Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stagecoach (1939) -- John Ford

Geronimo is on the warpath, cutting telegraph lines and burning isolated settlements. Danger awaits the nine passengers of a stagecoach as it attempts to drive to Lordsburg, much of the way without cavalry escort. The odds against them, each has their own reason for making the trip.

The stage to Lordsburg.
Director John Ford had dabbled in Westerns before Stagecoach, most notably with the critically acclaimed silent film The Iron Horse in 1924. And Western films had garnered some success with movie-goers, most notably 1931's Best Picture, Cimmaron. But in the intervening years, the genre had been relegated mostly to cheaply made B pictures. "Oaters" just weren't considered serious films. All that changed with Stagecoach in 1939. One of America's premiere directors showed audiences that the genre was more than horse chases and gun play; it could explore adult relationships and offer riveting adventure and drama.

There are lot of reasons why this splendid film is considered a classic, notably its tight story line, the Oscar nominated cinematography, a superb action and stunt sequence, and its wonderful score of American folk standards. And though Ford wouldn't know it at the time, it introduced two American film icons: John Wayne in his breakout starring role, and the buttes of Monument Valley, the most majestic of Western settings. All in all, it's in the handful of best Westerns ever made.

Under attack!

The ensemble cast includes vivid characters that became Western stereotypes--a testament to the script and the performances of the actors. It also has an irresistible appeal for audiences, i.e., a small group of diverse men and women under severe pressure, some outcasts seeking some type of redemption. They reflect everyday society, with some good guys, some bad ones, and a few you aren't sure of. Wayne is Ringo, a prison escapee on his way to avenge the death of his father and brother; Claire Trevor is a girl of ill-repute with a heart of gold (Dallas); Thomas Mitchell, a doctor, is a drunk (Doc Boone); John Carradine is a Southern gambler (Hatfield); Donald Meeks, whose name fits his character perfectly, is a nervous and mild whiskey drummer (Mr. Peacock); Berton Churchill is a banker and embezzler (Gatewood); and Andy Devine (Buck) is a reluctant stage driver. Along for the ride are Louise Platt, a refined Southern belle (Lucy), pregnant and on her way to meet her officer husband; and George Bancroft (Curly), the steady marshal who decides to ride shotgun.

"We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child." 
Director Ford demonstrates wonderful pacing. He tells the story in essentially four acts, first introducing the characters in the town of Tonto. With the exception of Wayne, we meet them all here and in remarkably short order are led to understand their respective class distinctions. Dallas is being run out of town by the ladies of the Law and Order League, a group of self-righteous prudes and old biddies. Doc Boone sees them for what they are and has a kinship with the prostitute. His landlady has had him evicted for failure to pay his rent. Boone provides the film's humor. He scowls and says in a feigned theatrical voice, "Is this the face that wrecked 1000 ships and burned the towerless tops of Illium? Farewell, fair Helen." Things start to look up for the inebriate when he learns that Peacock is taking the stage with his satchel of samples.

The stage encounters Ringo on the way. Standing beside the trail, he flags down the coach with a rifle shot. Ford uses a great zoom close-up of Wayne. The marshal puts him under arrest, and he surrenders his rifle as the cavalry escort rides up. Viewers who know Wayne only from the 60's and 70's, and think of him as an overweight, past-his-prime cowboy actor, may be surprised at how handsome and vigorous he looks. Just 32  here, lean and athletic, it's easy to understand how he became a huge star. 

Inside the coach, the smoke from Doc Boone's cigar is bothersome. The gambler Hatfield, who came along to protect Lucy, insists that he put it out. Doc apologizes to Lucy: "Excuse me ma'am. Being so partial to the weed myself, I sometimes forget that it disagrees with others." Doc is courteous to Lucy, but feels no such obligation when it comes to Hatfield:
Hatfield: A gentleman doesn't smoke in the presence of a lady.
Doc Boone: Three weeks ago, I took a bullet out of a man who was shot by a gentleman. The bullet was in his back!
Hatfield (feeling insulted): You mean to insinuate...
Ringo Kid (to keep the peace): Sit down mister. Doc don't mean no harm.
Of course, 1939 is generally considered Hollywood's best year. Thomas Mitchell was right in the middle of several signature films, showing his mettle as a supporting actor, and surely accumulating one of the greatest single year resumes in history. Besides Stagecoach, he appeared in Gone With the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His humorous performance here won him one of the film's two Oscars. It was well deserved.

