As usual, there will be spoilers. Don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens. But that’s probably not what’s going to turn off most of my readers. No, the hard part is going to be persuading those who have no interest in yet another superhero movie that it’s worthwhile to spend more than two seconds thinking about one.

Well, who can say what is a worthy subject for discussion in the world of fiction? Or any world for that matter? But I’ll do my best to make the case for why it might be.

The film begins with an intro sequence showing a young Diana competing in a race on Paradise Island. Yeah, yeah; I know it’s called “Themyscira” now, but if “Paradise Island” was good enough for Lynda Carter in the 1970s, it’s good enough for me.

After this, there is another intro sequence that shows the grown-up Diana as Wonder Woman in (duh) 1984, foiling an attempted theft at a shopping mall. Yes, that’s right–there are two intro sequences, one after the other! One of the rules of writing that people throw around is to eschew prologues. I disagree with this, but I think avoiding two successive prologues is probably fair advice for filmmaking.

Anyway, then the story gets going: Diana Prince works at the Smithsonian, studying ancient artifacts. Another scientist, Dr. Barbara Minerva arrives, and the two begin studying a mysterious stone that the thieves from the second intro sequence had been attempting to steal.

Dr. Minerva is nervous, shy and awkward, and she admires Diana’s cool confidence. Diana, it seems to her, is the woman who has everything. But Diana does not, in fact, have everything. We see she is desperately lonely; still mourning her lover, Steve Trevor, who perished nobly in the first Wonder Woman movie.

Anyway, that stone that Diana and Dr. Minerva are studying is also sought by businessman Maxwell Lord, a charismatic TV personality whose gaudy lifestyle and brash persona masks the fact that his company is on the brink of financial collapse.

He wants the stone because, as legend has it, touching the stone and making a wish will grant the holder’s request. We quickly see several demonstrations of this–Minerva held the stone and wished to be like Diana, and immediately became more confident and charismatic. And Diana has touched the stone and unconsciously wished to have Steve back. And suddenly, he is somehow restored to life, inhabiting the body of some random guest at a party that Diana is attending. To Diana, he appears as her old flame from 1917, and the two waste no time picking up where they left off.

Meanwhile, Lord meets Dr. Minerva, plays upon her craving for attention, and wheedles his way into making her give him the stone. He then makes a wish to make himself the stone, taking on its power and allowing him to grant people’s wishes, in exchange for taking something from them.

Chaos ensues, as Lord amasses greater wealth and power for himself. People wish to fulfill their selfish desires, sacrificing in the process something of theirs that Lord wants.

Diana and Steve eventually realize, given the stone’s malevolent nature and origins, that it will lead to an apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Dr. Minerva also realizes this, but sees that attempting to thwart Lord and end the spell will mean she loses all the physical powers she gained since making her wish, and she is not going to let that happen. So she joins forces with Lord, who by this point has managed to secure the powers of the Presidency itself, and in the process pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Steve finally convinces Diana that she must renounce her wish, and allow him to return to being nothing but a bittersweet memory. Once she accepts this, Diana is strong enough to pursue Lord and Minerva to a remote military installation, where the former has taken over an experimental global broadcast network, allowing him to tempt the entire planet with his dark powers of wish-granting.

After a fight with Dr. Minerva, who has transformed into a half-human, half-cheetah hybrid, Diana is able to stop Lord. I apologize for being vague on this point, but I actually did not understand how she did it, except by somehow appealing to the whole world to renounce their wishes. Then, moved by concern for his son Alistair, Lord renounces his own wish, and the total annihilation of the Earth is narrowly averted.

If you played “Deus Ex” this will surely remind you of Bob Page.

I omitted some details here and there–this movie has a lot of filler. Not that it’s bad material exactly, but many scenes go on for longer than they need to. The opening 15 minutes, with its two cool-but-superfluous opening sequences, sets the tone. Wonder Woman 1984 is many things, but “spare” is not one of them.

The cinematography started off really nice. The second opening sequence, in particular, features a full range of vibrant colors, but by the end it was back to the now-standard Hollywood palette of orange and blue.

On the other hand, I liked all the performances. Gal Gadot is a great Wonder Woman, and as in the first film, her chemistry with Chris Pine make their scenes together the best ones in the movie. Pedro Pascal is excellent as the smarmy con man who nonetheless has a really sympathetic side to him. And Kristen Wiig does a fantastic job portraying the rather tragic arc of Dr. Minerva’s transformation from an awkward, introverted woman driven by her desire for acceptance and respect to become a vindictive sadist.

So, what did I think of the movie? Well, for one thing, more than once while watching it, I said to myself “Patty Jenkins is the female George Lucas.” Interpret that as you will.

But my dominant impression on seeing the film, which coalesced in my mind while the faux-1980s static-filled credits were still rolling, was “That was the perfect film for 2020.”

I don’t mean that it was a perfect film. I’m not sure if there is any such thing as a perfect film, but if there is, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t it. It’s frankly kind of a mess. How is Steve possessing the body of some random guy? Why did Diana and Steve steal a jet to fly to Egypt? How could Steve fly it? How did they get back? How did Dr. Minerva know Diana would be at the White House? Where was Alistair’s mother while her ex was becoming a famous megalomaniacal cult leader?

In the words of Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”

Of course, things don’t always make sense even in real life, but people will accept inexplicable things in real life more readily than they will in fiction. When something totally bizarre happens in real life, we say, “well, c’est la vie!” Whereas when it happens in fiction, we can’t help but feel that some writer somewhere is trying to cheat us.

Well, what we writers do is make up elaborate falsehoods. Speaking of falsehoods, this is a good place to begin with studying the themes in this movie. There are lot of lines in it about truth, such as Diana’s:

Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.

And during the final showdown with Lord, she says:

This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful. So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save this world.

Ah, yes–the wish. It’s the magic wish-granting stone that’s causing all this trouble, after all. And, we are informed, it was a creation of the god Dolos, later known as the Duke of Deception, a character who first appeared in Wonder Woman Issue #2 in 1942.

Yeah, that’s cool. But my thinking runs more towards the mythopoetic. When I hear about some notorious liar purporting to grant wishes, there’s only one thing I think of: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

All right, admittedly that’s Marlowe’s title, and when we think of Faust, we usually think of Goethe’s Faust. But it’s an old legend that predates them both and has survived them both. As Wikipedia says, “‘Faust’ and the adjective ‘Faustian’ imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.”

Basically, the magic stone is the Devil. It grants wishes, but the wishes are based on lies, and in the end they have a cost. Everyone is seduced by the tempting lies of the stone, even the wise and powerful Wonder Woman.

And everyone makes their wishes for the most noble-sounding reasons. Diana wants to have her lover back. Lord wants to build a better life for his son. Dr. Minerva wants to be treated with respect. Even minor characters, like the Emir who wants to secure his nation’s sovereignty or the President who wants to force the Russians to the negotiating table, have good reasons for wishing what they wish.

There’s some old saying about good intentions and roads… I can’t quite remember it, though…

I have a scale for evaluating superhero movies. At the top is Thor, which in my opinion is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be. It was directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who imbued it with all the dramatic power we might expect from a student of the Bard. It’s about an arrogant young nobleman, forced to prove himself worthy of his family’s throne.

At the other end of the scale is… Thor: The Dark World. It is some nonsense related to Dark Elves or some such folderol. Aside from a few funny lines, it’s pretty weak stuff. (Coincidentally, Patty Jenkins was originally supposed to direct it.)

Wonder Woman 1984 is closer to Thor than to The Dark World. It’s not just a lot of special effects and mindless banter. It has a strong thematic core to it, even if it sometimes makes no logical sense at all. You know, at the risk of offending Goethe’s rabid fanboys, Faust doesn’t make total sense either. But we’re still talking about it, aren’t we?

“Yes, Berthold, that’s all very well,” you say. “But you still haven’t explained why you think this was ‘the perfect movie for 2020.’ Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

I promise, we’re getting there. Like Wonder Woman 1984 itself, I like to take my time about these things. Feel free to go to the lobby for more popcorn while I’m padding out this exposition.

Ever since I heard of the title, I wondered why this movie was set in 1984. Was it some sort of Orwell reference? Or maybe it’s because we are approximately the same number of years removed from 1984 as the original 1970s Wonder Woman TV show was from its 1940s setting? Or just a blatant appeal to nostalgia?

