Rio Bravo (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

I suppose there’s a sense of inevitability that at some point I would cover Rio Bravo on this site. It features in the schedules fairly regularly, always brushed over by me because I’m a bit nervous about discussing it. My worry is that I don’t like it as much as I ought to. The film’s seen as a classic of the Western genre, one of its finest entries in fact, and the first time I saw it I just wasn’t overwhelmed. Sure, it was a fine piece of work, technically very good and featuring some classic genre actors doing exactly what they were paid to do and doing it well. But around my initial viewing of this one, I was exploring many Westerns, often for the first time, and whilst I was really gripped by the likes of The Ox Bow Incident, 3:10 to Yuma and Shane, this one just felt like a good old-fashioned Oater. Nothing special.

The one Rio Bravo is most often compared with is Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, something I guess we should get out of the way early. As my comments on the earlier picture show, I love it to the extent that I think it’s about as good as cinematic entertainment tends to get. So no pressure on any challenger, then. I should add that what I like most about High Noon isn’t the political subtext at all, rather it’s the way Zinneman uses all elements of his craft to increase the story’s suspense. It’s a sublime exercise in mounting tension, one of the very finest for me, and entertainment doesn’t get much better than that. The socio-political climate in which it was made adds a neat contemporary spice to the mix, but if that’s all there was to it then High Noon would have little relevance to a viewer from the twenty first century, and I think it effortlessly transcends all that. It gets mentioned here because Rio Bravo was made in part as a riposte to its success. Director Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were unhappy that High Noon’s hero was abandoned by all his friends and left to face destiny alone (the word ‘phony’ was dropped in there somewhere), and wanted to tell a similar story in which the villains are faced by people who happily band together to overcome them, in other words emphasising the qualities of comradeship and brotherhood.

It’s a nice message, and Rio Bravo focuses on the strength of the sum rather than the parts of its heroes by carefully showing how they are better together than apart. Alone, Dean Martin’s character is a pathetic drunk, a hollow shell of the man he once was, but it’s the stolid friendship of Wayne and Walter Brennan’s cackling Stumpy that gives him purpose. The alcoholic spiral of self-destruction into which he enters gifts Sheriff Chance (Wayne) with a cause, one he never shirks from. The relationship between the two is brilliantly played and shows what a generous performer Wayne was. In the scenes together, your eyes are drawn to Duke (Martin), who sweats, shakes and remonstrates, almost jumping across the screen as a consequence of being in deep with his personal demons. But watch Wayne. He stands and looks on, never judging, only getting involved when something’s to be done. The message should be clear enough – for Duke, he’s the rock, the one steady thing left in his life. Greater poignancy is lent when Duke realises that the guns and clothing he’s hawked years before for booze have all been bought by Chance and stored, ready and waiting for him to slip them back on.

Rio Bravo’s plot is simple enough. A man shoots someone in cold blood during the first act and is incarcerated by Chance, ready for the Marshal to deal with when he arrives in several days’ time. The prisoner happens to be the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), the town’s Mr Big, who spends the rest of the film trying to get him out. Only Chance, Stumpy and Duke stand in his way, and they know it, facing Burdette’s legions of gunslingers in a small community that suddenly feels small and claustrophobic. There are people watching them on every corner, just waiting for the moment when they drop their guard. And so they don’t.

It’s the sort of story that underpins a thousand Westerns, and it’s perhaps this that made me under-value the film that first time. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that Rio Bravo is probably the quintessential classic Western, the culmination of talents pulling together for one great, last epic showpiece. Hawks directing. Dimitri Tiomkin’s thrilling score. Wayne and Brennan teaming up for the umpteenth time and bringing their A-Game, genuine affection between the pair punctuating their interactions and good natured barbs. Russell on reliable form as the baddie. Ward Bond putting in his customary support appearance, one year before he died from a heart attack, aged 57 and with nearly 300 screen credits to his name (god knows how many he’d have put in otherwise).

If the film has false notes, it’s in two further appearances. Ricky Nelson plays a young gunslinger, Colorado, who joins Chance’s team, and while there’s nothing especially wrong with him he strikes a callow note within a production of sure hands that plays very comfortably together. He was in the film to encourage teenage ticket sales, already gaining number one status in the American Billboard charts, and in a celebrated scene that actually strikes me as a little cloying he leads the gang in a sing along, watched over by a smiling, fatherly Wayne. The other problem arrives in the comely shape of Angie Dickinson, in her mid-twenties and in the script to provide a love interest for romantic lead Wayne. The trouble is that Dickinson’s a bit too good for the role, injecting real character and interest in her thinly drawn part, and distracting from the main plot. Leigh Brackett was a regular screenwriter for Hawks and added sizzling lines to Dickinson’s good time girl. She comes to dominate her scenes with Wayne, whilst as with his moments alongside Martin the Duke has little to do, perhaps another instance of him yielding the stage to his fellow actor.

The action scenes in Rio Bravo are few, but they’re good. In one of the best, Chance and Duke hit a saloon that’s filled with hostile Burdette men. They’re there to chase down a shootist who’s hiding there after he killed a man, and Chance lets his deputy take the lead, despite the worries that persist over his alcoholism. But this is the start of Duke’s redemptive arc. Eschewing the offer of a drink that comes several times, the effort of the villains to nullify him, refusing to remove the coin from the spittoon that he’s clearly done many times before to his own humiliation and everyone else’s ridicule, Duke instead learns the location of the shooter from a glass on the bar counter slowly filling with blood. He takes the guy out with a single shot. Wayne shows off his action chops also, pirouetting to club a man to the ground, good light footwork from the big man.