Dallas and Ringo, two misfits made for each other.

We learn more about the characters when they stop at the Dry Fork way station for dinner. Lucy expects to meet her husband here, but he has already left for Apache Wells, their next stop. When the food is served the other passengers shun Dallas, but Ringo thinks he's the cause for their reaction,  saying, "Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."

After a vote they continue their trip, stopping overnight at Apache Wells. Lucy goes into labor and gives birth, attended to by Boone, who shows he's still a competent physician when filled with enough coffee.  By now Ringo and Dallas have begun to fall in love. He asks her to marry him; she agrees, provided he escape instead of seeking vengeance against Luke Plummer, the man who murdered his father and brother. But when he sees Indian smoke signals in the distance, he knows it's too late. The stage makes a mad dash for Lordsburg, forging a swift river along the way in a visually interesting sequence before being assaulted by Indians.

The attack is the most memorable sequence with the great stunt work of famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, who twice risks his life. Ford introduces the threat with a marvelous sound effect. Thinking they have passed the danger point, Doc Boone proposes a toast. As he takes a swig from a bottle, an arrow zips loudly into the window and you hear the thunk as it embeds itself into Peacock's chest. The music swells and the chase is on. The horses pull frantically across the dry alkali flats, pursued by ferocious warriors, whooping like banshees and banishing their weapons. One brave jumps from his mount onto the lead horses, trying to stop the coach. Ringo, now riding atop the coach, shoots him, and the Indian (Canutt) falls beneath the horses' hooves, where he struggles to hang onto the rig's shaft as he drags along the ground. He finally loses his grip as the coach rolls over his prone body. Ford pans the camera back to let you know it was real man and not a dummy--the wounded Indian rolls over and pushes himself up to his knees.

When Buck is shot in the shoulder and loses the reins, the stage begins to slow. Ringo (Canutt again) leaps to the rescue, landing on the wheel team, then forward to the swing team, and finally forward again to the lead team, where he gets control of the animals. 

Yakima Canutt as Ringo leaps to the rescue.
Inside the coach ammunition has run out. Hatfield has saved one bullet and in a close-up aims his pistol at Lucy's head as she prays, planning to save the woman from being ravaged and tortured by the Apaches. A gunshot rings out; the pistol drops as Hatfield is killed by the Indians. A bugle sounds and the cavalry ride to the rescue.

The stunt work here includes several dangerous looking falls by riders from the horses. The entire sequence showcases the wonderful film editing by Otto Lovering, who also earned an Oscar nomination.

Finally in Lordsburg, lawmen arrest Gatewood and retrieve his $50,000. The marshal, whose symphathies are clear throughout, gives Ringo ten minutes to say goodbye to Dallas and confront the Plummers. Ringo escorts the girl home and learns she's a prostitute. Plummer is playing cards in a saloon and hears that Ringo is in town. He holds a "dead man's hand," aces in eights -- the same hand held by Wild Bill Hickok when murdered.

Ford sets up the shootout in a thrilling manner. Doc Boone, his self-respect renewed, refuses to let Luke leave the saloon with a shotgun; the editor of the Lordsburg newspaper predicts the morning's headlines: "The Ringo Kid was killed on Main Street in Lordsburg tonight, and among the additional dead were...;" then three Plummers advance toward the camera, moving forward cautiously down a dark street as Ringo's dark silhouette comes into focus in the foreground. From a low camera angle, Ringo throws himself to the ground while firing three shots. Dallas, listening where Ringo left her, fears the worst. A cut to Luke shows him stagger through the swinging doors of a saloon, presumably the victor, but he falls dead. Then Ringo appears out of the mist and embraces Dallas.

In a fitting ending, Ford has the marshal let Ringo go instead of arresting him, sending him and Dallas to Mexico in a buckboard. Doc Boone waxes philosophically, giving a final observation about civilization and respectability:
Doc Boone: Well, they're saved from the blessings of civilization.
Curley: Yeah. (Curley removes his sheriff's badge.) Doc? I'll buy ya a drink.
Doc Boone: (After a long pause) Just one.
Dudley Nichols wrote the terrific screenplay. He had won an Oscar with Ford just four years earlier with The Informer, and was a frequent collaborator with the director. The black and white cinematography received an Oscar nomination as did Ford for directing, and the film for Best Picture.