Well, I’m sure the studio loved the nostalgia angle. There’s always a market for nostalgia. There’s only one thing that sells better than it. The fact that the time gap is the same as with World War II in the original series is probably just a coincidence–although I really like the film’s nods to that show. Don’t miss this fantastic trailer, done in the retro comic-book style of the TV show’s credits. Honestly, they should have incorporated that aesthetic into the movie.

That leaves Orwell. Is there any way in which this silly superhero movie ties together with the bleak vision of a totalitarian surveillance state imagined by a disillusioned 20th-century socialist?

Hmm… well, the villains don’t work for the Ministry of Love. There’s no mention of the Thought Police. In fact, the government is generally portrayed as hapless bystanders, from the police at the mall all the way up to the feeble and bewildered President. I’m not seeing any Orwell parallels. (Orwellels?)

But there is one thing… remember that Lord takes over a top-secret satellite communications network that allows him to reach the entire world at once with his seductive message. This does remind me a bit of the tele-screens in Orwell’s novel, and the constantly looming presence of Big Brother.

It’s also a complete anachronism. The idea of a worldwide network conveying a message to everyone across the globe at once was pretty far-fetched in 1984. At best, you could reach every TV and radio. It’s not like everyone had some portable device, all connected to the same network.

In 2020, of course, this is everyday reality. Moreover, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that it has in fact driven the world completely mad. And it has done this how? By tempting us with things that we want. Like, frankly, the ability to propound our eccentric theories about movies to people everywhere, for one thing.

The magic stone’s spell is only broken when Wonder Woman, having renounced her own wish, is able to convince others to give up theirs, and ultimately Lord recants to save his son. Diana’s and Steve’s love for one another, and Lord’s love for his son, are what ultimately overpower the stone.

Thematically, Wonder Woman 1984 exemplifies one of the most fundamental themes in all of literature: love conquers all. Yes, even a diabolical wish-fulfillment network that spans the globe and tempts people with fantasies of conquering death and defeating age. Accepting death and rejecting power are some of the oldest ideas in mythology.  Probably because these are some of the hardest things to do.

When I think about it in these terms, I want to say it’s a great movie. But it’s not. It is, as I said, kind of a mess. There are so many things that are bizarre and inexplicable. And above all, it’s way too long. All the same points applied to 2020 also.

Jane Got a Gun premiered on January 29, 2016. I had been looking forward to it since I learned of its existence, and with the film finally, finally hitting the big screen, of course I had to see it on opening day. It was a bright, unseasonably warm day for winter in Ohio, and I went to the nearby AMC for an afternoon show in a nearly-deserted theater.

I enjoyed the film from the start. It was not just good, it was surprisingly good. Then, at a certain point, about halfway through the film, the drama reached a critical point, and I can distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, no–I certainly hope they’re not going to…”

But hold up a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself, diving right in to the memories and not putting things in the right order. Like the film’s heroine Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) says at one point, “It’s hard to remember how things seemed… when you know how they actually turned out.”

Jane silhouette

***

The behind-the-scenes story of Jane Got a Gun begins in 2012, with a script by Brian Duffield, to be distributed by Relativity Media, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Natalie Portman. Michael Fassbender was cast in the role of Dan Frost, Jane’s former fiancé. However, Fassbender soon left the part, and was replaced by Joel Edgerton, who had originally been cast as the villain, John Bishop. Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were both briefly on board, before finally Ewan McGregor was cast as Bishop. In the middle of all this, Ramsay left the production less than amicably, causing more turmoil that was resolved in part thanks to the timely intercession of lawyer David Boies.

Ramsay was replaced by Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor, Edgerton and screenwriter Anthony Tambakis then re-wrote Duffield’s script, and filming finally took place in 2013. The filming itself seems to have gone smoothly–in the words of Edgerton, “We’re winning out there.”

Relativity Media had initially scheduled the film for a February 2015 release. But it was delayed, and Relativity filed for bankruptcy in mid-2015. Fortunately, there was another studio that had agreed to distribute the film, and the rights to Jane Got a Gun were released from Relativity and secured by the Weinstein Company, which scheduled the film for distribution.

The Paris premiere was scheduled for November 15, 2015, but was canceled due to the November 13 terrorist attacks. The film finally premiered in Germany in late December 2015, and in France and the United States in January 2016.

Of course, I can’t talk about a Weinstein Company film without also talking about the infamous film producer, who was then about a year away from being publicly disgraced. One of the many unsavory aspects of Harvey Weinstein’s personality that came to light after his downfall was that he would occasionally sabotage his own company’s films. I have no idea if anything like that happened with Jane Got a Gun, but the decision not to screen the film for critics can’t have helped its chances, and undoubtedly contributed to its poor showing at the box office.

It was a film dogged at every step by negativity, with only cursory promotional efforts, in a relatively unpopular genre, and hamstrung by a misleading title that makes it sound more like a fast-paced action picture than what it really is.

And after all that, it was gone as soon as it had come. It was only in theaters for about three weeks and grossed about $3 million against a $25 million budget.

As anyone who followed my blog at the time knows, I loved the movie. I wrote a glowing review. Two glowing reviews, actually, because I wrote about it again in more detail when it came out on home media. And owing, I suspect, to the scarcity of other reviews, these were some of my most-viewed posts ever.

Which speaks to the fact that a major reason it wasn’t more successful is that not many movie-goers ever knew it existed. And I’d argue that the reasons not many movie-goers knew it existed can tell us a lot about the movie business, the entertainment industry as a whole, and American culture generally.

That sounds like quite a leap, I know. (Or, as Dan Frost would say, a “very big jump, my friend.”) To begin with, let’s talk about why Jane Got a Gun is significant to me.

***

Jane
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman is probably my favorite actress, and part of the reason for that, as I’ve discussed before, is her willingness to experiment. She doesn’t let herself be typecast, but is willing to play all sorts of different roles in different kinds of movies. I respect this risk-taking. Portman films aren’t always good, but they are almost always interesting.

I also like movies that take place in remote, bleak desert settings, and the New Mexico landscapes of Jane Got a Gun are just gorgeous to my eye. While I could do without the washed-out lens filter, the sweeping vistas and extraordinary rock formations make the setting instantly compelling.

I went into Jane Got a Gun hoping to see Natalie Portman in a good old-fashioned western adventure, and as a bonus, see the always-entertaining Ewan McGregor as a villain I loved to hate. And I got all that–but the movie surprised me at the same time, even while delivering on all fronts. How is that possible?

Time for one of my Socratic movie quizzes: what’s Jane Got a Gun about?

Okay, since many of you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the cliffs-notes summary answer. It’s not the real answer, of course, but you know what I’m like. And anyway, a little plot synopsis will be handy to have as you read this.

Jane Got a Gun is about Jane Ballard, a woman who was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, escaped with the help of a man whom she married and built a new life with, only to find herself once again pursued by the gang, and forced to seek help from her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, whom she had until recently believed died in the Civil War.

Dan on Ridge
Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) gazes forlornly down from a ridge.

Ah, Dan Frost. He’s as good a place as any to start with where this movie surprised me. Previously, I knew Joel Edgerton as young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, where he has about two minutes of screen time and does nothing but stand around and hold a dirty rag.

After you watch Jane Got a Gun, it’s impossible to watch the scenes with Owen in Attack of the Clones the same way. In the scene from Star Wars, Portman and Edgerton are both unremarkable, standing vacantly with no lines or “stage business” to do. In Jane Got a Gun, every scene between the two is filled with tension–Edgerton can convey so much emotion with simply an expression, or a grunt, or a small gesture. And as Edgerton said of his co-star’s talents, “We’ve actually coined the phrase ‘The Portman’ to describe how she can say a line without saying a word, just with a look.”

This illustrates one way in which Jane Got a Gun runs contrary to modern sensibilities. Characters–especially the good characters–do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but for the most part behave with reserve and restraint. We only see Jane and Dan kiss in flashbacks–circumstances dictate they must keep their feelings controlled, and the few glimpses we see of their emotions bubbling close to the surface are moments of intense drama. Even as they prepare to fight for their lives, the couple is reminded constantly of their past.

