the callow 20-year-old Lew Ayres in playing the biggest role of his life (Ayres was so affected by the film that he later became a vocal pacifist, which torpedoed his career during WWII). Universal originally wanted Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. for the part, but United Artists was slow in arranging a loan-out, and they could never line up the schedule.

As in the book, the film follows Paul Baumer (Ayres) and his classmates as they join the Army out of high school, burning with ideological fervor for land and country, only to end up in the killing fields of the Western Front, where they are slaughtered like cattle. The film hews close the book’s plot details, but simplifies its structure. Remarque’s novel begins in combat and interpolates flashbacks of Baumer’s naïve youth,while Milestone’s film smooths out the narrative, making the story a linear march from boyhood to soldier-dom. This robs these early scenes of some of their bitterness in the book, where Baumer recounts his youthful fervor while enduring a mortar bombardment in a muck-filled trench.

While Remarque presented these childhood scenes in a mode of seething regret, Milestone and Edeson frame them in images of barely suppressed hysteria, their shockingly mobile camera (nothing is locked down in this early sound film) craning back from the confetti-strewn streets of the military parade into the classroom, from pumped-up grandeur to jittery boredom in the length of one shot. Once inside, the images become more fractured. As their schoolmaster urges them to enlist in the army, Milestone opts for increasingly close singles of the teacher and his students, their eyes popping wide and the flop sweat of patriotism beading on their foreheads. The editing is as fevered as their teacher’s jingoism, cutting faster and faster until it lands on his face in extreme close-up, strained into a rictus of exultation.

In these exultant close-ups they are still individuals, but for the rest of the film Milestone will break them down into inhuman lines. Lines that, when erased, will be immediately replaced by other lines, as if in the manic hand of a sadistic animator. In Baumer’s first mission, he is tasked with his company of running a line of barbed wire along No-Man’s land. The camera follows along in horizontal tracking shot, the men dissolving into a group. This will continue in the actual battle, when the camera angles down into the trenches and pushes forward with relentless speed, as men are mowed down on both sides as if on an assembly line. The static shots are brief punctuations of these winding sentences, an image of detached hands gripping the wire, or a body falling lumpen to the ground. These sequences are the basis for Spielberg’s justly celebrated D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, of battles moving too fast for the men to process. The difference is that Milestone uses the trench as his guiding visual cue, sliced arteries that pump blood onto the sodden landscape, while Spielberg’s is the combat photographer, in which the center is always moving, with nowhere to retreat.

The cast does a fine job of embodying the gruff survivalist types and scared-shitless kids of Remarque’s novel, the baby faces with shell-shocked stares. Ayres is a receding presence, quiet, reflective and rather defiantly uncharismatic. It is a haunting performance of a masked piece of flesh going through the motions. The bulldog-faced Louis Wolheim is the most identifiably human soldier, his character old enough to have developed a personality before war froze all of their lives in place. He is the hulking softie, a devastating brawler with a mother-hen feeling for his troops. These individual idiosyncrasies rise to the surface and wash away in the flood of violence, until they walk as one man into their muddy, worthless Valhalla.


August 24, 2010


My  hopscotching education in Raoul Walsh skitters on this week, with five gut-punching thrillers. I’m jumping through his career haphazardly, watching whatever I can easily acquire. Last week led me from 1930 to 1955, but today I’m mired in the 1940s, thanks to the Warner Bros.-TCM box set, Errol Flynn Adventures (feel free to ignore this post if you think the TCM branding compromises my objectivity).  Along with Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness, it includes the Walsh-directed Desperate Journey (1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944) and Objective, Burma! (1945). I supplemented these with the Warner Archive disc of Manpower (1941).

The images at the top present two communities of wisecracking men, and Marlene Dietrich, sending off one of their own. They are from Manpower and Desperate Journey, two mournful studies of male camaraderie. Manpower takes the love triangle (and Edward G. Robinson) from Howard Hawks’ Tiger Shark (1932) and moves it from a fishing village to the road crew for a power company. It’s there that Robinson and buddy George Raft tell tall tales about their amorous accomplishments with fellow boozers Alan Hale, Ward Bond and a group of other grinning mugs. Walsh packs the frame with group shots, of leering, laughing and impulsive men. They gather in semi-circles to trade quips, and end the film in the same group formations saying their final goodbyes.