This is one of the earliest films I know where the director employed specific music to represent the characters. "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, "plays over scenes with Louise Platt as Lucy, and "Shall We Gather at the River?" connotes Doc Boone.

The stage in Monument Valley.

Ford made films in all kinds of genres, but his Westerns best demonstate his incomparable abilty to weave a landscape into his story. In Stagecoach, for most of the film the nine passengers are isolated in a harsh, threatening environment. The sandstone formations of Monument Valley tower above them, and the land is dry and unforgiving, and filled with danger. Survival depends on courage and a man's wits. Ford is saying that the taming of the West was not for the faint of heart. What better place to set this story?

Ford and Wayne, of course, would forge the most successful director/actor relationship in Hollywood history. They would make 14 films together. Monument Valley became Ford's favorite location to film. He returned in 1946 for My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda; the Cavalry Trilogy (1948-1950) and The Searchers (1956) with Wayne; and finished with Cheyenne Autumn with Richard Widmark in 1964.

The Great John Ford about the time of Stagecoach.
John Ford won four Oscars for Best Director, a record:
  • The Informer 1935
  • The Grapes of Wrath 1940
  • How Green Was My Valley 1942
  • The Quiet Man 1952
A 1966 remake pales in comparison, though is still worth a watch. Its biggest problem is the casting of Alex Cord as Ringo. The cast does have a few actors that I always enjoy in films: Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and Van Heflin.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    The Gold Rush (1925) -- Charlie Chaplin

    Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the most remarkable film-maker. A one-man show so unequaled in his talent and ability to touch an audience it is astounding. His best films are beautiful and poignant as no one ever combined comedy and pathos as well. He did it all: acting, writing, directing, and often, scoring his films. And like Keaton and Lloyd, he possessed great athleticism that he put to good use on screen. The Gold Rush is one of his best. It came just a quarter-century after the actual events of the period depicted, so it would have had a contemporary feel for most of its original audience. Chaplin re-released the film in 1942, this time with a few sound effects and narration in place of several of the title cards. That version is fine but loses some of the magic of the full silent film, which is the point of watching these early films. You want to marvel at how the actors emote with just their faces and capture as best you can the experience of the original audience.

    Chaplin in the guise of the Little Tramp is a lone prospector during the Great Gold Rush to Alaska in 1898. It's a hard life with intense cold, hunger, disappointment, and perhaps worst of all, loneliness. The story follows him as he interacts with two other fortune-hunters: Big Jim McKay (Mark Swain) and Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a wanted scoundrel; and he falls in love with a dance-hall girl (Georgia Hale).

    In the spectacular opening scene, a long line of hundreds of prospectors climb up a steep mountain through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass on the way to the gold fields. Charlie soon appears with his familiar cane and bowler, and his absurdly baggy pants, totally unprepared for the rigors of the far North, and he immediately gets caught in a storm and stumbles blindly along. At the same time, Big Jim, a burly prospector who looks like he belongs in the environment, hits pay dirt. The same storm sends his tent flying, pulling him behind. Both men find themselves at Black Larsen's cabin. Larsen is wanted by the law, and we will soon get confirmation that he is indeed a dangerous man.

    Chaplin never let his audience wait too long for a sight gag. Larsen orders Chaplin out, but when he opens the door, the little guy can't compete with the powerful howling wind. Charlie leans into it, but his feet can make no progress. He slides backward as if on ice. Next, Larsen and Big Jim wrestle over a rifle. Charlie tries frantically to keep out of the way, jumping one way or the other, but the barrel always seems to point directly at him. At one point he gets trapped behind a table and squeezed into  a corner. Big Jim's superior strength finally overpowers Black Larsen and the three settle down to weather the storm. Soon, their food gives out. They draw lots and Black Larsen goes for food.