One good example of this is the transition from Jane’s memory of a carefree afternoon with her fiancé back in Missouri to the grim present, as the sweaty, tired figure of her former lover takes a break from digging a defensive trench to check the vast desolation for any sign of the Bishop gang. Without a word being spoken, Portman’s face and the soundtrack convey the bittersweetness of remembering happier times.

Jane and Dan
Jane and Dan, in a flashback

***

I’ve lent my copy of Jane Got a Gun to a great many friends, at first just out of a sense of wanting to share something I enjoyed, and over time out of an interest in the different reactions they would have to it. Some of them have loved it as much as I do. Others thought it was just middling, still others have called it boring and bad.  One friend told me he thought it was dull, but that perhaps that was an intentional choice, to capture the slower pace of life in the 1870s. Another friend of mine, who generally hates any movie made after 1965, complained about the lens filter but said his wife called the character of Jane Ballard “just about perfect.”

I’ve seen the movie enough times that it gallops by, but at the same time I guess I can understand how some would find it slow… sort of. Well, maybe. No, not really.

Here’s the thing: if you’re used to loud, fast, big, action-packed spectacles of movies, then I guess this would seem slow. And yeah, the title does imply that’s what this film is going to be. A pulse-pounding Wild West shoot-’em-up with a female gunslinger, kind of like the 2006 film Bandidas. Maybe that’s the kind of movie Duffield’s script originally called for. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie. I like Bandidas.

But Jane Got a Gun isn’t that kind of movie. It’s mostly quiet, punctuated by a few moments of intense action. There are no over-the-top special effects or stunt-work. Because it’s not about the action scenes; not really. That’s why the title is so misleading. To say nothing of some of the posters…

(If you’ve ever wondered if people who make movie posters have to watch the movie beforehand, the answer is pretty clearly “no.”)

Jane Got a Gun is not about guns, even though there are guns in it. It’s not about Jane avenging the wrong that was done to her, although that does happen. It’s not about a frontierswoman proving herself just as adept a sharpshooter as the men, although that also happens.

Jane Got a Gun is actually about listening to other people.

***

I think 2016 will be remembered as a very significant year in history. I mean, every year is significant to a historian, since they are all part of a linked causal chain of events, but 2016 is going to be one of those dates that everyone will know, like 1776, 1865, 1939, and 1968.

2016 was the year when the American political system and the unending noise machine of modern communication combined to produce systemic shocks right to the heart of our centuries-old system of government. In 2016, all the fissures and divides across the nation were laid bare, and the repercussions are still being felt, and will be for decades; perhaps centuries to come.

2016 was the year that people shouting at each other through mass media finally, irrevocably, unforgettably, changed the landscape of American politics.

What does this have to do with Jane Got a Gun?

You know how sometimes you’ll hear about how a movie perfectly evokes the “mood” of a certain time? What pretentious critics, like me, call the “zeitgeist?” For example, how Taxi Driver supposedly captured the rebellious alienation of the 1970s.

Jane Got a Gun does the opposite of that. Jane Got a Gun is like if you captured the essential spirit of 2016, and then made something that was in every way the antithesis of it.

Jane and Dan’s relationship changes when they stop arguing and start listening. Dan’s relationship with Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond, changes when he stops making assumptions and listens to what Jane says about him. Even at the climax of the film, when Jane finally confronts John Bishop, she waits to hear what he says before bringing him to justice–and is rewarded for doing so.

It’s a quiet, old-fashioned movie, about the importance of understanding and reconciling with other people. There are villains, yes; but the real drama of Jane Got a Gun is in the relationship between Jane and Dan. It’s more of a romance than an action film, but a romance set against the backdrop of bleak and desolate frontier; a society being built in the shadow of a nation ravaged by war.

Bishop
John Bishop (Ewan McGregor)

It’s not a Civil War movie, but the recent war has clearly left its mark on the characters, in all sorts of ways, as when the aristocratic John Bishop (who clearly avoided serving on either side) jovially shows off his war souvenirs to Frost. He casually tells the former soldier, while regarding an officer’s pistol used at the battle of Shiloh: “Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ in Hebrew.” Frost, having become all too familiar with the horrors of war, grimly replies, “Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about Shiloh.”

Much of the film is about coming to terms with the after-effects of something horrible, whether it’s Jane overcoming what Bishop and his gang did to her, or Dan overcoming his suffering in a prison camp. And that’s why it’s set in the post-war West, when the country was struggling to build anew, after enduring trauma.

Jane Got a Gun is a film about healing. It’s hard to imagine a film more out of sync with the atmosphere of 2016.

***

In an interview promoting the film, Portman described it as “very American.” Indeed, I’d argue that Jane Got a Gun is possibly one of the most quintessentially American movies made since the turn of the century. It’s a Western, which is the stereotypically American genre. It’s about a pivotal period in the nation’s history–essentially, a re-founding period when the modern United States was being created.

And to quote from the production notes:

Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell-all bringing to new perspectives to the classic American Western.

Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”

Put all this together with the production difficulties, and you have a behind-the-scenes narrative that’s nearly as much of a romanticized vision of America as the classic Western genre itself. In my second blog post about the film, I wrote:

Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

There have been times when I think about these kinds of assertions and wonder, “Am I overstating this? Reading too much into it; seeing things that aren’t there?” I’ve been known to do that sometimes, so it’s certainly possible.

But then there’s this behind-the-scenes photo:

Jane Flag
Left to right: Edgerton, Portman and Tambakis. Source

***

Does Jane Got a Gun still matter? Maybe that’s the wrong question. With the exceptions of the people who made it and me, it’s not clear that Jane Got a Gun mattered much to anybody in January 2016.

Does it matter to anyone else now, five years later?

This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, ‘I’d argue that it does, because…’ or something of the sort. Certainly, it would be pretty rotten of me to lead you all the way down this particularly winding memory lane only to tell you no, it doesn’t matter.

But I can’t answer the question. It’s your call to make, dear reader; not mine. Pretentious critics–again, like me–think we can persuade people, that we can shape tastes, that we can, in some sense, tell people what to think of a film, or a book, or a painting. But we can’t. All we can really do is describe the complex, personal reactions that we have to art.

***

The really key scene in Jane Got a Gun; the one that I think is the emotional heart of it, is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, where for a moment, I was concerned the plot would go in a really stupid direction. It’s the scene where Jane walks out to Dan as he’s digging a defensive trench. Seeing him again has brought back a lot of memories for Jane, and she wants to try to smooth things over with him, on what could be their last day alive. So she says, “Why’d you change your mind to help me?”

Jane knows the answer, of course; and so does Dan: he loves her, even though he thinks she left him for another man, even though he’s probably going to die because of her–he loves her. But Dan is still furious at her, and besides which, she’s married. So he can’t say it, instead grumbling, “I dunno.”

This escalates to a tense discussion in which the two former lovers rehash their past, and all the choices that led them here, each one increasingly blaming the other, until finally Jane says, “You know what, Dan…”

I thought she was going to tell him to leave. I foresaw the most hackneyed Hollywood story imaginable: Jane tells him to get lost, Dan rides off in a huff, only to ride back in at the 11th hour and save the day.

But that didn’t happen. What happened instead is what sets Jane Got a Gun apart.

***

In an interview with Elle magazine in 2013–shortly after filming wrapped on Jane Got a GunPortman said:

The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.

One of the contemporary criticisms of Jane Got a Gun was exactly this–that Jane doesn’t single-handedly go in guns-blazing and wipe out Bishop and his gang. Jane Ballard isn’t a one-woman army, and if she were, the film would be worse for it. She fights back, but she does so in a way that makes her relatable.

She is, in other words, “a real person that we can empathize with.”

The film works, or doesn’t, to the extent that the audience is prepared to empathize with the characters. That might be true of most films, although I’d hesitate to say “all films”–there are some that pretty clearly rely solely on spectacle or nostalgia or fan service to sell themselves. That’s one reason Hollywood loves their sequels and franchises so much: it’s easier to expect audiences to continue following characters they already know.

Jane Got a Gun is a throwback to another era of filmmaking. That much is obvious just by virtue of it being a Western. Westerns used to be a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s, but have since become increasingly rare. It’s also a throwback in its self-contained nature. Even if it had been a financial success, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a “Jane Ballard” franchise.

It’s a good match for me, because I am a throwback to a different era of filmgoer. I follow movie stars more than franchises, much as audiences did at the height of classic cinema. I saw Jane Got a Gun because it had Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in it. (And after seeing it, I watched a bunch of Joel Edgerton films.)