Marlene Dietrich spends the time in between wisecracks sullenly vamping around Raft and Robinson, in love with the former and married to the latter. She is arresting in the luxurious slowness of her movements, a Josef Von Sternberg-taught dreaminess that seems out of place in the blunt realism and speed of Walsh’s world. The men are in constant overdrive, scampering up transformers to fix high voltage lines in shots of dizzying verticality. Even their diner’s waiter gets amped up, translating their orders into his own intricate lingo. He changes “a bottle of sherry” into “grapes of wrath in a sport jacket”, directly addressing the camera. It is Walsh reveling in working class argot, which he also privileged in Me and My Gal, where J. Farrell MacDonald faced the camera. Instead of this unique (male) mastery, at her wedding Dietrich is framed in between the two fake power grids on the cake, pinned and isolated in her seat.  She is entirely alone. In the top-most photo, Dietrich’s face glows under Ernest Haller’s cinematography, but Robinson’s gaze is irrevocably drawn to Raft’s. It is, as Hawks referred to A Girl in Every Port, a love story between two men.

Raoul Walsh described Desperate Journey in his autobiography as, “a war comedy spiced with enough tragedy to give it reality.” He seems to have it backwards. Shot with low-key lighting by Bert Glennon, it is a relentlessly grim-looking film that its characters face with disconcerting joviality. Errol Flynn is the rakish Flight Lt. Terry Forbes, who crash lands in Germany with a crew that includes Officer Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan), Sgt. Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale) and Officer Jed Forest (Arthur Kennedy). They are the former Robin Hood’s merry band of saboteurs, with Hale playing Little John as he did next to Flynn in 1938. He spits seeds at a Nazi prison guard and bellows his way through the epic chase scene that makes up the rest of the film.

The banter that lit up Manpower seems brittle here, forced. It papers over the “1 in 10,000 chance we get out of here”, as Forbes admits. Officer Forest is the realist who refuses to participate in the general raillery. He is, he tells Forbes, just there to do a job and get out, which is later echoed by a female resistance fighter. The male group is no longer a community, but a collection of individuals trying to survive a war, and the film tracks Forbes’ growing realization of this fact.  He begins as a traditional Errol Flynn hero, dashing blithely into danger and improvising a way out. But larger stakes are on the line, and Forrest’s pragmatism begins to infect Forbes, and in turn alters Flynn’s persona in his next few films with Walsh.

In Northern Pursuit, set in the snow white Northwest Territories of Canada, Flynn operates his undercover operation completely alone. He still maintains the dapper moustache while infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, but he’s otherwise cold and calculated. The narrative doesn’t have the normal oomph of a Walsh production, getting bogged down in exposition and failing to take full advantage of the spectacular snow-capped landscapes. Walsh placed Northern and Uncertain Glory along with Background to Danger as “three quickies” he knocked off after completing Gentleman Jim (1941).

Uncertain Glory has more than a passing interest, however. Here Flynn plays his most disreputable character, a thief and murderer in wartime Paris unconcerned with the fate of his countrymen. Arrested by a famed inspector played by Paul Lukas, he’s headed for the guillotine. The Nazis plan on executing 100 Frenchman, however, if a resistance fighter does not turn himself in. Flynn, doomed regardless, proposes to impersonate the saboteur for the preferable death by rifle fire. Filmed in suffocating close-ups and two shots, it’s an earnest, troubled bit of propaganda, in which Flynn offers various shades of guilt and self-absorption. A quickie, but a haunting one.

The Warner Bros. set closes with the monumental Objective, Burma!, an implacably brutal war procedural in which Walsh unleashes all of his plastic gifts. It follows an Army platoon as they are marooned in Burma following a successful demolition job. Hemmed in by Japanese forces, there is no way for them to escape except for a long, grueling hike. With the great lensman James Wong Howe, Walsh is constantly panning the camera, a visual roll call for each soldier. They are given thumbnail characterizations through brief physical tics, whether it’s fastidious nail clipping or a penchant for napping. There are no longer any attempts at the egalitarian community of Manpower – Errol Flynn’s Captain Nelson is more of a haggard motivational speaker, cajoling and halfheartedly inspiring his exhausted men into action.

But character is the least of the film’s concerns, it is interested mainly with process, how a parachute jump is executed, or a supply drop is triangulated. In this emphasis on the mechanics of labor, it finds many points of contact with The Big Trail. The attention to operational detail recalls the intricate way in which the covered wagons were winched down a sheer cliff face or forded across a river in his 1930 Western.