Perhaps my favourite bit arises from a piece of music. The 1950s was a great decade for the Western, the home of many classic entries before the genre started slowly waning. 1959’s Rio Bravo marks a late high point, but there’s an emphasis on the ‘late’ with the likes of Wayne clearly ageing. Holed up in the jailhouse with his friends, he hears a haunting instrumental drift across the town, Degeullo, also known as The Cutthroat song, a sign that no mercy will be given when Burdette – who’s ordered its playing – and his men come to get his brother back. The tune is very different tonally from Tiomkin’s orchestral overture and, with its heavy horn section, sounds more like something from a Spaghetti Western featuring the stylings of Ennio Morricone. In hindsight, it’s a little like the baton being passed, a sign of the things that would follow for the Western feature film.

Rio Bravo: ****

Invictus (2009)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 August (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The Rugby World Cup is here, and to celebrate ITV are screening perhaps the only appropriate film they could (I can only think of This Sporting Life otherwise, but suggesting that they put on a movie about League is pretty much heretical). It’s a good one. Invictus concerns itself with South Africa’s famous victory in the tournament when it was played there in 1995, an unlikely one also as the host nation was largely unfancied, especially with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu casting a looming shadow over all competition. But really it’s about much more than that. The contest was symbolic of ‘the Rainbow Nation’s attempts to unite its racially diverse population after decades of Apartheid and oppression. President Nelson Mandela recognised the importance of sport as a unifying principle, and allied himself with Springboks captain, Franois Pienaar, in emphasising the team’s success as key to the country’s well-being.

It’s only twenty years ago since the events depicted in Invictus took place, so it’s relatively fresh in our minds, indeed as a teenager I remember doing some work on South Africa as part of my History GCSE. Back then, Apartheid was still in full swing under the auspices of President Botha. The country faced sanctions from the world’s community. Mandela remained a political prisoner, the subject of a popular song from The Specials whilst the refectories we frequented later at university were invariably named after him. His release in 1990 was one of those world events you needed to see. Watching the stooped figure of this little old man walk to freedom was important; his rise to the presidency mattered, but in South Africa things were naturally more complicated as the country remained divided along racial lines and was sinking into financial ruin.

The pressure on Mandela must have been enormous, and it’s his attempts to overcome the massive issues he faced as President that form the film’s focus. ‘Madiba’ (as he’s affectionately called by the people, referencing an 18th century chief) is played by Morgan Freeman, the sort of casting decision that seems a ridiculously obvious ‘Hollywood’ thing to do before you forget it’s a world famous actor you’re watching and that he completely submerges himself into the part. The old joke goes that after taking on roles of the American President (Deep Impact) and God (Bruce Almighty), Nelson Mandela was the only way up, and Freeman puts in a note perfect study, mimicking the man’s posture uncannily well along with taking on the clipped accent. Another A-lister, Matt Damon, plays Pienaar, the embodiment of healthy white South African masculinity who crucially comes to believe in the President’s cause as the mens’ relationship develops.

Early in the film, there are perceived death threats against Mandela that never materialise, highlighting both the tensions within the country and latent paranoia of the security staff who surround him. A sub-plot has black and white bodyguards mixing, at first very uneasily and then bonding over the growing interest in the home nation’s successes at the World Cup. It’s a little cloying, but it still works well enough, the emerging friendship between the security staff serving as a microcosm of South Africa’s enhanced sense of unity. ‘Invictus’ is the title of a poem Mandela held close to his heart whilst serving out his lengthy prison service on Robben Island. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pienaar and his fellow Springboks visit the jail, the captain clearly affected by the harsh conditions faced by his leader and friend.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports films, thinking they struggle as a rule to replicate the unscripted drama, twists and turns of an actual sporting event. This one does well, though, and who would imagine that rugby union would provide the ideal game for some brilliantly mounted footage? Invictus was directed by Clint Eastwood, who uses the camera to invade the middle of scrums and team huddles, shooting in places you would never get to see in a real-life match to focus on the human struggle and emotion. The final is especially good, emphasising the grunts of big men clashing on the pitch, the crunch of bodies colliding, the way crowd noises are enhanced and then reduced as audience participation becomes a critical part of the spectacle and then nothing as the players concentrate fully on what they’re trying to do.

I really like Invictus, partly because Eastwood is probably the perfect man to have made it. A great deal of the film’s content is emotionally driven, Mandela its clear hero and core as he battles age-old prejudices, his own failing health and the broken relationships with his family that can never be healed. A lesser director might have made these moments cloying, writing those struggles large, over-egging the frustration of patrician whites as they fail to come to terms with South Africa’s new reality. All these elements are present in Invictus, but Eastwood at his best makes the sort of films where they’re just shown as part of the action, shooting scenes and leaving viewers to join the dots, which is just how it should be. There are moments when the sense of manipulation seeps through – the team’s visit to an impoverished slum to teach street kids about the basics of rugby, a black kid who winds up as obsessed with the radio commentary of the final as a pair of cops – but that doesn’t happen very often, and instead Eastwood lets the events speak for themselves. One of my favourite things about the film is that the story is good enough for dramatic cinema and scenes that feel scripted actually happened. The bit where a Boeing 747 flew low over Ellis Park, which was about to host the final, bearing a message of good luck to the Springboks, was real and is recaptured nicely. YouTube footage of the moment shows just how well Invictus depicts it.

Invictus: ****

PS. An apology for the lateness of this entry (it would normally appear at midnight). It’s been a heavy, heavy week at work and the prospect of coming home to spend more time sat at a computer was something I couldn’t quite manage physically, hence the delayed posting.

Hue and Cry (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (6.05 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

If there’s anything more perfect for a work-free, lazy Saturday morning than some light, classic fare from Ealing Studios, then I don’t know what is. Today, BBC2 presents Hue and Cry in its early slot. Credited as the first of the imperial phase Ealing comedies, it’s a rather lovely and whimsical hour and eighteen minutes of your time, deftly put together by a team of people that had already found its feet – producer Michael Balcon, writer T.E.B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke and Charles Crichton on directorial duties, and sporting a cast that mixed youthful unknowns with sure hands like Alastair Sim and Jack Warner. Nothing could go wrong with this lot, and nothing did, as the cast and crew put together a winning slice of entertainment that was thoroughly British in its execution. The glory days of Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico were still a couple of years away, but Hue and Cry had already set the template for what was to follow.