    In a classic scene, the two remaining fellows enjoy an unusual Thanksgiving dinner as they face starvation--one of Charlie's big flat shoes. It's the most memorable scene in the film, because it's funny and also because it says something about Chaplin's destitute childhood, where humor may have been the last defense against utter despair. They treat the meal as a delicacy. Charlie bastes the boot like a turkey and sharpens his knife before carefully carving the leather upper from the sole and hobnails, which he splits between the two of them. Charlie swirls the laces on his fork like a long piece of spaghetti and sucks the nails as if he were savoring the last remnant of meat from the bones of a fish or some delicious game. (The boot was actually black licorice). 

    Big Jim later hallucinates, seeing Charlie as a big chicken. Swain does a wonderful job here, one moment looking deliriously happy, clucking at Charlie to lure him closer, the next frightened by his narrow mistake.

    Charlie manages to shoot a black bear, providing them provisions until the storm abates. When it does, the two friends part ways. In the meantime, Black Larsen has killed two police officers and stumbled unto Big Jim's claim. Big Jim arrives and the two burly fellows struggle; Larsen knocks Jim cold with a shovel, but is soon killed in an avalanche--a nifty special effect.

    Charlie walks into a mining boom town and meets Georgia, a beautiful dance-hall girl and falls in love. It's never explicit, but she is likely a woman of ill-repute. Chaplin devised a wonderful set here, as the dance hall is just what you'd expect: a great log building with a long bar, unshaven and unkempt prospectors with drooping mustaches who swill beer--brave men with weathered faces who risk their lives, and thus need an outlet. A piano stands in the corner, there is lots of smoke, and plenty of flirty girls, urging the lonely men to buy them a drink. Charlie looks pathetically out of place. He finds a photograph of Georgia and stuffs it in his shirt. To tease another man, she asks him to dance. He struggles to keep his pants from falling and grabs a rope to tie them up, not knowing it's a dog's leash.

    Charlie, completely smitten, is lucky to ingratiate himself with another miner who asks him to watch his cabin while he hunts for gold. By happenstance, he meets Georgia again and invites her and her friends to a New Year's Eve dinner. She accepts on a lark after finding the photograph that Charlie had fond and kept hidden under his pillow. The night arrives and Charlie has made elaborate preparations, party gifts, candles, napkins, and a heart-shaped card at Georgia's place with "To My Love" written on it. A chicken is roasting in the oven. While waiting, he falls asleep, beginning one of Chaplin's most famous sequences--"The Dance of the Rolls." To entertain his guests he jabs two French bread rolls with forks and does a pantomime ballet-dance, his face smiling above so it looks like a man with a giant head. It appears as if the rolls are his boots. It is silly to be sure, but creatively pure magic.

    Charlie awakens, and it's obvious Georgia has forgotten or was not serious. Heart-broken and feeling foolish, he hears singing and gunshots coming from the town. He walks forlornly to the saloon where revelers are singing "Auld Lang Syne," and sadly stares through the window. The scene hits home for anyone who has ever felt out-of-place or rejected by love. Poor Charlie. Georgia eventually remembers her promise and goes to the cabin, but Charlie is long gone. She sees the table and realizes the effort Charlie had gone to, and feels pity--the first sign that perhaps she has a heart.

    There's a wonderful human moment during the song where the director Chaplin conveys real life. Some in the crowd dab their eyes, others look far away, thinking of something or someone from their past. Charlie listens and you see him swallow. It's a reminder that that season isn't always a happy one.

    Big Jim has survived Black Larsen's attack. He comes to town still suffering from the blow to his head; he can't remember the location of his mine, but knows it's near his cabin. When he sees Charlie, he excitedly tells him he will make him rich if Charlie helps him locate the cabin. They do, but another storm comes up that night, pushing the cabin to the precipice of a high cliff, where it hangs precariously in balance. In the morning they wake up, blissfully ignorant of their predicament.

    Another funny bit follows as the two walk from one side of the floor to the other, nearly tipping the cabin off the cliff. At first Charlie thinks it's his stomach but he soon opens the door to investigate. Fortunately, he clings to the door nob as he hangs there, feet dangling in mid-air until he manages to climb back in to safety. This is another fine special effect for its day and an apparent hair-raising sequence. The partners eventually survive, saved by a pick ax that miraculously gets sunk right where Big Jim's gold lies buried in the snow. They scramble up the floor's steep incline to safety, Charlie just jumping clear before the building disappears over the edge.