I love the film for the cast’s expressive performances, that communicate so much in so few words. I love the haunting, melancholy soundtrack.  I love the vast, sprawling desert setting that is both harsh and beautiful. I love the tight, spare script, that takes us on a journey that is at times very dark, but ultimately uplifting. I’m not ashamed to say I think I could recite the entire film from memory, but I’ll end this retrospective by quoting just two more lines.

The first is the one that I’ve been teasing you with throughout this review. The one that encapsulates the film’s theme–the empathetic optimism that enables Jane to triumph over all the darkness in her life. The line she says after, “You know what, Dan…” The script might have gone any number of directions just then, and maybe in previous iterations, it did.

But what Jane says next is the insight that makes me come back to it again and again, that makes it a film so blatantly out of step with the cultural mood of its epoch, and so wonderfully timeless. After everything she’s suffered, all the misery she’s had to endure, Jane takes a deep breath to collect herself and says to her former lover:

You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.

To which, dear reader, I will append only these words, that Dan says to Bill Hammond at a particularly tense moment:

…and I want you to think about that with the shank of time that you’ve got left.

***

This is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies. It’s not a Hallmark or Lifetime movie, but it’s the same kind of thing. There’s an over-the-air channel that shows nothing but these kind of films during December. I can’t stand most of them; they tend to all hew closely to a formula that goes like this: the prince of some non-existent country meets a woman with a regular job, they fall in love, they have some sort of absurdly contrived misunderstanding and break up, and then they reconcile in the last five minutes.

Also, the writing tends to be dull, the acting usually isn’t anything special (sometimes the “villains,” like jealous sisters or whatnot, are good) and it’s just generally unmemorable.

Christmas Crush is different. The premise is that the protagonist, a young woman named Addie (Cindy Sampson), makes a wish after a friend tells her wishes can come true at Christmas. Addie wishes for her next-door neighbor to fall in love with her.

She’s thinking of the shy but charming Sam. (Robin Dunne.) But she doesn’t know that an old acquaintance of hers from school, Pete Larson, (Chris Violette) has just moved into the other apartment next to hers. And when her wish comes true, it’s Pete who falls in love with her, becoming obsessed, following her around, bringing her unwanted gifts, and even breaking up with his actual fiancée to propose to Addie. Naturally, all this ruins her attempts to go out with Sam, since from his perspective, Addie appears to have been simultaneously dating an engaged man.

Now, it’s true: a supernatural magical Christmas wish is an even more outlandish premise than the prince-traveling-incognito plot I complained about above. Princes at least actually do exist. But it’s the details that matter. This is a modern version of Victorian dramatist W.S. Gilbert’s classic “lozenge plot,” in which a magical device causes some sort of upheaval to the social order. He used this most famously in The Sorcerer, a comic opera in which a magical love potion causes everyone to fall in love with the wrong person.

Gilbert got his start writing pantomimes. These were entertainment staples of Victorian Christmas, and featured similar outlandish plot conceits. They featured stock characters and generally relied more on spectacle than writing to wow an audience, but there’s a clear line of descent from the craziness of Christmas pantomimes to Gilbert’s signature topsy-turvy satires. (And to be honest, it goes all the way back to Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival during which traditional social norms were temporarily suspended.)

What made Gilbert’s impossible supernatural devices work so well is that they were the only impossible element. Gilbert would create one bizarre, fantastic concept, and then have everything else proceed with perfect logic and consistency from there.

The same thing is going on here. Addie, Sam and Pete all behave logically and consistently given the one absurd premise. The characters’ personalities don’t change on a dime for the sake of the plot. The entire story is based on watching the hilarious consequences of Addie’s non-specific wish play out.

That’s the other thing about this movie: it’s funny. The script is snappy and clever. There’s an extended scene with Addie trying to talk to Pete’s ex-fiancée in a Christmas store that makes me laugh out loud. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances of the supporting cast: Konstantina Mantelos as Pete’s jilted fiancée is great, as is Erica Deutschman as Addie’s friend Drea. It was nice to see the two female leads working together as friends, instead of being rivals for the same guy.

There is also the character of Mr. Donner (I couldn’t find the actor’s name.) He is an important client of the firm Addie and Drea work for, and there is a subplot with them planning a Christmas event for him. There’s a running joke where someone will call it “the Donner party” and someone will quickly correct it to “the Donner event.”

Donner never speaks throughout the film. His performance is purely in his expressions. I loved this touch. Screenwriters take note: less can be more.

The film culminates with the Donner event, which includes an impromptu song by Pete in another over-the-top effort to woo Addie. Addie then gives a speech about the power of Christmas wishes. I won’t say more, even though it’s not really the kind of movie you can spoil. I mean, we all know what the ending will be.

And yes, I guess there is a last-five-minutes reconciliation with Addie and Sam, too. But again, it’s how it’s done that matters. Addie’s wish wasn’t to marry a prince, or a millionaire, or even to get married at all. She just wants to go on a date with a guy she likes.

This movie is fun. Everything about it is a cut above the usual Christmas TV movie fare. The writing is wittier, the acting is better, even the set design is more believable. Normally, people in these movies live in fabulous winter estates. But these characters just live in apartments, albeit very decorated ones.

It’s easy to make fun of feel-good holiday movies because most of them are bad. But you could say the same of most big budget Hollywood movies, actually. Most instances of every form of entertainment are fairly forgettable, to be honest. The fun is in finding the ones where the people who worked on it went the extra mile to make it good. Christmas Crush is one of those.

Note this should not be confused with the 2005 film of the same name starring Matthew McConaughey, or the 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart, or the 1995 remake of the same, or either of two Bollywood films.

Whew! That’s a lot of films named after the desert. But we are presently concerned with the one that stars Brooke Shields as a young heiress named Dale Gordon whose dying father asks her to race his custom sports car in the 1927 Trans-African Auto Race, composed of racers representing all the major European stereotypes–snooty French, goofy Brits, and of course, evil Germans.

But Dale has another problem: the stuffy upper-class twits who run the race won’t allow a woman to participate. So she disguises herself as a man right up to the starting gun. Not until she is safely off on the race does she remove her disguise.

Unfortunately, the desert which Dale has to cross is also the battlefield in a war between two Bedouin tribes. She and her two crewmen are kidnapped by a member of one tribe as she tries to take a shortcut, and dragged to his tent. She escapes from his clutches and wanders out into the desert, but is shortly recaptured.

One of the tribe leaders intends to force himself upon her, but he is stopped by his nephew, Sheikh Jafar, who is the leader of the tribe, I guess. It’s sort of unclear whether he or his uncle is really in charge. I guess Jafar is technically the boss, but he’s a young guy, and obviously he defers to his uncle’s wisdom and experience.

Uh, except… all his uncle wants to do is assault their new captive. Jafar is not okay with that, and so outmaneuvers his uncle by marrying Dale. However, she doesn’t want to marry him, and soon they are interrupted when an enemy tribe attacks the camp, using an armored car provided to them by the German racer.

Dale has sticks of dynamite in her car for some reason, and runs out in the middle of a machine-gun battle to place the sticks in the path of the enemy vehicle. This is miraculous enough, but she then runs back behind friendly lines, picks up a rifle and shoots the sand-colored sticks of dynamite, causing them to explode just as the car drives past!

If a script wants us to believe something like that, they need to establish that a character is an expert sharpshooter first. Even then, it’s a bit hard to believe. But I find it impossible to accept that someone could pick up a rifle they’d never fired before and make those kinds of shots.

Anyway, after fending off the attack, Dale has won the respect of the tribe, and she marries Jafar after all. Then, after a night of passion, she remembers that she came here to fulfill her dying father’s wish and win the stupid race, so she sneaks off to her car and drives off into the desert, accompanied by Cambridge, an Englishman and former member of the faculty at the university of the same name, who is now living among the Bedouin for some reason.

Things seem to be looking up, but then unfortunately Dale is once again kidnapped, this time by the chief of the other tribe.

Seriously? This is the third time in this movie that she gets kidnapped. This is lazy scriptwriting if ever I saw it.