The film follows Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler), a senior member of the ‘Blood and Thunder Boys’ of kids that wander freely through the bombed out streets of post-war London. Too old for school and the dubious attractions of the church choir, Joe nevertheless remains a regular fixture amongst the urchins, as addicted as they are to the pulp crime stories exhibited in weekly comic, The Trump. Harbouring pretensions to join the police or to get involved in some sort of life fighting crime, the imaginative Joe thinks he’s leapt on an opportunity when the stories he reads about appear to be re-enacted by a real-life criminal outfit, but his claims are dismissed by the police and he’s soon set to involve himself in the world of work, as assistant to grocer, Nightingale (Warner). He refuses to let go of his suspicions, however, drawing both the gang and the stories’ writer, Felix Wilkinson (Sim), in uncovering the correlation between the comic’s tales and petty robberies taking place in the area. Soon enough, Joe finds out that not only is his hunch correct but that the adult world is one of corruption and complacency, grown-ups like his parents refusing to get involved whilst other alleged pillars of the community are mired in the crimes he is attempting to foil. Wilkinson turns out to be little more than a coward, happy enough to take the shilling for his work whilst wanting nothing to do with the actions his stories are inspiring.

It’s pure boys’ own stuff, the action culminating in kids from across London being encouraged to converge on the the criminal activities and put a stop to them. But there’s also a well worked, darker side to Hue and Cry, the figures of authority becoming villains, the sexy blonde (Valerie White) who’s involved, the tense fight for his life that Joe becomes involved in at the film’s close. It isn’t afraid to hint at real danger when those moments are required, the sense that whilst it’s unlikely the film’s young heroes will come to any real harm they are all the same entering situations of genuine peril. There are laughs too. The cool blonde treats the kids with disdain, refusing while captured to divulge the criminals’ activities, before she’s brought low when a boy’s pet mouse clambers onto her leg. One chase scene culminates in the heroes escaping into the sewers and, surrounded by scum, thinking nothing of piling through the oily water to reach safety.

What really makes it work is the setting. Hue and Cry takes place in a city that’s witness to real poverty. The Blood and Thunder Boys hang out in buildings that have been reduced to rubble strewn shells, and nothing is made of the fact. That’s home. Former people’s houses have become their playground, their dens. Any sense of community spirit comes from the children. Joe takes a lead role, but there’s the Scottish kid (Douglas Barr), the barely tolerated girl member, played by Joan Dowling, and the lad who never speaks but instead emits a string of noises (bomber planes, bird sounds) in order to make his presence felt. Whilst there’s an element of the film’s plot keeping real world troubles at bay, these are often hinted at, as shown in the scene between Joe and his parents, who give the impression of being long-suffering listeners to his daydream-fuelled stories.

Hue and Cry retains an adorable quality, irrepressible children defeating jaded adults through the use of their wits and sheer weight of numbers. It’s nicely photographed too, recent restored versions of the film cleaning up previous editions that had been horribly damaged and showing off all those stark London locations to fine effect. I’m also a big fan of the score by Georges Auric, which adds atmosphere and a sense of mystery to the unfolding yarn. Auric had just completed La Belle et la Bete when he took this job on, and would go on to provide memorable and equally mood-driven music for The Wages of Fear and The Innocents. As for the cast, whilst the adult performers claimed the headline roles theirs were in truth subservient parts to those of the children (Sim really has little more than a cameo appearance, albeit one that’s a great showcase for his deliberate and enunciated delivery). Fowler went on to have a long career in film and television before his death, aged 85, in 2012. The same could not be said for Dowling. Both were in fact young adults when they appeared together in Hue and Cry and they wound up becoming a couple. Fowler turned to philandering and Dowling to a suicide attempt in order to frighten him into stopping. Tragically the attempt was successful, the actor’s blossoming career ending at the too-young age of 26.

Hue and Cry: ***

Taking a Break

You might have noticed a lack of activity from these here quarters in the past week or so. There’s nothing wrong and I’m not going anywhere, but I have decided to take a short break from updating the site. I would like to say this is because I’m off to the Seychelles and intend to spend the time walking along white beaches and drinking from coconut shells, but the reality is I’m going nowhere and instead of a tropical paradise I remain in the north-west of England, where summer means the obligatory splish-splash weather and drinking from cans of Special Brew. Put it down to a recharge and in terms of film viewing just catching up with stuff I definitively want to see rather than watching for the purpose of covering them here. This part of the year is never brilliant for ‘films on the box’ anyway. There was a time when summer meant a season of Weismuller Tarzan offerings from the BBC, but those days have long gone and instead we get countless episodes of meandering daytime telly and the strangely absorbing Pointless, which kinda sums it up.

In other news, I have embraced the twenty first century and am now the proud owner of a Blu Ray player. My starting entertainments are three movies – The Third Man (because no collection would be complete), Fury and a copy of Clash of the Titans that a neighbour donated several years ago (not even the Harry Hamlin version, for pity’s sake). My mission therefore is to enhance the collection, with a dawn raid on Masters of Cinema in order, and an order already placed for the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes set.

As always, thank you for supporting these pages and I’ll see you on the other side.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 5 August (3.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Like many people, I first got into Anime after watching Spirited Away in 2002. I was 30 and it was sort of a kids’ film, but the animation was so gorgeous and the story so universal that it didn’t matter. I instantly started hunting down other films, discovering a vast library of titles, the cream directed by Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki but with a string of utterly worthy releases from others within the studio. That widened into a brief flirtation with TV series and even Manga books, the massive back catalogue of offerings churned out in Japan and more widely available in this country, also the realisation that many animated shows I’d enjoyed as a child had in fact been made first for Japanese audiences.