The metronomic regularity of the camera movement emphasizes the men who have been lost from its countdown. The shots grow shorter as the group is picked off one by one, culminating in a night-time shootout where the half-starved, dug-in troops look like gaunt prairie dogs. This final battle takes place in darkness, where an inadvertant rustle can equal death. A dissipating flare offers a few seconds of traditional battle (a similar sequence is found in Johnnie To’s recent Vengeance, where the moonlight hides behind the clouds and shrouds the fight in darkness), but then the enemy returns to being myth and rumor. It is, as Jean-Pierre Coursodon writes, “an awesome achievement”, Walsh at the peak of his technical mastery, and at his most resignedly individualist.

Postscript: In an unnecessary aside, I have to throw in one of my favorite quotes from Walsh’s unreliable but hugely entertaining autobiography, Each Man In His Time. Hanging out with Errol Flynn on the press tour for Objective, Burma!, Walsh relates that, “[Flynn] once told me that when he bought perfume for a present, he always inquired for Chanel number 10. ‘I don’t like my women to be only half sure.’”


August 17, 2010

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Raoul Walsh was nothing if not adaptable. As a teenager, he tagged along with his uncle on a trading mission to Cuba and Mexico. The schooner was damaged in a storm and had a long layover in Vera Cruz. It was there, Walsh claimed, that he learned roping from a man he only knew as Ramirez, whom he paid in Cuban rum. He stayed ashore when the ship returned to NYC, and was soon hired as a cowboy to drive cattle into Texas. His accidentally gained expertise landed him a horse riding gig on Broadway (in a version of THE CLANSMAN, later filmed by D.W. Griffith as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, in which Walsh played John Wilkes Booth), and later got him hired at the Pathe Film Studios, who also needed a horseman. Once he was primed to break out as a leading man in IN OLD ARIZONA, a jackrabbit flew through his windshield, and the glass shards gouged out an eye (he was replaced by Warner Baxter). Hence his eyepatch, and his practically-minded move behind the camera.

Dave Kehr commented on on his blog, relating to his NY Times piece on the Errol Flynn Adventures box set that TCM released with Warner Bros., that “for me Walsh belongs with Ford and Hawks as one of the Big Three American directors, but there has been surprisingly little of substance written about him in English or in French.”  I felt I should be as practical as the director and take this as a sign to dig further into Walsh’s work. There was further discussion of how little he’s esteemed in the under-30 crowd, of which I’m a member for the next few months. And it’s undeniably true. I’ve never had a conversation about Walsh with anyone of my own age group.  So until I hit that magic number in February, I’ll be assessing and re-assessing his work, to find my way through Walsh’s massive filmography and hopefully spark further discussion about this major figure in film history.

Kehr’s erudite readers also took up the challenge, especially Blake Lucas, who wrote an essay-long breakdown of Walsh’s career. Spring 2011 promises a flood of material, with an essay on Walsh in Kehr’s eagerly awaited collection When Movies Mattered, and a forthcoming biography, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director(University Press of Kentucky), by Marilyn Ann Moss. I’m adding my rather undigested thoughts here, and will contribute more in the coming weeks the more I see. I watched The Big Trail  (1930), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Battle Cry (1955), and The Tall Men (1955) in quick succession with comment below, and my bits on Me and My Gal (1932) and Colorado Territory (1949) are here and here.

Walsh’s dynamic visual sense was as equally pragmatic as his upbringing. The stills above are from films 27 years apart, but his mastery of widescreen composition remains, whether in the 70mm Fox Grandeur format of The Big Trail, or the CinemaScope of The Tall Men. He composed in depth in arcing lines, framing his images to fit the horizontals of the format, instead of the more vertically oriented Academy Ratio that preceded and followed the box office failure of The Big Trail. The vertiginous conclusions of White Heat, High Sierra and Colorado Territory attest to his expertise in the latter. But when he had wide aspect ratios to deal with, he adapted: in his ‘Scope films his people die sideways. This might seem intuitive, but the clunky framings of early Scope experiments like The Robe, made 23 years after his commandingly wide Big Trail, shows how ahead of his time, and downright experimental his creatively practical approach was. These are images of beauty but also of narrative tension. John Wayne traverses the middle ground in the top image from Trail, caught as he is between his Native American friends and the covered wagon train he’s leading to Oregon. The crowds look like massed armies, and the centered mountain provides an ominous roadblock. But Wayne’s bright beige buckskin outfit cuts a deal and a way through.