Naturally, Jafar leads a party of war to raid the enemy village and get her back. After initially refusing, his uncle agrees to take his faction of the tribe along. Dale meanwhile fights back against her captors–she’s getting to be an old pro at fighting kidnappers–and so, as Jafar’s men attack them, the tribe decides to dispose of her, and obviously the most efficient way of doing that is to FEED HER TO THE LEOPARDS.

Yes, they have an execution pit, dug inside of a cave, with leopards in it. And there’s even a central sacrificial pillar and everything. Clearly, these desert nomads have not been wandering far if they have time to make an investment like this.

But Jafar arrives and rescues Dale from the leopard pit. His uncle perishes in the fighting, and I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for him?

So, Dale gets back into her car and rejoins the race. As fortune would have it, her shortcut was so much faster that even with all the delays, she’s back on track at the same time as the other drivers are closing in on the homestretch.

Naturally, it comes down to her vs. the evil German racer in a final dash for the finish line. It’s neck-and-neck when the German’s wheel pops off, and Dale pulls ahead.

Having fulfilled her father’s dying wish, Dale goes back to Jafar and rides off to live as his wife, thus ensuring that her entire plot arc is defined by men, lest anyone get concerned that she might be independent or something.

All right; I’m sorry. That’s awfully snarky, isn’t it? Look, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these plot elements–either the fulfilling her father’s dream, or the romance. It’s just… Dale doesn’t seem like a character. She seems like a plot device. Everything she does is reactive. It’s a little thing, but it would have been much more satisfying if Jafar had come to be with her at the end, rather than her going back to him.

Part of the issue, admittedly, is the acting. Brooke Shields “won” two Razzie awards for worst actress for this movie. Frankly, I think that’s a bit harsh. She’s actually decent in the first few scenes; it’s only once she gets to the desert that her performance starts to fall flat.

Brooke Shields is a good actress, and for the most part, the other performances are equally weak. (The exception is Sir John Mills as Cambridge.) So to me, that suggests this is on the director, Andrew McLaglen, more than the cast. Originally, Guy Hamilton, the director of several Bond flicks including Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, had been hired to direct. I suspect he would have been better. Hamilton’s sometimes campy humor, while in my opinion too over-the-top in the world of 007, would have been perfect for this movie.

Sahara sometimes seems almost like it’s going to be a comic adventure, but it never quite gets there. It’s missing something–that wink to the audience that great adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the 1999 edition of The Mummy have.

So, how did I hear about this movie, and why am I talking about it?

I saw the poster on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and had to check it out. And while it was in many respects not nearly as good as it could have been, it did have some gorgeous desert scenes. I just cannot get enough of these barren landscapes. Brooke Shields is no Peter O’Toole, and Andrew McLaglen was definitely no David Lean, but even so there are are some shots in this movie that evoked the sweeping sandy expanse of Lawrence of Arabia. (There was one shot in particular that I’m pretty sure was a deliberate homage to that great desert epic.) And the music is by Ennio Morricone, so you know it’s good.

I’m normally against re-making films. (See my review of Tank Girl.) But this is a rare film that could use a remake. As John Huston–who would have been another good choice to direct this script–once said, the films that should really be remade are not the hits, but the ones that fail. There’s a lot of potential in this movie, but so much of it was wasted.

Of course, a remake should probably have a different title, since as we have seen, “Sahara” is overused. It needs to be something pulpy–how about Dale Gordon and the Great Trans-African Auto Race? Then get Rian Johnson to direct and Gal Gadot to star. You’re welcome, Hollywood. This one’s free, but any more ideas will cost you.

My friend Patrick Prescott has recommended this movie many times. For further in-depth analysis of its themes, see his posts here and here.

Friendly Persuasion is about the Birdwells, a Quaker family living in Indiana in 1862. They are good people, though they each have their flaws. The father, Jess, (Gary Cooper) is a little too competitive when it comes to racing his friend to the meeting. The teenage daughter Mattie, (Phyllis Love) is a bit vain and boy-crazy. The youngest son, Little Jess, (Richard Eyer) is prone to anger as young boys often are, and the oldest son Joshua (Tony Perkins), too, can be tempted to fight.

And Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) the family matriarch, can if anything be a little too prim, as when she takes a hard line against her husband’s affinity for music. More about this in a moment.

In large part, it’s a family comedy-drama. The humor is not over-the-top, but in little things, as when Eliza denies to her children that she danced in her younger days–not really appropriate for a Quaker minister–but then unconsciously taps her hands and feet in time to the music when the family goes to a local fair. Or the way Jess tries to beat his friend in a race to meeting, while Eliza shoots disapproving looks at him. It makes the characters relatable. (I have friends who get much the same looks from their spouses when we get carried away talking about fantasy football.)

The film is based on a book, The Friendly Persuasion, by Jessamyn West, which is a series of vignettes from Quaker family life. It has the feel of being a loosely-connected series of episodes rather than a tightly-plotted tale. But that’s not a flaw. The Birdwells are a pleasant family to spend time with, and it’s always amusing when some element from an earlier episode comes back into play–as when some Quaker elders pay Jess and Eliza a visit while Mattie and her cavalry officer beau are playing music in the attic. (No, that’s not a euphemism!)

What I really like about this film is its portrayal of conflict, or more accurately conflict resolution. Even when it’s something as simple as Eliza and Jess’s dispute over his purchasing an organ–she says she won’t stay in the house as long as a musical instrument is there, and goes to sleep in the barn. Feeling abashed, Jess follows her out and spends the night with her, and they come to a compromise. Cooper and McGuire have great chemistry together–it’s an extremely romantic scene, and what’s more, it’s a very unusual kind of romantic. Most movie romances go for the easy stuff–the excitement of courtship and new love and so on. It’s much harder to portray a couple who have been married for a long time, been through thick and thin together, and still have an underlying affection. But that’s depicted very clearly here.

I really admire this. It would’ve been so easy to play it for cheap laughs by having Eliza seem like just a humorless goody-two-shoes, or Jess seem like just a sort of Quaker Ralph Kramden. But the script doesn’t take the easy path, and the actors play the roles with appropriate nuance.

The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who also co-wrote scripts for classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia–two of my favorite films. However, he didn’t receive screenwriting credit for these, or Friendly Persuasion, because he was blacklisted after he was accused of being a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

(After some digging, I found a transcript of Wilson’s testimony before HUAC. It’s here, and I strongly recommend reading it, because it helps put Friendly Persuasion in context. I also tried, without success, to find Wilson’s speech to the Writer’s Guild of America on receiving a lifetime achievement award in 1976. Based on the part quoted here, I suspect it’s interesting reading.)

At the end of the film, the civil war begins to impact the Quaker community, and the Birdwells eventually are forced to face challenges to their pacifist ideals. Joshua goes off to fight over the objections of his parents, and when a Confederate raiding party comes to their farm, each member of the family is confronted with a choice of whether to fight or hold to their beliefs.

And this is where the film becomes more than just a family drama and something else entirely. As Pat says in his review, the film implicitly makes the audience ask if they would be able to show the same restraint that the Birdwells do. The family is tempted, yes, and they stray from the path of perfect Quaker doctrine–but not nearly as much as most people would. Watching the film, thee can’t help but ask if thee could do what Eliza or Jess do–giving food to enemy soldiers ransacking thy land, or letting a man who had just killed thy friend go free.

I know what my answer is, and I suspect it’s most people’s answer–and that is why the Birdwells’ courage is of a very different sort than the heroes of other Hollywood period films. They don’t handle things the way John Wayne or Clint Eastwood characters would, that’s for sure. (Ironically, given Wilson’s blacklisting, the film would later be used by President Reagan as a symbolic gift to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to illustrate the need for peacefully resolving conflicts.)

Not many movies can make thee ask deep, uncomfortable questions about morality while also being highly entertaining. This film manages it, and all without ever being preachy or sanctimonious. It doesn’t tell thee what to think; it just introduces thee to some characters, and asks thee to put thyself in their shoes.

Now, there are a few technical gripes I can’t resist making. This movie is over 60 years old, and it shows its age in some respects. 1950s Hollywood production designers could never seem to resist using anachronistic makeup and hair styling, and a few of the clothes look like post-1900 materials. Also, although the film is set in Indiana, it’s very obviously shot in California. Maybe most people wouldn’t notice this, but to a native Midwesterner such as myself, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But these are just nit-picks, and shouldn’t for a moment deter thee from watching it. Better to have dated production values and a timeless theme than to have a sharp-looking piece that has no heart or wit. Friendly Persuasion is a forgotten gem. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it seems to have largely faded into obscurity. That’s too bad; because it’s a really charming movie. I’m very grateful to Pat for recommending it. If thee like classic movies, and want something a little different than a typical historical-war drama, I highly recommend it.