My obsession has diminished over the years, boxsets of classics like Akira and Ninja Scroll on the shelf and dusted off for an occasional watch, but still DVDs featuring Miyazaki’s name remain regular staples in this house. The Castle of Cagliostro, his first cinematic release, is an incredibly entertaining piece of work, channelling the spirit of swashbucklers coupled with the antics of Tintin and James Bond. It’s a little rougher than later offerings. Miyazaki’s staples of woodland spirits and environmental friendly messages – prevalent within an industrialised country that nevertheless uses the natural world in a unique and special way – clearly came later. The Castle of Cagliostro aims to be nothing more than a fun adventure yarn, and in that sense ticks all the right boxes.

The film’s central character, master thief Arsene Lupin III, was no stranger to Japanese audiences when he took the starring role here. Featuring in Manga regularly since 1967, his capers had also been made into a television series and a movie before Miyazaki took over for this 1979 release. Together with his henchman, the chain smoking marksman Jigen, fedora always covering his eyes, Lupin was a well known figure but his character was modified to fit the story. Less apathetic, his trademark leeriness reduced to good-natured cheek, Lupin was remodelled to fit the confines of a film aimed at family audiences, Miyazaki crafting a world of singular European beauty in which the story to take place. When you see Cagliostro you think of San Marino or Monaco, a tiny yet significant principality with years of history behind it and little more than a grand palace to fit within its borders.

The villainous Count is set on arranging a marriage between himself and the winsome Princess Clarisse. He has little interesting in uniting their houses, more in cementing his power in the region and using her to unlock Cagliostro’s largest secret, a fabled ancient treasure trove. Nothing seems to stand in his way, nothing that is apart from the intrepid Lupin and an ingenious mind and array of devices that keep him one step ahead. The story becomes a race over who captures Clarisse – the Count and his army of sinister minions, or Lupin and the intervention of his plucky friends. There’s also the little matter of uncovering the source of the Count’s personal fortune, a vast printing press that’s used to run of countless counterfeit banknotes in all denominations. In finding this, Lupin enlists the most unlikely ally, his own dogged pursuer Inspector Koichi Zenagata, who’s been after the thief for years.

It’s good fun, Lupin coming across and foiling a series of traps, falling into others that lead him into the depths of the labyrinthine castle and stumbling across skeletons of medieval burrowers from years ago. There are breathless chases over the rooftops, through waterways and secret passages, Lupin normally – not always – coming out on top yet remaining determined to win the day. The character comes with a nice singularity of purpose, at odds with his credentials as a modern Robin Hood (without the ‘giving to the poor’ part, in fairness) and making clear a history between himself and the Princess that is teased out over the course of the film.

No doubt about it, Miyazaki’s made better films. The Castle of Cagliostro isn’t a patch on his various paeans to childhood, the pastoral wonders of My Neighbour Totoro, the coming of age story presented in Kiki’s Delivery Service, for me culminating in the towering brilliance of Spirited Away. Those three films didn’t really have villains and focused more on the indefatigability of lead characters learning life lessons as they grew up. In contrast, this is a straightforward adventure caper, which should appeal greatly to fans of Tintin; the little journalist often ended up in similar scrapes as he searched for buried treasures and secrets. The artwork isn’t as sublime as it would become in later years, but the scope is already present and correct, the castle at once imposing and beautifully splendid, the animation smooth and packed with character. It’s a fine introduction to one of the world’s great animators, and in its own right makes for 100 minutes of laughs and action, featuring a winning lead who remains the focus of attempts to keep him on the screen, more than 35 years down the line.

The Castle of Cagliostro: ****

Field of Dreams (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 2 August (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

You’ll forgive me if this one is a little meandering (Reader’s voice ‘You don’t normally apologise for that‘), but I really love Field of Dreams and, as is often the case with favourite movies, some of the reasons are personal as well as because of the picture itself. For one thing, it’s a baseball film, linking the sport to wistful memories of more innocent and youthful times. I’m unsure how that works, not being American and frankly failing to see the appeal of what to me looks like glorified rounders, but then I don’t suppose the identity of the sport really matters. And when it comes to baseball, I call to mind Don DeLillo’s epic novel Underworld, with its nostalgia-fuelled opening chapter and the game’s purpose as a running theme. Here’s a quote from the book:

‘That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to the game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.’

Very evocative, possibly true, and really I can picture this being the case with my ‘old man’ and me someday, not discussing some ancient baseball game but possibly the first Middlesbrough match we took in together (a 6-0 win over Leicester City, since you’re wondering, and no, it never got close to being as good again). For baseball read football, or indeed any sport of your preference, I guess. I even get the point about simpler times made by the film. In Field of Dreams, the baseball diamond built by Kevin Costner’s character ends up showcasing great players from the past, notably ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the seven other White Sox members banned from the sport in light of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) reveals that not only was the ban an injustice (it was; the players were acquitted in court but the ban was upheld by the League’s commissioner) but the money and fame meant nothing. All he and his compatriots wanted was to play, to experience the food smells from the stands, the touch of the grass, the joie de vivre of just being out there. It’s an uncynical statement that’s supposed to evoke memories of a time in baseball before the money involved became too great, the sponsorship and TV rights dictating everything and thereby robbing us of the simple pleasure of enjoying the sport. It’s impossible not to see a similar sentiment among football fans, the era before the Premiership came into being and Britain’s national game fell into the pocket of Sky’s cash-rich owners. One of my best memories of that game against Leicester was that the home team discovered its scoring touch. Each goal provoked a mass celebration in the stands, notably the Holgate End at Ayresome Park, which was just a big terrace. The crowd would surge forward, a big wave of humanity crashing into each other, and it was exhilarating with a slight element of danger. That has gone, as has Ayresome. Middlesbrough’s current ground, the Riverside, is an all-seater stadium. You’re pretty much told when you’re allowed to stand up, piped in music punctuating every goal. Something’s been lost. The spontaneity, I think.