The image from The Tall Men is less dramatic, a minor aside before the big drive to Montana. The group of vaqueros that Clark Gable hired takes a moment to pray as the cattle nap in the background. If Walsh’s heroes are “sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure”, as Sarris claimed, or what Kehr calls “runaway individualism”, this shot displays what this recklessness and freedom has put at stake: the lives of these pious men are on the line for these indolent cows. It is a tossed off moment of nobility for these nameless workers, whom Gable leads on an impossibly dangerous journey through Oglala Sioux territory. His Civil War colonel turned stick-up artist is once again a leader of men, and it brings riches and death.

Walsh’s men are truculently free spirits, and look for women of similar combativeness. For romantic relationships are as central to Walsh’s world as reckless  individuality. The tension between the two motors most of his work, echoing a quote from Johannes Brahms: “It is my misfortune still to be unmarried, thank God!”  The Strawberry Blonde and Battle Cry are almost exclusively concerned with this dilemma. James Cagney gives another irascible fireplug performance as Biff Grimes, a dentist and perpetual black-eye wearer. Giving remarkable detail to the speech (“that’s just the kind of hairpin I am”), clothes and bearing of lower middle-class immigrant strivers in the gay ’90s (the only richer milieu Walsh created was the 30s lower East Side of Me and My Gal), Walsh presents Biff as an all-American loser, and is one of his (and Cagney’s) most beautiful creations. Biff is quick to fight and quicker to hold a grudge, a mulish sap who contains deep reserves of dignity. He loves his lusty father, but falls hard for the measurable charms of Rita Hayworth’s social climber. Roped into being a wingman for his huckster-entrepeneur friend Hugo, he’s hooked into a date with Amy (Olivia de Havilland) instead, a budding suffragette who talks women’s rights on the first date, and who prefers to get just as frisky as the men. They are both odd fits for society, two weirdos who love running their mouths, getting into scrapes, nursing, and dentistry. So the most romantic scene in the film concludes in a tooth pull without anesthetic. It’s a hilarious, vengeful moment against Hugo, but also an inadvertent revelation of his own happiness with Amy. Love is laughter and the restraint of murderous impulses. I now place it alongside Me and My Gal as my favorite Walsh film.

Battle Cry is a war film that’s almost entirely about love affairs. Walsh keep eliding battles in order to return to town where Aldo Ray and Tab Hunter get entangled with conflicted ladies in San Diego and Wellington, New Zealand. It is a very strange film, a big-budget spectacular that eschews spectacle for moments in-between the fights. There are more shots of men sitting than shooting. It’s a case study for what Jean-Pierre Coursodon has called his “basically leisurely approach to filmmaking.” He slackens the normal pace of this WWII propaganda picture, made with the support of the U.S. Marines, to dig into one-night stands and poignant love affairs. Coursodon continues in his “American Directors” essay:

“when confronted with a war picture, and therefore a predominantly male cast, Walsh uses the flimsiest pretexts to sneak in as many women as possible. Most of Battle Cry’s 149 minutes’ running time is devoted to the likes of Mona Freeman, Nancy  Olson, Dorothy Malone, and Anne Francis pleasantly cavorting with their boyfriends in blissful oblivion of whatever is meant by the film’s title.”

It’s a film about raucous canteens, maudlin bars, and the chatter that fills it up. James Whitmore’s Captain complains that he couldn’t read Hamlet, because “he reminds me of an uncle of mine in Dayton.” Then there are the mournful wives, girlfriends, mothers and one-night stands who populate their off-hours, replacing the ghosts of their sons and lovers with the lonely, eager visages of new recruits. Some live and some die, there are break-ups and weddings, and Walsh doesn’t linger on any of it.

“The great traffic cop of the movies”, as Manny Farber called him, kept things moving, as the world went ahead without them. One of the most expressive shots for me was in The Big Trail, in which a covered wagon gets ripped downstream as it tries to ford a river.  There are no close-ups or dramatic music swells or star actors, just a family losing all they own. Then there’s a cut, and our hero must move on.