Also, there is something interesting about the way the characters talk. See if thee can figure out what it is. 😉

masque 1This film is based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t worry; it’s very short, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever written.

The film begins with an old woman gathering firewood in a bleak landscape when she encounters a strange figure clad entirely in red. And right away, we suspect there is something odd going on, because Edgar Allan’s story makes no mention of any peasant women gathering wood. 

The figure in red hands the woman a rose, and tells her to take it to her village and inform them that their day of deliverance is at hand.

She returns to the village, just as the wicked Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is arriving. The people of the village live in poverty as Prospero reigns over them. Two of the village men, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), stand up to Prospero, and he is on the point of having them executed when Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads for clemency. Just then they are interrupted by a scream, and Prospero and his guards find the old woman who brought the prophecy of deliverance has died of the plague known as the Red Death. Prospero leaves the village, orders his men to burn it down, and takes Ludovico, Gino and Francesca as his prisoners.

Masque 2

Again, I can’t stress this enough: so far, almost none of this has any relationship to Poe’s story. We have a guy named Prospero and a thing called the Red Death, but otherwise it might as well be a different story.

Could it be because Poe’s story is 14 paragraphs long and takes about ten minutes to read? Maybe it’s not ideally suited for a 90-minute film? Well, as we’ll see, the writers came up with, um, creative ways of dealing with this problem. 

Come to think of it, Poe’s story didn’t mention any naked women in bathtubs either, but that’s what we get next: Francesca is taken to the chambers of Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court) and stripped not only of her peasant garb, but of the cross which she wears around her neck. Prospero orders her to remove this symbol of a “dead god.”

Prospero and Juliana are in the habit of holding orgiastic Court balls, at which Prospero orders the guests to abase themselves in various ways, such as imitating animals–he commands a man to crawl like a worm and woman to walk on her hands and knees in imitation of a donkey. He is a hedonistic, cruel, and in the very worst sense, decadent man.

He is also a Satanist, as we discover through his conversations with Francesca. And a weirdly pragmatic Satanist at that. The world is cruel, he reasons, and so there can be no God of Love, as described in the Christian tradition. But his conception of the deity is not as a God of Hate, but rather one of “reality.” The world is full of evil, and thus must be ruled by evil, according to Prospero’s thinking. As he explains:

“The world lives in pain and despair, but is at least kept alive by a few dedicated men. If we lost our power, chaos would engulf everything.”

This is the best Vincent Price performance I’ve ever seen, precisely because he’s so calm, so almost rational, in the way he explains his malignant philosophy. With Price, there was always a hint of a wink to the audience that he knew this whole thing was a bit silly anyway. That element is still here in his performance as Prospero, but instead of seeming like a trait of the actor, it seems like one of the character. It’s as if, as he lives out his nihilistic beliefs, he’s come to see it all as a meaningless joke. Which makes him all the more terrifying. And here we do at last see some overlap with Poe’s story, wherein he writes of “the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests.”

Speaking of jests, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the fact that there is a sub-plot running through this film that’s based on another Poe story, Hop-Frog. There’s a jester called Hop-Toad who seeks revenge against one of the other royals at Prospero’s court. It’s a weird story that doesn’t add a lot, although it’s not wholly out of step with the rest of the piece. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s just weird. But then, this is weird fiction, right?

Anyway, Juliana has grown jealous of the attention Prospero is giving Francesca and so she…

Actually, wait. First, let me give you more background on Juliana. She’s already asked to join Prospero’s cult. She’s been engaging in various Satanic rituals with him, including branding herself with an inverted cross. So, what do you think she does to Francesca?

That’s right! She gives her the key to the dungeon where Gino and Ludovico are being held and tells her the outer guard has been bribed so they can escape. They flee from the dungeons, Gino and Ludovico stabbing a few guards as they go. They reach the castle exterior, but are met there by Prospero.

Francesca’s first thought is “Juliana betrayed us,” which is what I assumed too, but then Prospero snarls that Juliana betrayed him. To me, this says that Juliana really was trying to help. And I have to ask… why? It seems rather out of character. Seems to me Juliana would have been more likely to arrange some unfortunate accident for Francesca.

This is the midpoint of the movie. The three good characters are recaptured, seemingly with no hope for escape. Prince Prospero is devising more cruel tortures for them, while preparing for his grand masquerade ball. So, naturally I’m going to pause to talk about dramatic tropes.

In many ways, this movie is just a classic Gothic melodrama, of the sort that had been a cliché for over a century: the evil nobleman kidnaps the innocent maiden and must be stopped by the brave hero. This is such a well-worn trope that it practically exists only as a parody of itself. W.S. Gilbert was making fun of how silly it was about 90 years before this film was made.

Poe’s story, on the other hand, is not at all a stock melodrama. It has no heroes. It has no virginal maidens. It barely even has a plot. It has instead a series of strange and expertly-rendered scenes, which vividly impress themselves upon the mind of the reader, creating an uncanny mood of despair. I very rarely go in for symbolist interpretations of fiction, but here? The colors of the different rooms in the Prince’s castle, the chiming of the great clock of ebony, the Red Death itself–all point to a story being told on a level beyond rationality and firmly in the realm of allegory.

It’s pretty normal for film adaptations to make a story much more formulaic than the book it’s based on. Often, there’s not as much time for all the details and nuances of a book in a film. In this case, it’s probably more to do with the fact that audiences expect a typical three-act structure with recognizable heroes and villains. A truly faithful adaptation of Poe’s story would be a weird art film that no one would understand. Studio execs would never give funding for that. They want a film with good guys and bad guys and blood and near-naked ladies and sword fights!

But here is where it gets interesting. A typical story would just be adapted into the formula and everything that made it different or interesting would stripped out. The result is a film that’s dull and predictable. Not quite with Masque of the Red Death though. This one is so weird that it actually resisted the formula and stayed weird anyway. In fact, it might be even weirder because of this strange mashup of Gothic tropes, the eerie imagery of Poe’s original story, and a dash of psychedelic 1960s Satanism thrown in.

For an example of the last, I give you the scene in which Juliana pledges herself to The Evil One. She takes a drink of something, and then has a hallucination where she is strapped to an altar while bizarre demonic figures dance around her and make thrusting and stabbing motions at her while she writhes in terror. Gosh, I wonder if this was meant to symbolize anything? (Rosemary’s Baby was made four years later, in case you were wondering. The 1960s was a good decade for the Prince of Darkness’s cinematic career.)

After this vision ends, she considers herself betrothed to the Devil. And then for some reason she gets pecked to death by a falcon of Prospero’s that hangs around the giant clock. The guests are horrified on discovering her body, but Prospero only smirks, “Celebrate for Juliana–she’s just married a friend of mine.”

Some readers may be aware that I don’t enjoy fiction that depicts violence against women, and it’s a testament to just how cheesy the special effects here are that I was able to watch this. The hallucination scene is creepy but vague enough I could handle it. The bird attack is simply ridiculous.

In the meantime, Prospero has devised a challenge of poisoned daggers for Gino and Ludovico, since they refuse to fight one another to the death. The challenge results in Ludovico’s death and Prospero bizarrely letting Gino flee into the countryside, on the assumption that he too will be killed by the Red Death raging outside the castle walls.

In the desolate forest, Gino meets the Red-robed figure from the opening scene, who gives him a Tarot card. He then goes on to find the few survivors of the plague-riddled village making their way to Prospero’s castle to seek sanctuary. Care to guess how that works out for them? Put it this way: at the end of it, all of them are executed by Prospero’s crossbowmen except for one child, who is left to wander outside the walls.

And now at last Prospero’s masquerade begins. The Prince himself appears to be dressed as Omar Sharif’s character from Lawrence of Arabia. Who wore it better?

There is only one rule at the Prince’s debauched orgy: no one is to wear red. Anything else goes, including Hop-Toad setting one of the guests on fire. Like the man said, “to whom life and death are equally jests…”

Gino has managed to scale the walls of the castle, where he again meets the figure in red, who tells him to wait outside, and he will send Francesca out to him. This has to be a moment of mixed emotions for Gino–here he was, all set to be the hero of the piece, and he gets told to stand and wait by some mysterious apparition. We don’t see him again for the rest of the film. This is what I mean about Poe’s weirdness beating the formula.