So perhaps something has gone from the game, and whilst it’s a more exciting sport to watch the connection we felt with the players from the past is not there much now. The film closes with cars snaking to the Kinsella farm, lured on by the promise of experiencing some magic from the past, which watching old baseball players will evoke. It’s a nice message, reminiscent of old Frank Capra pictures in many ways by using fantasy elements to conjure a sentimental resolution, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the things I really like about Field of Dreams is its blank refusal to explain why the events in it unfold. Whose is the voice? Who tells Ray (Costner) to build his baseball field? Why rope in long lost 1960s author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), along with a Doctor from some Minnesota backwater, Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster)? The answers are elusive and up to the viewer’s interpretation, and I rather like that. We understand why Ray receives the message; he’s the sort of uncomplicated fellow who grew up in the sixties and is just about willing enough to go along with the crazy plan, despite the misgivings of his fellow corn farmers and with unresolved father issues to deal with, and the field will give him that opportunity eventually.

The cast in Field of Dreams is universally fantastic. Any fan of Star Wars is automatically a worshipper at the altar of Jones and this is almost certainly his career best performance, drawing out all the world weariness of his character’s retreat from the glory years, and then having this stripped away as he joins Ray’s quest to meet the field’s ‘demands’. Mann is presented as a complex man, but one who’s in touch with the potential of baseball as a unifying influence. Lancaster was talked into taking the part of Doc Graham (his last movie role) and plays it wonderfully. Aged 76 and cast beautifully as the Doctor at the end of his practising days, there’s a glint in his eye that hints at his mental acceptance of the fantastic story Ray’s telling him, which is consistent with the appearance of his younger self (Frank Whaley) as a callow rookie to play with the big boys and show the potential he never realised in actuality. Graham’s character is a great sop to those of us who’ve come close to achieving our dreams, but only close. The field can make them come true.

Amy Madigan floods her underused character with bags of fiery personality, and I also like Timothy Busfield as her brother, the closest Field of Dreams comes to in providing a villain as the voice of reason, warning constantly of the financial risks involved in tearing down valuable crops for a ‘useless’ baseball diamond. But the film lives or dies with Kevin Costner, at the time on his way to becoming a big star with Dances with Wolves a year away and the likes of No Way Out and The Untouchables showcasing his talent at playing clean shaven good guys. Costner was reluctant to accept the part of Ray as he’d recently made a baseball film, Bull Durham, but saw the potential of Field of Dreams to be ‘this generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life‘ and indeed brings an easy-going charm reminiscent of James Stewart to the part. In his mid-thirties, Costner was just right – old enough to know better, fanciful enough to pretty much go for it.

I realise I haven’t said a lot about the film and what happens in it. My feeling is that it’s better to approach it fresh, soaking up the story as weaved by director Phil Alden Robinson and going with the flow. Robinson saw Field of Dreams very much as a pet project, a labour of love, spending several years working on it before it came to life, and he ensures that its events move along at a fair lick so that you don’t have time to question the film’s logic as it jogs on to the next plot point. It doesn’t do to think about it too much, rather viewers are encouraged to just enjoy it, the sense of idealism and wonder that it carries. There aren’t many films made that contain the latter. We’re a jaded bunch and want our fantasy to come with hard-bitten truths. But sometimes, a movie comes along that’s just nice, wears its heart on its sleeve and asks us to take a journey. ‘Wonderful’ sums it up rather nicely, I think.

Field of Dreams: ****

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 July (10.50 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I always have time for fantasy cinema, in particular the kind of gentle, non-cynical fun made during the 1930s by people who seemed to view the big screen as a repository for all manner of simple treats and visual delights. The classics of this nature that immediately spring to mind are The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood and today’s entry, 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. For a time, they stopped making films like this – the Second World War got in the way and left Hollywood reflecting the jaded, gritty realistic mood of the time, without room for the sort of ‘Old World innocence’ represented here.

The aim of the film is good old fashioned fun, and on that note The Thief of Bagdad delivers. Based loosely on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, it tells of some unspecified time long ago in the Middle East. A blind man (John Justin) begs for alms on the streets of Baghdad, his faithful dog at his feet. Recounting the tale of his unhappy life, the man reveals himself to be none other than King Ahmad, tricked into losing his throne by his duplicitous court vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Believed dead, Ahmad plans to reclaim it and recruits the help of a nimble young thief, Abu (Sabu). Journeying to Basra, he then falls in love with a beautiful young princess (June Duprez), the daughter of the Sultan (Miles Malleson). But she’s been promised to Jaffar, and when the pair confront each other the vizier robs Ahmad of his sight and transforms Abu into a dog, a spell that can only be broken once Jaffar holds the princess in his arms. In overcoming Jaffar, getting the princess and the throne back, Ahmad and Abu will undergo a series of adventures, taking in flying horses, genies in bottles, magic carpets and a famed jewel that’s known as the all-seeing eye.

It’s a confection, with its largely British cast playing Asian characters and matte paintings filling in for the walls of Baghdad and Basra, and it’s beautifully realised. The special effects, whilst primitive by modern standards, are rather wonderful and charming, the ambition to depict a massive genie soaring through the air, the Sultan riding above the heads of his awestruck people on a horse that can somehow fly, Abu dwarfed within a massive Oriental temple. The film has the good sense to pace itself very quickly, swathes of story packed into a running time of 106 minutes so that the action races from one scene to another, keeping viewers entertained with the tos and fros of the unfolding epic. It’s blessed with some great performances, beginning with Veidt as the villainous Jaffar. The German was a titan of silent cinema, playing iconic roles during the Expressionist era and fully capable of packing meaning into simple gestures. The scene where he blinds Ahmad is all slight of hand and malevolent stares, and it’s all the scarier because Veidt looks as though he can do almost anything just by willing it so. His cruelty is juxtaposed by the youthful enthusiasm of Sabu, the Indian actor who was employed again and again in just this kind of role. While Ahmad laments what he’s lost, Abu does most of the work in restoring him, coming across the Genie (Rex Ingram) and fetching the all-seeing eye. The bits where he’s telling the Genie what to do, reminding him that he’s in charge, as the magical spirit towers over him, are great stuff because both actors play it straight, packed with personality as uneasy and temporary allies.