May 25, 2010

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“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

MGM was developing They Were Expendable this whole time, hiring Sidney Franklin to polish Frank “Spig” Wead’s script and assigning Ford associate James Kevin McGuiness as the executive to oversee the project. Wead was a former Navy aviator who turned to writing about flyboys after a tragic fall down the stairs broke his neck (he wrote Hawks’ great Ceiling Zero, and Ford filmed his life story in the underrated The Wings of Eagles (1957)). The raw material for the story was the exploits of John D. Bulkeley, a lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines, as reported in a best-selling book by W.L. White, and then an essay in Life magazine. With a skeleton crew and no lines of support, Bulkeley took down multiple Japanese planes and ships, and famously spirited General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao (from where he escaped to Australia) over 620 miles of open water.

McBride opines that another reason for Ford delaying production until ’45 was that he couldn’t film such a downbeat subject in an appropriate manner while the war was still raging. For Bulkeley’s story ultimately ends in defeat, as the U.S. is forced to retreat, and the majority of Bulkeley’s crew is killed. McBride quotes Bulkeley:

I was very bitter about the thing. …We went over there with 111 men and only 9 men came back alive. [The War Department] put 80,000 soldiers over there, and that was a political decision on the part of the president and [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson that we were going to show the Asiatic race that we supported them, that we did not back off the Japanese. But the war plan was totally, utterly hopeless. You could not send a battle fleet out there and defeat the Japs and bring aid and so forth to the Philippines. We were not only too far away, we weren’t ready. To try to defend the Philippines was stupid, we couldn’t do it. But we had to put up a fight.

To film a realistic portrait of this event would be impossible in ’42, but in ’45 he pulled it off – and it’s one of the most mournful, moving, and static war films ever made. Very little happens. Men leap on and off PT Boats, rag on a callow ensign, and occasionally exchange fire with Japanese planes and battleships (I now realize I’ve inadvertently copied James Agee, who said: “all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT Boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted.”) The love interest, Donna Reed, glows incandescently for a few scenes with John Wayne, and is then re-located by command. She does not return. The narrative is jagged, with dead-end detours followed by long sinuous set-pieces, lensed by cinematographer Joseph August. The action scenes are evenly-lit in razor sharp deep focus, while the interiors are sepulchral and shadowed – both the harrowing surgery sequence (held on Reed’s clenched, disbelieving face), and the staff dinner (again centered on a Reed close-up, adjusting her necklace for a reminder of normalcy), are shot in heavy chiaroscuro, as if the characters didn’t want to see the world outside their doors.

On the surface Robert Montgomery was an offbeat casting choice to take on the Bulkeley role (here named Brickley), as he rose to stardom as a light comedian. But in his naval service he was assigned to Bulkeley as executive officer during PT boat combat in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, earning a bronze star. His performance is of implacable good humor, a stalwart, impenetrable veneer that quickly compartmentalizes disappointment to do the job at hand. John Wayne plays the blustery, self-destructive Rusty Ryan, whom Brickley keeps together through force of will. When Ryan, hiding a blood disease contracted after a hand injury, is about to lunge into battle (and begin, one expects, a major subplot surrounding the disease), Brickley sees the hand, and forces him into a hospital. Professionalism trumps drama here at every turn. Aware that they are cannon fodder, they enter the breach again and again, trying to give their side just a few more seconds to turn the tide. It is an insane kind of dignity, which perhaps makes it even more admirable. So when Rusty places his hand on Brickley’s shoulders, and squeezes, right before they are to take their leave for Australia, it speaks for all the men they lost, and the few they might have saved. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.


November 10, 2009

men in war

Robert Ryan looks exhausted in Men In War, Anthony Mann’s spare Korean War drama. He focuses all of his energy on curling his upper lip, slitting his eyes, and furrowing his brow, as you see in the photo above. He’s worried, tired, broken. He delivers the dialogue with a laconic flatness, never rising above a low rumble. His Lt. Benson confronts a dead soldier with the same intonation as he does a busted radio: “This war, you’re either healthy or you’re dead”. He continues doing his job out of inertia, prodded on by the desperate stares of his men. His weary resignation shifts into a bitter nihilism before the final battle, and Ryan handles the transition by adding a tremolo to his voice and taking off his helmet, revealing his matted-down mop of hair. Working with Mann, it’s a masterful bit of sepulchral underplaying, keyed to the battered landscape and the canny enemies that hide inside it.