When Prospero sees the figure in red moving among the revelers, he pursues him through the colored rooms, until at last reaching the black room, where he bows before the figure, believing him to be Satan himself. The red figure declares it is time for a new dance to begin–a “dance of death.” At which point, all the guests die of the Red Death, but continue to dance.

The Red figure sends Francesca outside, and then tells Prospero that he is not Satan, nor a servant of his, for “Death has no master.” Further, “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell,” he tells Prospero, who then demands the figure unmask, revealing the face underneath the hood to be Prospero’s own, only covered with blood. In terror, the prince tries to flee, but is blocked by the bloody corpses of his guests and finally crumbles into death near his own black Satanist altar, at the hand of the Red figure.

The final scene is an epilogue of sorts, revealing the Red figure again in the desolate forest from the beginning of the film, playing with the young child abandoned outside the castle. More robed figures in different colors appear, each telling of how many they have claimed that night. The red figure pronounces that only six remain alive in his territory: the child, Francesca and Gino, Hop-Toad and his lover, and an old man. “Sic transit gloria Mundi,” the figure murmurs, and then they file off in a funereal procession, and the credits roll.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Poe’s story is an allegory for the inevitability of death. The Masque of the Red Death is frequently used in high schools to teach how allegory works because it’s such a slam-dunk; you can’t miss it.

But is that also the theme of the movie? I’m not sure. Moreover, I don’t think the people who made the movie were sure.

There are a lot of mixed messages in this movie. Francesca, Ludovico and Gino are pious and devoted Christians–except, as Prospero points out, Ludovico and Gino both kill guards in their attempt to escape, which by their own religion is a sin. Shouldn’t they have been willing to be martyred instead, like the early Christians executed in the Roman arena? And Francesca ultimately is willing to pledge herself to Prospero, if he will spare Gino’s life. Is this not a betrayal of her faith?

Maybe not. After all, Gino and Francesca are spared the Red Death, and Ludovico dies a noble death confronting Prospero. But why are they spared? Is it really due to their faith or the quality of their character? The hooded spirits at the end don’t seem to be passing moral judgments. They’re just killing some people and sparing others; and their reasons for doing so are ambiguous.

And then of course, there are all of Prospero’s carefully-crafted arguments for Satanism that go strangely unanswered. Like:

Prospero: If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.

Prospero: Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.

I am the furthest thing from a religious scholar, to be clear. And yet, I think even I know the proper Christian response to this, which is that the Kingdom of God is separate from the material world, and the virtues of Christianity are rewarded in the next world, not in this one. But Francesca doesn’t say that. She just says she has no learning and thus can’t answer the prince’s arguments. 

It’s a longstanding tradition in fiction that the villains always get the best lines, but Prospero gets to make the case for his literally hellish philosophy, and nobody ever rebuts it. You might think the avatar of the Red Death itself would, but it doesn’t. It seems to be, as another highly-questionable philosopher would say, “beyond good and evil.”

Thematically, the movie just can’t make up its mind as to whether it’s supposed to be a traditional morality play or a morally nihilistic grotesquerie. You think it’s going one way, and then it goes the other. It’s… weird. 

This is a good adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in spite of itself. Even for all the melodrama, the pointless Hop-Toad sub-plot, the hammy acting, and the special effects that aged quite poorly, it still leaves you with that feeling of uncanny, despairing fear that Poe’s story gives you. You feel like you’ve walked right to the edge of some sketchy borderland between stock melodrama and something else that is quite unusual, rather interesting, and very unsettling. Going back would be boring, going much further would be terrifying. 

SHUnlike the cartoon I reviewed in last week’s post, this isn’t a simple adaptation of the Washington Irving story. It’s a “reboot” (although I don’t think that term was used in that sense in 1999) directed by Tim Burton, the go-to director for weird horror-comedies. 

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now not a school teacher, but a police detective, investigating a series of murders committed in the town of Sleepy Hollow, supposedly by the Horseman. Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) is just a mook who gets killed off early on. Katrina (Christina Ricci) is still a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but she also becomes Ichabod’s sidekick in solving the “mystery.” 

Okay, I put mystery in quotes because there’s some tangled conspiracy where, for some reason, Katrina’s stepmother Mary (Miranda Richardson) has summoned the ghost of the Hessian soldier to avenge her family and also kill off a bunch of people relating to some land dispute among the families of the region.

And this is where I have to stop the review and say that if you’ve written a story about people who have summoned demonic ghosts from Hell in order to win some petty Hatfields-and-McCoys feud over who owns a piece of land, you should stop and think very carefully over whether this makes any sense whatsoever. The Headless Horseman is supposed to be the spirit of a soldier seeking revenge for his death in a strange and foreign country, to which he most likely was sent against his will.  He is not some hired gun to be enlisted for the purpose of settling real estate disputes.

This cheapens the Horseman irrevocably, and turns him into nothing more than a Final Boss that Johnny Depp must defeat by finding the right McGuffin. Not good, not good at all. The Headless Horseman is literally a part of the haunted, bewitching landscape of the glen, with its dreamy atmosphere and pervasive sense of history. He must be treated as such; not as something which can be controlled or seduced—no, not even by you, Miranda Richardson!

MR SH

You’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t like this movie, and you’re right. I wanted to like it. It’s creepy; it’s got a macabre sense of humor, and it has a great cast. I’m not a huge Depp fan, but look at some of the supporting players! Besides Richardson, you’ve got:

-Christopher Walken is the Horseman. Walken is a great actor to play villains and a famed cinematic weirdo. His performance is fine, but the Headless Horseman is not a villain! He’s a spirit! A dream! An embodiment of the unknowable and mysterious rift in the fabric of time and reality itself that seems to exist in the haunted region! Not bloody Max Zorin!

As if that weren’t enough, we also have not one, not two, but three Sith Lords:

-Ray Park is the Horseman during action/stunt sequences. He’s most famous as the guy who played Darth Maul and participated in one of the best cinematic duel sequences ever. His talents are used to minimal effect here.

-The late, great Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster. I forget what he does or why he’s there or what a Burgomaster is. (Maybe it’s what you do before you become a Count, since this was shortly before he appeared as Count Dooku in Star Wars. ) This is indicative of the problem with this film: you have Christopher Lee, legendary melodramatic villain, veteran of Hammer horror, contemporary of Vincent Price, and you waste him in a throwaway role. 

-Ian McDiarmid as the town doctor. “Hey, let’s get the man who played evil emperor Palpatine, the iconic arch-villain in the most famous film series of our time, and have him do absolutely nothing in a bit part!”

I hate it when talent gets wasted, and this movie is like a monument to wasting talent. There are so many good elements here that could have worked, but they didn’t because they weren’t used correctly. It’s supposed to be a ghost story, but the ghost isn’t scary when you know he’s just a goon who can be employed as mafia-style muscle. What we’re left with is a bunch of grisly murders committed for vague and emotionally-uninteresting reasons. 

Oh, one more thing—because let’s face it, I’ve got to get on my hobby horse—this film is a forerunner of the now abominably-common practice of making all movies set in the past in hideously washed-out shades of blue-grey. Look at this:

Sleepy Hollow 1999 washed out2

Ugh.

Well, that’s all for now. Remember this image though for next week, when we conclude the series, hopefully on a better note.

sleepy hollowDidn’t I warn you I’d talk more about the adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” Well, here we go with the first full sound film adaptation of the famous tale. (There was a silent film in 1922.)

Now, admittedly, it’s an animated film. 

And it’s a musical.

And it’s by Disney.

And, for some unfathomable reason, it was originally shown as a double-feature with an animated adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. I have no idea why. Maybe Disney was planning to create a horror anthology and do a musical animated version of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, and got mixed-up. But probably not. Although that would have been much cooler.

Fortunately, it’s possible to get this film as a stand-alone piece, usually with its proper title, Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I won’t bother to re-hash the plot here; I covered that in last week’s post. The basic plot is more or less faithful to the book, though with the predictable Disney caricature-ization. 