Various names are credited with directing The Thief of Bagdad, the most famous of these being Michael Powell. The real creative force, however, was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian emigre who became one of the biggest noises in the British film industry and took a break from making pictures about colonial heroics with this recreation of the 1924 entry starring Douglas Fairbanks. Along with the use of sound and colour (gorgeous use of colour, incidentally; it’s a beautiful looking piece of work), it chopped away much of the earlier film’s bloated length and split the main character into two to good effect. Malleson, along with his major supporting role, was also responsible for the screenplay, and wrote for himself the part of the Sultan as a foolish man-child obsessed with toys and inventions. At a time in history when the Islamic world was credited with advancing knowledge of science and mathematics, the Sultan is in a unique position to be surrounded by objects that might have been perceived as magic. The sense of rousing fun is complemented perfectly by Miklos Rozsa’s energetic score.

What makes The Thief of Bagdad great is its air of wonder, an effort to bring impossible things to the screen just to entertain audiences mired in the reality of a world cascading into conflict. It’s impossible to knock the film’s joyous escapism, the aim to leave your troubles outside and simply be entertained for a time. It was released in 1940, as Europe was fully engaged in war,. indeed the film had to be completed in Hollywood and used the Grand Canyon for some of its mountain-based sequences. I think it’s marvellous, taking in countless leaps of imagination within a chocolate box fantasy world that never loses its charm.

 The Thief of Bagdad: *****

Cleopatra (1963)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The sad passing away of Omar Sharif compelled me to rewatch perhaps his most famous film role, his playing of the title character in David Lean’s sprawling Doctor Zhivago. It’s a title that’s had its fair share of adverse criticism over the years, particularly upon its initial release when it was seen as excessive, bloated, meandering and packed with unlikable people, not least the passive Zhivago and Lara. Personally I love it and I’ll defend it to the hilt, even whilst nodding at many of the brickbats. For me, nothing looks quite like Doctor Zhivago. It really is a ravishing picture and its use of colour is almost unmatched. Despite filming in Spain, it makes an excellent stab at recreating Russia during the early twentieth century, both the patrician pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg and the less salubrious backwaters of the film’s second half. I also think Sharif’s pretty good as the Doctor. Whilst the censure of his character being pretty much an observer is fair, I would argue that as a poet that’s exactly what he ought to be. Still, there’s no denying that whenever Rod Steiger’s on the screen he owns it entirely.

The point, which I’ll make in more detail when the good Doctor is scheduled, as surely it will be in light of Sharif’s death, is that I think it’s a really great work, far more deserving of praise than it’s received. Here, I want to make the comparison with a film that does actually deserve to be criticised for its excesses. There’s something fascinating about Cleopatra, certainly, and I’ve watched it several times, but in my more recent viewings I admit I’ve been bored to tears. It isn’t the length – Cleopatra runs a little over four exhausting hours – so much as what they do to fill the time. Conversations between characters. Many conversations. Often about nothing. Gorgeously dressed characters, stood in similarly beautiful places that have the look of studio producers tearing their hair out over how much the bloody thing was costing, but on the whole half-assed stuff that hints at the reality of script pages being turned out on the hoof and making the whole thing disjointed and kind of thrown together.

I wrote about this one some years ago for Film Journal and I’m going to turn the rest of this piece over to those words. Basically, I don’t want to watch Cleopatra again, not just yet, maybe not ever. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and too many other things to see, so here goes…

My copy of Cleopatra has been gathering dust for a couple of years. A magnificent, three-disc special edition, I lavished a tenner on it, and have since noticed it on sale for even less. Is it worth the outlay? Certainly, it’s impossible to watch the movie now and not compare it to the HBO series Rome. This is inherently unfair. Certified ‘PG,’ there’s just no way it can accurately recreate the debauchery, depravity and degradations depicted so memorably in the more recent cable production. Additionally, Cleopatra is over 50 years old, and it must be considered that contemporary, working class audiences would have been dazzled by the sheer spectacle of it just as a CGI-friendly 21st century viewer might demand more.

Then again, if the film is a masterpiece, then it’s definitely of the ‘flawed’ variety. It has gained some degree of infamy for reasons that have little to do with the finished product. There was the unholy mess that was its production. Going vastly over budget (it cost $44 million, which when adjusted puts it beyond even the likes of Titanic and Waterworld), and suffering all sorts of disasters, it was a wonder the movie got made at all. Everything that could have gone wrong did exactly that, and by the time it was eventually completed, its director Joseph L Mankiewicz was foiled in his attempt to release it in two three-hour chunks. The result was an edit that reduced it to half its intended length for theatre audiences, a version that was disjointed and difficult to follow. This edition has had an hour’s footage restored, but somewhere in a vault the lost 120 minutes or so that would complete it are waiting to be rediscovered. Some much-needed positive publicity came with the on-set romance of its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. After everything that had gone wrong, the producers no doubt jumped on this sensational spin, and the public duly lapped it up. For a time, Burton and Taylor were the world’s most famous couple, an impossibly glamorous pairing that was on a par with the hype surrounding current celebrity ‘royalty’ of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that rumours of the pair’s chemistry on the set of the decidedly average Mr and Mrs Smith handed it more exposure than it warranted.

And ‘average’is indeed the word where the subject of this beautifully presented set is concerned. Like the talking points surrounding the movie upon its original release, the things that are good about it have little to do with the quality of the material. It’s not that Cleopatra is a bad film exactly, but it’s far from the best. Even within the epic genre (one it did a lot to kill off), there are more worthwhile pictures, near forgotten classics that deserve the restoration treatment. Personally, I’d happily pay to see a similar job done on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a project that remains distant and unlikely. The reality is that Cleopatra is a bit of a dog’s dinner. It’s given the five-star treatment here, but it isn’t a five-star movie.