Based on Van van Praag’s WWII novel, Day Without End (1949), and adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan (in collaboration with the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who is uncredited), Men In War follows Lt. Benson and his unit as they are cut off from central command and try to fight their way out from behind enemy lines. They are joined by the amoral Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) and his Colonel (Robert Keith), who has been shell-shocked into silence. All of these men are literally disconnected, as the opening scene finds the radio man repeatedly calling for help as Mann pans over a smoky, desolate horizon. No answer. This opening shot sets up the soldiers’ growing alienation from the army, and the incipient danger of the landscape, from which Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who does fine foggy work) will wring a series of compositions emphasizing the North Korean’s mastery of the terrain. Manny Farber:  “…the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on.”  Mann focuses on boots in mud and “threading lines at twilight” that emphasis the physical toll of battle. Nature is synonymous with death, and it shows in every crease on Ryan’s brow.

Mann cements this early on, in a rhyming composition between a dead, slumped over soldier, and Ryan’s resting body in a foxhole. Ryan is the walking dead, and so are his men, but they move on. While American bodies are slumped and lifeless, devoured by their surroundings, their Korean adversaries show off their knowledge of the terrain.

They have all the tactical advantages, while Ryan’s men start to reach a hysterical pitch of complaining. There are two central conflicts, one between Benson and Montana, and the other between soldier and landscape. Montana is a shoot-first, take-no-prisoners type, whose fearlessness and brutality saves lives and bruises Benson’s already wounded nobility. Benson is trying to maintain a code of honor, but events keep spiraling out of control, with Montana’s smiling head pulling a trigger to solve the problem. Benson demands that Montana take a prisoner – and he guns him down instead. When Benson inspects the body, he discovers a pistol in the hat that would probably have taken him down. Montana simply wants to get his Colonel home safe, this doddering old man the only thing left in the world that he values. Army protocol takes a beating here, which drew the ire of the U.S. Armed Services, who publicly condemned the film and refused any assistance in its production, from on-set experts to weapons and ammunition.

The Benson-Montana showdown plays out in a rather predictable manner, but Ryan and Ray imbue it with enough bleary resignation and childish psychosis, respectively, that it’s an effective microcosm of the broader drama of man versus nature. The only sense in which Mann allows these soldiers a measure of control is in his obsessive inserts of hands – especially in the exchange of cigarettes. These close-ups show the miniature world in which Benson can gain control of. Outside, Montana is overthrowing his ethics and the DPRK Army will soon overrun his men. And eventually the world right in front of their eyeballs face the reality of blood and dog tags.



September 15, 2009


September 25th is Phil Karlson night on TCM, as they’ll be screening three of his tight-lipped noirs along with a rare  B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus. He’s one of the many unsung talents from the studio system, and I’ve been entranced with his work since I saw The Phenix City Story, a docu-drama so precisely detailed the stench of corruption wafts off the screen in pungent waves (it airs at 9:45PM on the 25th). So whenever a Karlson comes across my radar, I devour it. Which brings me to 1967′s A Time For Killing, a film which I watched on TCM a few months back, but which is also available for  purchase on iTunes (the TCM master is in the correct 2.35 aspect ratio, but the iTunes listing says their version is full-screen).

Karlson is credited as the sole director, but the movie was originally developed by Roger Corman under the title The Long Ride Home, hot on the heels of The Wild Angels and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the first film in a new multi-picture deal Corman made with Columbia Pictures. It was based on the novel The Southern Blade, a Civil War drama written by Nelson and Shirley Wolford, whose adaptation duties he handed to a young Robert Towne, while Monte Hellman was on board as the editor (he was producing Hellman’s The Shooting, released the same year). A few weeks into the production however, Corman was fired, Hellman resigned in protest, and Towne’s script was scrapped.

There is no definitive story regarding his ouster, but Corman biographer Beverly Gray offers the following:

Towne told Corman’s assistant Francis Doel he suspected that the ouster occurred “because Roger insisted on saving money. Roger didn’t understand that, unlike Sam Arkoff or AIP, [Columbia] wouldn’t think any better of him for saving money. In fact, they would think the opposite. They would think that he was going to make them a picture of lesser quality than they were used to.” Doel recalls that when Columbia executives sent Corman lists of equipment they were planning to ship to his Arizona location, he would cross out items he felt weren’t needed. If, for instance, two generators were listed, he would eliminate one, figuring that the remaining generator would work adequately for the length of the shoot. Presumably, this thrifty behavior raised the suspicions of the Columia brass, who feared getting a cheap-looking product.

