I watched about 2/3 of the 1957 movie The Pride and the Passion on TV yesterday. (I missed the middle of it.) It’s a good example of something I meant to make more clear in this post; to wit, that some of the old epic movies were not really very good. It’s easy to romanticize the old era as nothing but great epics, but there were a lot of bad ones as well.
The film is set during the Napoleonic wars. Cary Grant plays a British officer, who is helping some Spanish guerrilla fighters transport a giant cannon to attack a French fort. The main guerrilla leaders are played by Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. A solid cast on paper, but Sinatra is awful. According to the Wikipedia page, he really had no interest in the film. There’s some chemistry between Grant and Loren, for good reasons, but her acting is otherwise quite wooden. Grant does a good job, but his character is weak.
Pride and Passion is a very dull and stiff movie, with lots of scenes of a huge mob of extras wandering through the barren countryside, dragging the huge gun. These scenes are punctuated by scenes of them having to hide themselves and the giant siege gun from French soldiers, and of course for Loren to do things like perform Spanish dances or bathe in the river while Sinatra and Grant quarrel with each other.
The movie made a lot of gross revenue, but it still lost money because the cost was so high. And that’s the crux of it: epic war movies are like Massively Multiplayer Online games: they can’t just do well–they have to be wild successes that make record-breaking amounts of money.
Despite the fact that I like history and I like movies, I don’t think a lot about about the history of the movie industry. But I was reading the other day about the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, which I’d never even heard of, but sounds very interesting, as it has a very strong cast. (Too bad Edward Gibbon didn’t get screenwriting credit.)
The film was a fairly bad box office failure, reminding me of another epic historical film that famously lost money: Cleopatra, which I blogged about here. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to see Cleopatra; it was just that it was so expensive it couldn’t make back its massive cost.
It seems like “epic” movies were big in the 1960s, until they ran into bombs like Cleopatra, at which point the industry turned towards smaller, more “personal” movies, until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came along and turned things back toward the epic scale.
I think “epic” movies–think movies with ornate sets and large crowds–became prohibitively expensive to make, so they turned away from them in the ’70s. Then the advent of CGI made it possible for the genre to be resurrected. Look at the Wikipedia article on historical epic films, and take note of the dates:
Now, the “new” epics are not as really the same as the “old” epics–it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how, but there is a feeling of unreality about the new CGI based movies. They lack “grittiness”–a term normally associated with the non-epics made in the 1970s, but which applies to the macro scale as well.
It can be done–one reason I think theStar Wars prequels are better than people give them credit for is that they do a better job emulating the “feel” of the bygone epic films than most other modern epics do. George Lucas may be over-reliant on CGI, and he may have done more than anyone else to usher in the era of cheap epics, but he himself knows what he’s doing when it comes to CGI effects. This could just be because Lucas (and Spielberg) are old enough to remember the era of the original epic movie era, and so can understand them enough to imitate them expertly.
But now that CGI is so prevalent, and makes epics so easy (relatively speaking) it makes all epics too overdone, too focused upon spectacle, and loses the deeper meaning. I believe that some historians feel the same thing happened to cause the decline of Rome. “Bread and circuses” indeed…
I touched on this with my last post about the movie Rudy: it can be fun to come up with alternative interpretations of movies that the directors and writers didn’t think of. With Rudy, I was saying that I found the hero character’s fixation on football to be an unhealthy obsession, rather than the inspirational determination it is presented as being.
Some movies have much more elaborate alternative interpretations. Take the Star Wars movies for example: most people assumed that the Empire is evil just because the opening crawl said so. But, in Phantom Menace, it’s pretty clear that what Palpatine says about the Old Republic being “mired” by “bureaucrats” is true. They can’t even get it together to go do something when one of their planets gets invaded and occupied. If nothing else, the Empire runs a more efficient operation.
This does not even take into account the Jedi, who claim to be good–although the only people who really seem to feel this way are the Jedi themselves–but who are shown to brainwash people from a young age to indoctrinate them into their cult. They say the Sith are evil, but in the movies, at least, the Sith wait until you’re an adult before asking you to join. Count Dooku was a former Jedi and an aristocrat of some sort before he opted to try his hand at Sith Lording in his retirement.
Also, of course, there’s the fact that everything the Jedi do turns out to be an abysmal failure. The Sith are clearly the only ones capable of creating a plan and seeing it through to the end in that galaxy. Even at the end, in Return of the Jedi, all the Jedi stuff Luke had been taught goes by the boards, and the Emperor is overthrown not by him, but by the actions of a renegade Sith.
George Lucas probably didn’t intend any of these interpretations (and the “Expanded Universe” contradicts a lot of them), but I think the movies can definitely be viewed that way. Personally, I think it makes more sense in some ways.
Or take Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. It was controversial for its promotion of conspiracy theories. I have a different take on it: I think Kevin Costner’s character is an unreliable narrator (he’s not really the narrator, but the film is very much from his perspective) who has this weird obsession with conspiracies. Donald Sutherland’s character “X” is a figment of his imagination, whom he created to fulfill his dreams of uncovering a massive plot. Try watching JFK and then A Beautiful Mind and see if you don’t agree.
This movie really surprised me. It was made in 1948, around the time of what is called the “Second Red Scare“, when concern about communist infiltration was very high. Given that, the content of the movie is astounding.
Fred Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are unemployed guys looking for work. They convince an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) to help them on an expedition for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. The first remarkable thing about the movie is a speech given by Howard in his first scene:
Howard: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Flophouse Bum: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
Flophouse Bum: I never thought of it just like that.
Howard: Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.