The story starts on the battlefield of Phillippi. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has emerged victorious against Pompey, handing the former power that is virtually dictatorial, whilst his eminent opponent flees to Egypt. Caesar follows. Along with finding Pompey dead, he argues that the succession issue in Alexandria (practically a Roman vassal, ii is supposed to be ruled jointly between Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), but the situation has escalated into an internal conflict for sole control) could be resolved at the same time. Caesar is as good as his word. After a short battle, he ends the squabbling, places Cleopatra singly on the throne, and for good measure marries her. The trouble is he’s so captivated with his ravishing new bride that he spends too long in Egypt. Back in Rome, concerns are growing among those who feel he has too much power and is fashioning himself into a king. Though his deputy, Mark Antony (Richard Burton) sees things differently, and carries some clout, the might Caesar has within the Roman world – along with his taking of a ‘foreign’ wife – is getting to be too much for the hard-headed Republicans, led by the orator Cicero (Michael Hordern) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh).

Sure enough, Caesar is summarily offed on the Ides of March, falling ironically at the feet of Pompey’s statue in the Senate. Cleopatra, quite literally left holding the baby (their child, Caesarion, a symbol of her ambitions to one day ascend to the pinnacle of Rome) is again in a precarious position, but takes up with Antony, who like his mentor is bewitched. However, Antony has problems of his own. Another power struggle has erupted in Rome, as the spoils of Caesar’s legacy are scrapped over by Antony and his main rival, Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Cleopatra sees this as her opportunity to renew Caesarion’s claims, and backs her man in an all-or-nothing scrap for hegemony.

History lesson over, and on the whole Cleopatra follows the main swing of the Roman Republic’s final days closer than most. Not only does it cover the main events, it also nails the characters of its major protagonists. You can see why Caesar commands the level of authority he does – shrewd and charismatic, he’s one of those rare historical instances of someone deserving the ‘Superman’ epithets lavished upon him. Capable of doing more in a day than you or I might manage in a month, and allowing for bouts of epilepsy, he’s the right man in the right place at the wrong time (though only just). Too brilliant to be held in check by the trappings of a Republican government, his enemies have to go so far as to murder him in cold blood in order to take him out of the picture. Antony, on the other hand, is a fine military commander but a drunken boor of a man. Bereft of Caesar’s subtle touch, it’s obvious he’s no intellectual match for Cleo. Once he’s under her spell, it’s more or less the end for him. As for the other main Roman, Octavian, McDowall plays him to near perfection. Slight, bookish, and without Antony’s massive presence, the man who would become the first Roman Emperor is no warrior. One scene finds him taunted by Antony and left to fester in his tent while the fighting rages on outside. However, Caesar knew what he was doing when he adopted Octavian. His battlefield is the Senate, and he possesses all the guile and political cunning to turn it against Antony. By the time he’s finished speaking, his opponent is public enemy number one. Once, the pair carved up the empire between them as equal partners. Now, not only does Octavian have the political machine under his belt, but he’s turned his personal crusade into that of Rome.

Watching McDowall in Cleopatra is a joy. In the early stages, he’s a bit-part player, under Caesar’s wing and seemingly without a hope of rising much further. It’s only when his adopted father is killed that he takes on a more central role. And yet it’s another minor character in the grand sweep of affairs whom the film elevates into the focus of the entire narrative. By all acounts, Cleopatra was very much a shrewd player, yet her corner was limited and Egypt was carried along with the rest of the Empire as Rome underwent its own transformation. In the movie, she’s far from a political pawn; indeed, her beauty is enough to reduce great men like Caesar and Antony to lapdogs, though you suspect the former has the measure of her. According to those historian spoilsports, the Egyptian queen was by no means a siren, yet Taylor, not plain by anyone’s definition, plays her as the image of almost supernatural loveliness, adding charm to her mystery, and surrounding her with the trappings of opulence and gaudy luxury. It’s in this that the film begins to fail as an historical epic. Fair enough, such movies never painted themselves as slavish records of factual events, but it does undermine the ring of truth that surrounds so much of it.

Cleopatra takes place during one of the most disturbing periods in antiquity, one punctuated by war and strife. A number of spectacular conflicts changed the course of western history decisively, making for a movie rich in battle, involving the de rigeur thousands of extras. However, with the focus on Taylor, we don’t get to see a lot of action. What we have instead is talking. A lot of talking. All the time. I’m no hater of movie dialogue, but for it to work, it has to have some substance, and more importantly be well written. Unfortunately, it rarely sparkles here. Few signs of the vaunted chemistry that was supposed to have lit up the stage between Burton and Taylor exist when they’re churning out line after yawning line of hackneyed words, words that are intended to be worthy of Homer and instead just drag. Caesar and Cleopatra’s initial flirtation, leading to full-blown romance, feels as though it’s played in real time, with scenes lasting far too long and the conversation going precisely nowhere. It’s as if Mankiewicz was so much in love with filming his actors, dressed beautifully amidst superb sets, that he didn’t know when to say cut. Because of this, Cleo is a bore. What makes it worse is that whenever McDowall is on the screen, particularly when he’s exploding at the Senate, you get glimpses of the film at its best. Here’s a master actor barking out lines that deserve to be barked. It happens too infrequently to have any lasting effect.

Mankiewicz seemed to have felt there was little point portraying battles when there were more intimate scenes between his characters to insert. The result is interminable build-ups to conflict, with the actual action taking up little screen time, which is a shame. Epics were called epics for a reason, one of these being the spectacular set pieces that called on armies of people dressed in contemporary costumes going at each other as the trumpets on the score shifted into overdrive. These were scenes that reeked of money, the kind of thing that demanded the likes of Cinemascope technology just to fit in all those wide shots of expensive battles raging across the width of the screen. There isn’t much of that here. When they do occur, they’re dealt with quickly, presumably so they can move on to another lengthy moment involving yet more banter. This is never so much a letdown as during the climactic conflict at Actium. Antony and Octavian have been heading towards this moment since Caesar’s demise, but it’s resolved in minutes, the whole thing turning on the former’s critical error as though that was all it really amounted to. Whilst watching Cleopatra, I longed for a good fight, something to dilute the endless babble. I didn’t get it.