Essentially, Corman’s DIY ethos clashed with the plush expectations of the Columbia suits. Corman doesn’t say much about the incident, claiming only that he had a “series of disagreements” before leaving the set. Monte Hellman has a more colorful evasion, quoted from Brad Stevens’ biography of the iconoclastic filmmaker:

“I was editor on the film for a couple of weeks, and resigned when Corman was fired. I never saw the film, and have no recollection of which scenes I may have worked on. It’s another CRAFT moment: Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.”

In any case, Karlson took over the director’s chair, and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma) received sole screenwriting credit. It’s unclear how much of Towne’s script was used in Welles’ version. The cast remained the same, though, and a number of Corman’s cadre of character actors give delightfully eccentric turns: Timothy Carey, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton are all on hand, wielding their jutting-out faces with expressionistic glee. Carey is a bombastic sharpshooter named Billy Cat, Miller a cowardly Union soldier tittering in the corners of frames, while Stanton is a nervous voice of reason on the Confederate side, duly ignored. They provide the colorful background to the dour leads: Glenn Ford and George Hamilton. The contrast is so great between the supporting comedians and the leading brooders, its easy to think that Corman shot most of the former material with his friends and Karlson took over the more psychologically tinged sequences with the latter. But unless someone turns up the production log, it’s impossible to say.

Ford plays Major Wolcott, a quiet type just trying to keep his troops alive as the Civil War winds to a close. He’s stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where Confederate Captain Bentley (Hamilton) is held with a gaggle of good ol’ boys. Wolcott is in love with a missionary, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), who he sends away from the camp because it’s too dangerous.  Bentley and his gang soon break out, run down Biddle’s wagon train and take her hostage. Wolcott is sent out to track them down, just as the war is rumored to be coming to a close.

The script sets up the chase as a study in vengeance. At the open, Wolcott attempts to temper the bloodthirstiness of his Colonel, who orders a brutal execution of a Confederate prisoner. He requests that the search be called off for the escaped prisoners, since the South was expected to surrender at any minute. The colonel insists, Wolcott leaves, and the film tracks the Major’s slow descent into the cycle of vengeance that has enveloped everyone else.

Corman & Karlson keep much of the action in long shot, subordinated to the landscape and the fates that are driving them towards death. Even fight scenes are fought in long shot, including a series of duels between two bickering Confederates. The first takes place in the desert, starting with laughter and ending with knives drawn. Their rage is made small by the camera’s distance, rendered as just a symptom of the disease devouring both sides of the war. For punctuation, Karlson/Corman cut in to distorted extreme close-ups, underlining further Bentley and Wolcott’s psychological breakdown. By the end of the film, when Major Wolcott barrels his way into Mexico, recklessly leading his men to certain death in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, brittle Dick Miller, who runs off with his pal to avoid further combat, turns out to be the smartest soldier in town.


May 12, 2009


The summer behemoths are upon us, and it’s impossible to look away. They leer at us from every billboard and fast food collector’s cup, daring us to ignore them and get shut out of the pop-culture conversation. They know we’ll cave, god bless their arrogant little hearts. So before I watch the shiny new Star Trek, and get sucked into the vortex of box office predictions and whiplash inducing action sequences, I wanted to put a kind word in for another blockbuster that has yet to reach our shores, John Woo’s epic two-parter, Red Cliff. Part 1 is already the highest-grossing film in China’s history, and the sequel came close. Released six months apart in July ’08 and January ’09, they’re a rousing adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms , a historical novel detailing the end of the Han dynasty.

The production marks Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese cinema after a decade-plus in Hollywood. He set the template for 90s action films with his HK triumverate of The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), and it’s hard to overstate his impact – everybody from Michael Bay to the Wachowski Bros. to Hype Williams lifted his highly choreographed pistol operatics.  His kinetic talents were generally wasted in the states, despite some individual flourishes in Face Off and Mission Impossible 2. An artistic breakthrough came with Windtalkers (2002), his most overlooked, and his best American film. There’s a narrative density here that looks forward to the intricate relationships of Red Cliff, laid over his matchless skill for choreographing large battle sequences. His concern with professional male relationships remains, as Nicholas Cage’s tetchy marine and Adam Beach’s Native American code writer test their loyalties and reach an uneasy alliance, just as Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung did in Hard Boiled. Only here it’s set against a shifting WWII backdrop and a far more disparate array of characters.