    The next scene finds Charlie and Big Jim dressed to the nines with silk top hats, spats, mink coats, and puffing on big cigars, enjoying their new lives as millionaires. They are in first-class aboard a ship returning home from Alaska. Members of the Press ask Charlie to pose for a photograph. They want to do a rags-to-riches story. He dons his old ragged tramp clothes and notices his picture of Georgia. He sighs wistfully and a title card reads: "Everything but Georgia." He doesn't know it, but she is on the same boat as a steerage passenger.

    While posing for the photographer, Charlie accidentally falls down a stairwell, landing in steerage to find Georgia sitting next to a large coil of rope. When she hears that ship officers are searching for a stow-away, she naturally assumes it's Charlie they are after. She tries to hide him, then offers to pay his fare. He reveals the truth--he is now rich. He takes her in his arms, and implying that she is his fiancee, invites the photographers to take an engagement picture of them. The photographers are pleased. A title card says: "Gee! This will make a wonderful story." The couple pose as long as they can stand it, but their hearts are overflowing and they move to kiss. The photographer shouts at them: "Oh! You've spoilt the picture," as the final image fades. (Note, the 1942 version omits the kiss, as Chaplin had by then long ended his relationship with Hale).

    Swain, who plays Big Jim is a fine comedian in his own right. His wide-eyed looks of astonishment during the tilting cabin scene are quite funny. He made well over 150 films, mostly silent shorts, and started with Mack Sennett of Keystone Kops fame. He had worked with Chaplin before, in 1921's The Idle Class, 1922's Pay Day, 1923's The Pilgrim. And Hale is a real beauty. I loved her period wardrobe, particularly the fur hat. She seems to embody the 1920's flapper. Like so many other silent performers, she never made it to talkies. 

    This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1992.

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    The Vikings (1958) - Richard Fleischer

    A Viking boat returns from a raid. 
    During a Viking raid of the English coast in the Middle Ages, the Viking leader Ragnar kills the king of Northumbria and rapes the queen. Aella, the king's ambitious brother, assumes the throne. The disposed queen later gives birth to a son, Eric, and fearing that her brother-in-law will feel threatened by the rightful heir to the throne, she sends the child away to safety. He is captured and enslaved by the Vikings. In the meantime, Ragnar has had his own legitimate son, Einar, a warrior who aspires to follow in his father's wild footsteps. The half-brothers are destined to cross paths and become embroiled in a fierce battle over Morgana, a beautiful English girl, betrothed to Aella.

    This is one of the best adventure films of the 1950's, a pure delight for young boys who love history (albeit confused as presented here) and authentic action. It is spectacularly shot by the great Jack Cardiff, a master of color photography. Cardiff understood the Technicolor process better than any cameraman of his day. Exotic locations with Norwegian fiords and English castles provide a luscious setting for the film's action.

    The film opens with Orson Welles' unmistakable voice, giving general background on the life of Vikings and explaining the structure of England at the time, i.e., an unorganized group of competing kingdoms. The Vikings worship a pagan god of war, Odin, and regularly conduct raids along the English coast. Simple drawings of warriors in battle appear on screen. This cuts to the first action sequence: a quick one showing Ragnar's raid.

    The film jumps forward twenty years with Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) returning from another raid. The Viking ship moves up a scenic fiord to the Viking village. It is gorgeously rugged, the narrow channel with rocky slopes rising on each side and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance. The film's epic theme plays over the scene, a mix of atmospheric French and English horns. The sail drops and the men extend long oars and begin to pull toward the dock as a high lookout alerts the villagers by blowing a gigantic horn. Purportedly an accurate reproduction of a Viking vessel, the ship certainly looks authentic with shields affixed to the side, the rowers tightly packed, and a tall dragon for a figurehead. It is a splendid scene. The water is a deep blue and the lookout's horn a perfect touch.

    Borgnine as Ragnar. 

    Ragnar has brought along Egbert, an Englishman and a traitor who can map the coast of England. He soon discovers the connection between the two half-brothers. The first, Einar (Kirk Douglas), makes his appearance. He's a chip off the old block, wild and full of debauchery. Besides fighting, Vikings enjoy nothing so much as guzzling ale and ravishing women, and Director Fleischer includes a couple of scenes where the Norsemen kickback for some fun. In one, they strap a girl to a large revolving wheel, her pigtails stretched out. Douglas throws axes, slicing the hair to drunken cheers.  