Ichabod is portrayed as a scrawny glutton. This is in keeping with how he’s described in the story, but it really looks weird on the screen: he’s always eating, and yet he’s comically thin. It seems incongruous, but maybe that was the point. Brom Bones is basically spot-on; I have no issues with him. And then we have Katrina, who I don’t think ever actually speaks or sings in the film, while Bing Crosby sings for both Ichabod and Brom Bones. The big show-stopping number is Brom’s recounting of the horseman legend set to music.

When Ichabod finally meets the Horseman, he is everything you could ask for:

Iceraichabodmrtoad5626

Note, however, that he carries a jack-o’-lantern from the start, rather than his decapitated head. I guess Disney didn’t want to traumatize kids too much, which is why the final dash for the bridge in which the ghostly rider pursues Ichabod is played more for slapstick comedy than horror. Not good. On the other hand, the film seems to emphasize the supernatural nature of the horseman, and downplays Brom Bones’ involvement.

Bing Crosby’s narration is appropriately spooky, especially the shudder in his voice as he says “I’m getting out of here!” at the end.

I remember watching this cartoon on VHS when I was a kid. My mom got it for me one Halloween, and I must have seen it a hundred times. I had a toy riding horse that I would sit on and pull my sweater up over my head and wave a sword while the climactic chase scene played out. I figured it looked pretty terrifying, and it’s true that this cartoon is aimed at an audience young enough to believe that, but it’s still a fun story, and while the characters may be drawn in a goofy, Disneyfied style, the backgrounds are actually pretty gorgeous.

All in all, a decent adaptation. There certainly could be much worse… as we’ll see next week.

220px-Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterNote that it’s Color out of Space, not The Color out of Space. The H.P. Lovecraft story it’s based on includes the definite article. (Also, Lovecraft used the spelling “colour.”) I’m not sure why they changed it.

Before I talk about this movie, I’d better briefly discuss that Lovecraft story. The plot is this: a meteorite crashes on the property of a New England farmer, and soon, the vegetation and animal life begins to mutate, and the farmer and his family begin to suffer mentally and physically. The culprit is clearly the strange color seeping from the meteor–a color like none ever seen on earth. As Lovecraft’s narrator puts it:

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all. Its texture was glossy, and upon tapping it appeared to promise both brittleness and hollowness.

Eventually, as is often the way in Lovecraft stories, the farmer and his family go mad and die. Witnesses describe seeing the mysterious color shooting into the sky, and the farm is reduced to ashen desolation.

Lovecraft considered the story one of his best. Personally, I think it’s pretty mediocre. It’s a cool idea–imagine, a color no one has ever seen!–but as a story, it’s kind of plodding. The farmer goes out one day and the chickens have mutated. Then the next day, the cows have mutated. Then the next day his son starts feeling ill. And so on. Each time, people wonder, could it possibly have anything to do with that weird meteorite? (Answer: duh.)

Lovecraft wrote the story in 1927, and the framing device is that it’s being told to our narrator by an old man who is one of the few who still remembers the bizarre event, which began in 1882.

The film adaptation places the setting in the present-day. It’s still a remote New England farm, but they have smartphones and internet connections and TV. Also, the family is given a pointless backstory. The mother is a cancer survivor. The eldest son is a pot-smoker. Oddest of all, the daughter is Wiccan, which makes it feel vaguely as if the film is trying to make some sort of moralizing commentary, although it’s not very coherent if it is.

Whenever people adapt Lovecraft stories, they try to flesh out the characters. And unless you’re Audrey Driscoll, that’s usually a bad idea. Lovecraft sort of, um, hated people, so his characters are generally little more than cardboard cut-outs. By his own admission, he didn’t care about human interest elements. I get that this goes against normal screenwriting advice, which is to make people relate to the characters, but it’s better to stick with the flimsy sketches Lovecraft used than to do what this film does: try to make them interesting by giving them random quirks and eccentricities. This made them seem like a bunch of oddballs even before the meteorite strike.

The bigger problem here, though, is the modern setting. In 1882, if a meteorite hit and began to poison the groundwater, you can imagine that the rustics wouldn’t immediately connect the two things. Likewise, you can see that if a malignant extraterrestrial entity began devouring everything on your property, you’d have fewer options for escaping. Even riding into Arkham would mean a long ride on treacherous roads.

In the present-day setting, none of this applies. The film tries to convince us that these people are super-isolated, and that somehow nobody believes this meteorite is worth looking into, and that everybody is so stupid they crowd around the meteor crash site right near the well, and don’t think that maybe that’s a concern, even after they know there is something wrong with the water.

This is two strikes against the movie, but these issues could be overcome. Otherwise, it plays out more or less like Lovecraft’s story: gnawing dread, weird mutations, unfathomable eldritch abominations from unlighted realms in infinite blackness, blah blah blah. The family gradually dies horribly, the farm is reduced to ash, and only our narrator, the surveyor Ward Phillips, is left to tell the tale of the horror from the stars that he witnessed.

But there’s another problem here. The first two strikes were understandable. But now we’re really down to the very core of the issue.

Lovecraft wrote a short story that asks the reader to imagine a color no one has ever seen. Now, that is, of course, impossible. We literally can’t think in those terms. We know the colors that we can see, and imagining another can’t be done. It’s a brain-teaser; trying to think a thought that’s literally unthinkable. It’s not enough to sustain an entire story, in my opinion, but it’s a neat concept.

Do you see the problem now?

This movie ought to have been called The Magenta Lens Filter That Killed Everyone. That’s what happens. We get a bunch of weird hallucinogenic magenta effects, hideous mutants bathed in magenta light, and then eventually it all ends in a magenta-colored explosion of static.

I’m sorry, but that’s not effective. It’s nothing against magenta; any other color would have been just as ineffective. Because it wouldn’t have been a new color. It couldn’t be.

Of all Lovecraft’s stories, this is the one that is by far the least-suited to being adapted for the screen. The idea of a new color is the only thing driving it. Take away that mind-bending premise, and you’re left with a story about some people gradually dying of radiation poisoning.

What really irritates me is that this movie so badly wants to be a film like Annihilation, a 2018 science-fiction/horror film also premised around the concept of a meteorite causing sinister mutations.

The thing is, Annihilation had explanations for why its characters behave the way they do. The main characters are a team of military scientists entering the poisoned zone created by the meteor. First and foremost, they’re doing it because they’re trying to understand the bizarre phenomenon that’s occurring, and second they each have personal psychological reasons for wanting to find answers. They all have solid justifications for being there, and not just running away screaming, which would be most people’s logical reaction.

The plot of Annihilation is structured as a journey. It’s always reminded me a bit of the Fisher King from Arthurian legend, complete with a protagonist who must journey into the dangerous unknown on a quest to heal both themselves as well as the sick land around them. It has an arc to it.

Color out of Space has no arc, no structure. It’s just a lot of weird special effects that gradually get more grotesque. (For the record, Annihilation‘s alien-mutant color palette was also more creative.) There’s no development. Which, to be fair, is also true of Lovecraft’s story, but again, he at least had an interesting idea at the core of it. The film doesn’t.

This film is the first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations planned by director Richard Stanley. The next one in the works is The Dunwich Horror. 

Well, hopefully that film will at least be better than the dreadful 1970s version. But Dunwich is another odd choice for an adaptation. In many ways it’s similar to The Colour out of Space–remote New England farmers troubled by blasphemous creatures from the depths of space unimaginable. Yawn.

Why don’t they adapt one of Lovecraft’s good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Haunter of the Dark”? “Nyarlathotep” and “The Hound” are creepy, unique, and evocative–good candidates for cinema. Or just throw a pastiche of Lovecraft ideas together and call it Azathoth. Any of those would be better than this.

Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.

TIME
It’s not the most significant thing Time magazine ever got wrong, but this cover didn’t age well.

I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.

On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does.  I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.

One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.

Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.

For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.

George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire. 

In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon. 

The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.

Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.

Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actual grandparents?

In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.

The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force. 

To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films. 

But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.

Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.

I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.

But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.

Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.)  He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:

“Ye Gods, it doth amaze me

A man of such a feeble temper should

So get the start of the majestic world

And bear the palm alone.” 

And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.

I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.

But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:

Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.

Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)

As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:

“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”

It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:

“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”

The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.

This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile. 

By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.

Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.  

Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.

But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions. 

And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:

 “[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”

I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.

How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.