Red Cliff is an extension and near-perfection of this epic-intimate moviemaking, using the personal friendship/rivalry between Tony Leung (as Zhou Lou) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Zhuge Liang) as the fulcrum from which to leap into the massive tale of the war of the Three Kingdoms. The plot concerns the immature Han emperor giving license to a dictatorial general, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), to subdue the Western and Southern regions of the country, which were otherwise peaceful. Zhou Lou is the viceroy of the southern state, Wu, while Zhuge Liang is the military strategist for the kingdom of Xu, in the West. The two regions form an alliance in order to fend off Cao Cao. An interesting element introduced by Woo and his fellow screenwriters is that of parallels to modern counterinsurgency theory.

The head of Xu emphasizes protecting the civilian population at the expense of winning an initial battle, while Cao Cao’s imperial ambitions have him waging a pure counterterrorist operation – his only intent is killing and capturing his opponents, not winning hearts and minds. There is also commentary about Cao Cao’s overstretched and overworked army, some of whom just work for money (a nod to Blackwater, etc.) If one were to take a US-centric reading of the film, Cao Cao would represent U.S. military strategy under Gen. George Casey and Rumsfeld, and Zhou Lou and Zhuge Liang the strategy of Gen. Petraeus and Robert Gates. Judah Grunstein takes this tack at World Politics Review.

While to take the film as a straight-up allegory of U.S. policy would be overly simplistic, it certainly places paramount importance on military strategy generally. Kaneshiro’s character never engages in battle, but his ingenious war plans make him a major figure in the film. Red Cliff places great emphasis on this kind of tactical preparation, and every fight is preceded by thorough examinations of the battlefield and different modes of attack. It’s a very grounded vision for a historical epic, but it is also what gives the war scenes such lucidity – Woo makes them battles of the mind as much as of the body.

The script balances these two forces in the bodies of Kaneshiro (mind) and Leung (body). Leung is the gallant leader, expert swordsman and diplomat, while Kaneshiro always stands to the side, trying to predict Cao Cao’s every move. Woo consistently carves out different spaces for them on screen, separating them in dramatic symmetrical compositions like the ones below. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Lou are well aware throughout that after Cao Cao is defeated, their two nations will immediately be in competition – it is this kind of subtlety that adds richness and deviousness to their relationship.


Once the battle scenes begin, Woo’s old choreographic mastery comes to the fore. In an ingenius bit of visualization, Kaneshiro, perched high above, witnesses an infantry troop exercise. When massed, the camera cuts in to his POV, and his feathered wing fan flashes out before us to cover the troop formation in its exact dimensions.

Later, Kaneshiro is shown holding a small tortoise, which later proves to be the inspiration for a large operation where troops use their shields to form an improvised shell, decimating the opposing cavalry with devastating spear blows thrust from inside. These nature/war formation metaphors point to the importance of nature (topography, etc.) and the elements to any fight, and the final, incredibly bloody finale depends entirely upon the direction of the wind. This is a clever structure, a few visual notes emphasizing nature foreshadow the plot function (the wind) that will become so important later.

I’m only scratching the surface of this 4 1/2 hour work. I haven’t mentioned the atonal samisen jam, the wonderful performance by Wei Zhao as an impish princess who turns out to be a resourceful spy, the lively caricatures of Xu’s generals, and the ingenious way Zhuge Liang supplies 100,000 arrows (fog and scarecrows are involved). It’s surprising how rich the film turned out under less than ideal production circumstances. Famously, Chow Yun-Fat pulled out (he was to play Zhou You) before shooting began, and tragically, a stuntman died and six were injured during a particularly dangerous action sequence. Producer Terence Chang bemoaned his choice of special effects crews (which are, admittedly, subpar), and the script took years to write.

That a work of art was produced out of this is an incredible accomplishment, and hopefully Sony Pictures finds it in their hearts to release it stateside.  It was rumored that it would be released in a condensed, 2 1/2 hour version, but now even those murmurs have ceased. UPDATE:MAGNET FILMS (A SUBSIDIARY OF MAGNOLIA), HAS JUST PICKED UP RED CLIFF FOR DISTRIBUTION IN THE US. IT WILL RELEASE A CONDENSED 2 1/2 HOUR VERSION IN THEATERS (boo!), AND THE COMPLETE FILM ON DVD AND VOD).  In any case, the DVDs are readily available at a Chinatown near you, or at reputable e-tailers like HKFlix and YesAsia.