    While hunting separately with falcons, the two half-bothers meet in the forest. Eric (Tony Curtis), annoys the Viking, and gets kicked to the ground. Provoked, he commands his bird to attack. It claws out one of Einar's eyes in a ghastly scene that looks amazingly real and dangerous, leaving blood pouring through Douglas' fingers. For the rest of the film he sports some very effective makeup, an opaque contact lens, with talon scars marring his handsome face.

    Einar bears the scars of the falcon attack.
    Instead of immediately killing the slave, Einar vows to make him suffer, saying: "The sun will cross the sky a thousand times before he dies, and you'll wish a thousand times that you were dead." Ragnar has other ideas though, and orders him thrown into the slop pool, expecting that either the crabs will eat him or he will drown with the rising tide. However, a storm comes up to push back the tide, causing Ragnar to take it as a sign from Odin to spare Eric's life.

    With the aid of Egbert's map, Einar goes to England and kidnaps Morgana (Janet Leigh) with plans to exhort a ransom. The beautiful daughter of another English king, she is betrothed to the new king of Northumbria. But Einar is smitten with the girl. While drunk, he goes to have his way with her. Eric, also attracted to Morgana, prevents the rape, and helps the girl escape in a row boat. Alerted, the Vikings give chase, but their boat runs aground in the heavy fog and Ragnar falls overboard. He is picked up by Eric and taken prisoner to the English.

    A highly entertaining aspect of the film is the pacing. Action sequences are never too far apart. The English king orders the Viking executed by dropping him into a pit of savagely hungry wolves. Ragnar asks to die like a Viking, with his sword in hand, believing that is the only way he can enter Valhalla. The king refuses, but Eric defies him by cutting Ragnar's binds and handing him a weapon. In the tradition of great scene deaths, Ragnar grins, then growls loudly at his captors and jumps into the pit, of course, without knowing Eric is his son. Here director Fleischer makes a good decision not to show the actual encounter with the animals. Instead, the camera focus on the faces of the men above the pit, looking down at the unseen action. This invokes the audience's imagination as the sounds of fierce gnashing and grunts fill the air. Eric pays dearly for his audacity. For going against his wishes, the king chops off his hand.

    The film doesn't require the performers to do much; just the three men to look and act heroic, and for Janet Leigh to look lovely. They all do a fine job. Douglas likely had lots of fun on the project and gets to demonstrate his athleticism, once with a nice stunt running along extended oars, supposedly an actual tradition of returning Vikings, and later climbing up a closed draw-bridge on the handles of battle axes.

    The spectacular climax.

    The final battle scene is staged terrifically. The Vikings storm the English castle to avenge Ragnar and retrieve Morgana, smashing down the first barrier with a giant tree trunk on wheels. Archers fill the air with arrows and the king's men toss boulders from the battlements. Eric extracts his own revenge on Aella, then the two-half brothers meet atop a tower in a spectacular sword fight to see who wins Morgana. This is a wonderfully choreographed sequence and must have been an extraordinarily difficult shoot. Director Fleischer and cinematographer Cardiff pull it off beautifully. Fort La Latte in the Cotes-d'Armor region of France served as the actual location.

    One of the great castles featured in the film, scene of the final battle.

    Calder Willingham penned the screenplay, which relies on visuals and action rather than emotion. Willingham had just worked with Douglas on the excellent Paths of Glory and would later score an Oscar nomination for The Graduate. He also adapted Little Big Man.

    The production design deserves a mention. The Viking village is appropriately comprised of log and mud huts, with moss and what appears to be lichen growth on the walls, and the costumes are leather and wool, just what you'd expect from the time period.

    Fans of Biblical epics of the period will recognize Frank Thring as the English king, Aella. He also played Pontius Pilot in Ben-Hur and Herod in King of Kings. As Aella, he is similarly slimy and loathsome.

    The film ends brilliantly with a Viking funeral. It is dusk. The body of one of the half-brothers is placed aboard a longboat and flaming arrows arc into the sky to ignite the sail. The credits roll.