What’s so remarkable about that, you wonder? Well, what Howard is describing there is what is known as a Labor Theory of Value–the value of something is determined by the labor put forth to get it. This is an economic idea that is commonly associated with a fellow named Karl Marx. And it’s a response to the claim that gold’s value derives from its scarcity–a major component of non-Marxian, liberal economics.
So, about twenty minutes into the movie, we have gotten a lecture on Marxian economics. This is all the more interesting because the rest of the movie is devoted to proving over and over that greed for wealth corrupts people–specifically, Dobbs. Howard repeatedly predicts that the gold will drive men to madness, and does it ever.
Dobbs’s inevitable corruption is fun to watch–that Bogart guy was a pretty good actor, you know that?–and Walter Huston is excellent, even though his role is fairly predictable. He is, essentially, an infallible sage, and normally those characters are pretty dull, but Huston imbues him with personality. What is not clear to me is why he bothered to come along, since he believes almost from the outset that the expedition will be a disaster, and it proves to be exactly that.
It was odd to me that the movie’s most famous, yet often mis-quoted, line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” was spoken by a rather poorly-acted, bandit character. I thought his character was pretty weak. In fact, I felt that the bandits had too big a role in the film, when all they really needed to do was show up at the end when Dobbs’s luck runs out.
I keep coming back to the economic “moral” of the movie, though. It’s a very socialist message, what with the capitalist who desires to earn for himself being depicted as either a monster or a buffoon, and the character who opens up describing the labor theory of value depicted as a wise and thoughtful figure.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Well, this is it– Mysterious Man has finally gone completely crazy and is now seeing communist conspiracies everywhere. He must have been listening to Glenn Beck too much, and he just lost his tenuous grip on reality.”
To be clear, I’m not saying I think this movie was some kind of evil communist-Hollywood indoctrination plot. It was based on a book by a mysterious German called “B. Traven“, who was apparently a socialist. Well, when your movie is based on a book by a German socialist, you can’t be surprised if some German socialism creeps in. I doubt John Huston wanted to make Marxist propaganda; he just wanted to make a Western, and the book he adapted it from had some Marxist propaganda in it.
What surprises me is that, despite how popular accusing people in Hollywood of communism was at the time, the film wasn’t banned or censored, and John Huston wasn’t hauled up before the H.U.A.C. to explain himself. I’m not saying any of that should have happened, I’m just saying it’s weird that the film apparently got released without any censorship or controversy, which is kind of amazing given the zeitgeist.
So, I finally saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train after friends of mine mentioned it to me nine months or so ago. Yeah, I take my time with these things.
To put it briefly, my comment here about Hitchcock’s work applies perfectly. It’s an amusing film, but by no means a masterpiece. I’ll try to avoid spoiling everything in this review, but I will discuss certain plot elements, so be warned! If you are the kind of sick, deranged person who reads reviews of movies they have not seen (me too) there is a synopsis here.
The character of Bruno Anthony, played by Robert Walker, carries the whole movie. The guy seems completely mad and yet strangely charismatic, which is precisely what the role demands.
The problem is, this kind of works against the story even though it is really fun to watch. It is so obvious that Bruno is not playing with a full deck that it seems like Guy Haines would have no trouble convincing the police that Bruno’s claims about him are nothing more than the ravings of a maniac. Of course, then there would be no drama, and it would be a pretty dull movie. So…
…Haines gets enmeshed in a convoluted plot controlled by the madman. There wasn’t much that stood out about it to me, but there were two scenes that caught my interest. One is the tennis match that comes at a pivotal point in the film. Although fairly contrived, it was still somehow exciting to watch, even though I knew more or less how it would play out. This alone may qualify Hitchcock as a great director. It is one of the most effective uses of sport I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The other thing I really liked was the next-to-last scene. I love the fact that even in his final moments, Bruno still lies to Guy and the police. He has no reason to, he has to know that his deception going to be found out as soon as his fist unclenches and he drops Guy’s lighter, and in any event he is mortally wounded; but he lies to them anyway. That little detail totally sums up the character and how detached he is from reality. I love that.
Unfortunately, the movie is pretty weak otherwise. The direction, editing and cinematography are all quite good, but the acting is pretty poor apart from Robert Walker. Also, once you stop suspending disbelief, which I did whenever Bruno wasn’t around, you realize the whole plot is fairly far-fetched. [Aside: is suspending disbelief the same as resuming belief? Discuss.] The other problem with the movie is that even the “good” characters aren’t very likeable, so it was hard to really get invested in how things worked out for them.
Overall, an enjoyable thriller, but not a great one.
Saw the movie House of Dracula on TV the other night. It’s a 1945 Universal Monsters flick that contains three of their most popular monsters: Dracula (duh) the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. It was fairly well-done for what it was. John Carradine is great as Dracula. Also, the film features the stereotypical hunch-backed assistant to the mad scientist, but for a change the character is female, and fairly attractive apart from the hunch-back. It’s an unusual role, and the actress, Jane Adams, does a pretty good job.
But what was especially notable about the movie was that it falls into the awful horror movie pitfall of trying to explain the source of the horror scientifically. So, it turns out that Dracula has a blood disease, and that the Wolf-Man can be cured by brain surgery and some kind of weird fungus that the aforementioned scientist grows in his castle.
Folly! I’ve blogged about this before: horror movies should not rationalize or explain the horror in any way. When they do, it becomes less frightening. They make this mistake all the time in horror movies. It’s much better when the scientifically-inclined are skeptics and shown to be wrong, and the monster is an inexplicable violation of the laws of nature. The intelligent, scientific types being wrong is how you know you’re in trouble.
If you try to explain everything, it is less scary. This applies not only to trying to give explanations for the monster’s origin or condition or whatever, but to every element in any scary story. Just give people a few hints of the monster, and let them piece together the rest, that’s what I say.