    Sunday, January 1, 2012

    Planet of the Apes (1968) -- Frank Schaffner

    I revisited the Planet of the Apes films this week (the original five). I have seen the first--by far the best in the series--many times over the years, and the second when it was released in 1970, but had only caught short glimpses of the final three on TV. As a series, the films have a lot going for them. They are more about ideas than action, including social and political issues of time travel, isolation, race relations, how humans treat inferior beings, our penchant for violence, our fear of change, and nuclear war to cite just a few. In that respect, the films are intellectually stimulating. Of course, on the simplest level, they are just good entertainment, though the production values diminish considerably by the end.

    It all begins with Planet of the Apes, released in 1968 and directed by Frank Schaffner, better known for Patton, made two years later. It's easy to see why the film was a critical and commercial success (the 7th highest grossing film of the year). It was the first big studio science fiction film in over a decade and had a star cast, including Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, and Kim Hunter. Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans replaced Edgar G. Robinson at the last minute due to Robinson's ill health. Evans does a fine job but it would have been fun to watch Robinson in ape makeup.

    The spaceship Icarus brings three US astronauts to a strange planet. 
    Surely the story is familiar to everyone. Three astronauts, led by Heston (Taylor), crash land in a lake on a strange planet in the year 3978 after traveling through a space/time portal. (Their ship looks remarkably like the space shuttle). The scene is shown subjectively as if you are inside the craft, rather than watching from the outside.

    Forced to abandoned their sinking craft, they make it to shore and begin to walk, hoping to find food and shelter. The land is desolate and desert-like, but eventually takes on a verdant character. When they pause to take a dip in a pool, humanoid creatures steal their clothes. They give chase, finding a tribe harvesting food. It appears the astronauts will survive. Suddenly there is a noise, causing the humanoids to flee in panic. Armed gorillas riding horses attack, killing several of the tribe and one of the astronauts. The rest are captured like wild animals; a gun shot grazes Taylor in the throat, leaving him wounded and speechless.

    The hunting sequence and sudden appearance of the gorillas is the best scene in the film, as much a shock to 1968 audiences as the characters in the film. Jerry Goldsmith wrote a thrilling innovative musical film score using ram horns and other odd instruments. It is most effective here. Schaffner does a wonderful job creating suspense in the scene, taking his time to reveal what's attacking. All we see at first is something moving through the corn and high grass, beating the vegetation with sticks to drive Taylor and company. We know it's dangerous by the reaction of the tribe. Schaffner smartly intermixes overhead and ground level shots to enhance the dramatic feel, and uses hand-held cameras and odd angles to capture the disorientation of the prey.

    Taylor soon find himself in a cage at the ape village, a dehumanizing experience. In this upside down world, apes are the dominant species. While the gorillas are militant, chimpanzees are docile. One, Zira (Kim Hunter) a psychologist, takes a fancy to Taylor, whom she calls "Bright Eyes." He seems extraordinarily intelligent for a dumb human beast. Zira's fiance is Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). She arranges for Bright Eyes to have a female, whom he calls Nova (Linda Harrison). Harrison has no lines and is clearly in the film for the male audience. Her outfit is reminiscent of Raquel Welch's from One Million B.C. If her acting didn't garner her any love from Academy voters, it did from the studio head, Daryl Zanuck Jr. He married her.

    Linda Harrison as Nova. 
    Orangutans occupy the highest social order in the ape village, with Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) the leading intellectual. Obsessively resistant to change, he blocks scientific study that might diverge from the teaching of the Sacred Scrolls. He knows more than he lets on about his planet's history, and the relationship between apes and humans. Three orangs comprise the tribunal at Taylor's trial in the film. An amusing sequence has them covering eyes, ears, and mouth in a play on "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil." Perhaps to save on the wardrobe budget there are only three types of apes on the planet, and each type wears distinctive clothing: orange for the orangs; green for the chimps; and black for the gorillas. 

    Taylor eventually regains his speech in an entertaining escape attempt. When captured, he famously yells, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" When Dr. Zaius threatens to lobotomize Taylor, Zira and Cornelius help him escape, taking him with them on an expedition to the Forbidden Zone. There, a cave reveals artifacts, one a human baby doll that speaks. By now, many in the audience likely guess the film's "secret," though Taylor is still confused. Zaius warns him to quit digging into the past. "You may not like what you find."

    Taylor and Nova ride off and soon encounter one of the most iconic images of 1960 films, the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. It's a great shot. Schaffner first shows Taylor riding up the beach, the camera positioned behind the crown of the statue. It takes a moment to understand what he's seeing from that POV. We see Taylor slide off the horse, shocked he collapses in the surf and pounds the sand.    

    For Hunter, this was a long way from her Streetcar days and it's hard to picture Stella Kowalski as an ape. (In the spirit of tongue-in-cheek, it might have been fun to have had the Taylor character bellow Zirrrrrra! somewhere in the film, albeit more subtlety than Brando).

    Heston with McDowell and Hunter. 

    The source novel for the original story is by Frenchman, Pierre Boulle, author of the Bridge on the River Kwai. For younger film fans at the time, Heston, whose early career is noted for his work in epics in the '50s and '60s, had a resurgence of sorts in science fiction films starting with Planet of the Apes. Other films in the genre included The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973).

    One version of the original poster for the film.

    The four sequels are a mixed bag, but each propels the story forward. In the second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a rescue mission in the form of Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor to the planet of the apes. It's shortly after the events shown in the first film. In the Forbidden Zone a group of mutant humans live underground and worship a nuclear bomb. They possess a bizarre telepathic power that makes no sense for the story. The apes attack with devastating results. The film has a few good things going for it: James Gregory as leader of the gorillas, exhorting them on with "the only good human is a dead human." And Victor Bruno appears as one of the underground humans, looking ridiculous. Like Linda Harrison in the first film, he has no lines. However, those acting lessons must have paid off for Harrison because she reprises her role as Nova here and gets one word--"Taylor!"  

    If audiences thought the franchise over, they were mistaken. The studio knew a good thing when it counted its receipts. A third film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, finds that Zira and Cornelius miraculously got off the planet just minutes before it blew up, escaping in Taylor's rescued space craft. They travel back in time through the same space/time portal used by Taylor and land in present day (1970) L.A., where they become celebrities. They also face fear and persecution similar to what Taylor encountered in the first film. The villain here is Dr. Otto Hasslein, whose theories of time seem proven by the appearance of apes from the future. He's convinced the apes need to be destroyed to save mankind. 
    "That's what I'm worried about. Later. Later we'll do something about pollution. Later we'll do something about the population explosion. Later we'll do something about the nuclear war. We think we've got all the time in the world, but how much time has the world got? Somebody has to begin to care."
    Like the first two films, this one has a surprising climax. Zira keeps the saga going by secreting her newborn (Caesar) in a traveling circus. It is a nice step up in quality from the second film, and introduces the concept of whether man, or in this case an ape, can change the future and thus later history. Depending on how one interprets the sequence of events that follow, you might conclude that Caesar in fact does just that.

    Strange visitors from the future. 

    Caesar takes charge twenty years later in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the best of the sequels. He leads a revolt against humans, setting in motion the geneses for the planet of the apes. Though the action here takes place on a relatively small scale--reflective of the declining production budget--there are lots of explosions and fire as police in the city try to halt the riot. It is considerable more violent than the earlier entries in the series.

    Caesar leads his armed apes against humans. 
    The final segment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, is largely a mess, ripe with an inane script and some terrible acting. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, apparently another ten years into the future. Mutant humans attack the ape village in as pathetic action sequence as you will likely ever see. John Huston appears as an orangutan and narrator, no doubt working for the paycheck. Mercifully, he regained his status as a fine actor in his next role as the dastardly Noah Cross in Chinatown.

    This one is directed by J. Lee Thompson, whose resume would suggest better. He also made the admirable Conquest. The best film to his credit is The Guns of Navarone, for which he received his only Oscar nomination. If one can believe Wikipedia, the studio had progressively reduced the budget for the series with each successive entry. Starting with $5.8 million for the first film, by the fifth it had fallen to just $1.7 million. It shows.    

    Claude Akins as the militant General Aldo in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
    The legacy DVD releases has a fascinating "making of" disc that accompany the films. It's remarkable how long it took producer Mort Abrahams to convince a studio to make the picture, and provides intesting background on the innovative makeup. You also get to see Edgar G. Robinson as an orangutan in a test.