Perhaps there was a good reason for all this. When that year’s Oscars were doled out, Cleopatra was a clear winner in the design categories, and it’s not hard to see why. The costumes are exceptional, especially the variety of dresses, ceremonial get-ups and sometimes not much at all that adorn Taylor. Not only does the camera love her, she also happens to appear in some lovely outfits, reflecting the ornate richness of Hellenic Egypt. The effect is stunning. All this is matched by some stupendous sets, never better than in the harbour of Alexandria. You can almost see where the millions went when you look at the design work and graft that’s gone into it, the effort at creating something that really does look authentic. Aesthetically, Cleopatra is a thing of beauty. This is never better demonstrated than in the Queen’s entry into Rome, a parade that lasts several minutes and includes the appearance of dancers, slaves, masked demons, smoke, thousands of pigeons and a 30-foot high Sphinx that’s pulled by an army of slaves. It’s hard not to get the impression that the film is in love with itself, vainly roaming over the incredible sets, building and clothes in hopeless, self-reflective adoration. The script is the unfortunate loser. Apparently, Mankiewicz set to rewriting the entire screenplay once he was on board the project, redrafting constantly and often producing pages of work whilst on the set itself.

Knowing that two hours of footage were lost, it’s staggering to think of what Cleopatra might have been. The length on display is more than enough, and in the meantime certain other elements seem to have been cut unfairly short. This is certainly the case with Martin Landau, who plays Ruffio, right-hand man to Caesar and later Antony, and appears to have lost an entire character arc. Scenes involving his dealings with Cleopatra have been truncated so we never get to see his dynamic in these instances, whilst the cause of his death is excised altogether. The result is that Ruffio has little to do except stand around following orders, whereas there are suggestions in portions of his screen time that a much more interesting and detailed character lurks underneath.

So what went wrong with Cleopatra? One way to find out is by watching Cleopatra: the Film that changed Hollywood, a two-hour documentary on disc three of the set that achieves the rare feat of being better than the movie it’s talking about. A Fox production, the documentary doesn’t go too far in criticising people, but it’s still a marvellous piece of work, as close as possible to being an honest account of the nightmare that summed up the film’s production. According to it, Cleopatra started as an exercise in churning out a moneyspinner, a cheaply made picture that would plough some millions back into the ailing studio’s coffers. How it went from that to the world’s most expensive film makes for excellent viewing. A mixture of wrong decisions, bad luck and Elizabeth Taylor, the production lurched from one crisis to the next.

Once Fox agreed to finance the film, Taylor was recruited for the title role. Legend has it that after screentesting Joan Collins, the studio contacted Taylor, then one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Joking, she replied ‘Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.’ To her surprise, Fox had a contract drawn up, which was enough to generate some good advance publicity. It was a world record fee, but would to lead a string of unfortunate circumstances. Taylor suffered frequent bouts of illness, effectively halting work as her presence was required for most scenes. Taking enormous amounts of time off the project, the remaining cast and crew had little to do, which eventually saw off prominent members of the original team. Director Rouben Mamoulian resigned, citing work pressure and frustration. Also exiting were Peter Finch, recruited for the part of Caesar, and Stephen Boyd, who was to follow his role in Ben-Hur by playing Antony.

Another major headache was the choice of location. The Rome Olympics got in the way of the crew being accommodated in Italy, so they opted instead for the massive Pinewood Studiosin Buckinghamshire. Having built all the sets, and importing fresh Egyptian trees on a near-daily basis, bad weather put paid to any worthwhile filming, with fog and almost constant rain showers making Britain a predictably poor substitute for Alexandria. Eventually, and at risk of the entire production being shut down, the crew was able to de-camp to Cinecitta Studios (the location, incidentally, for the current Rome series), and with Mankiewicz in place, filming could finally begin. The film was hemorrhaging money already, but things went from bad to worse. Actors’ problems, industrial disputes, set worries and constant pressure from Fox led to more cash outlays, not to mention 24-hour working days for Mankiewicz, who resorted to a diet of injections in order to keep himself going.

All this and more is uncovered in painful detail by the documentary. Cleopatra was the subject of so much investment that it was impossible to stop proceedings after a certain time. Bad luck dogged it even after its release, when a clerical error by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stopped McDowall from being nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, an award he stood a very good chance of winning. Ultimately, what the programme depicts is the making of a folly, a fool’s errand. There was little chance of Cleopatra making a profit, certainly in the short term, and the press gleefully depicted it as an unmitigated flop. It wasn’t, but it took Fox several years to break even on the movie, and it was thanks to other releases that the studio survived.

What makes all this so laughable is that the story of how the film was made is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself. Like Hearts of Darkness, the account of the madness that lay behind Apocalypse Now‘s production, this documentary is almost required viewing, and any film maker could do worse than catch this lesson on how NOT to do it before embarking on a new project. Sadly, Cleopatra doesn’t compare with Francis Ford Coppola’s labour of love. It’s not a disaster, rather miraculously given the circumstances, but for the money and sheer human effort that went into it, the end product should have been far superior to the expensive bauble that was released in 1963.

Cleopatra: **

Donkey Punch (2008)

When it’s on: Monday, 20 (11.15 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Urban myths, huh? Gotta love ’em. The ‘Donkey Punch’ describes a sex act that comes straight out of playground banter, the sort of thing that young lads talk about but would never get the opportunity to do. Click here for the Urban Dictionary’s definitions, and then hopefully join me in wondering what’s wrong with showing some good old passion. Needless to say, it’s something I would never, ever engage with and I pity the poor fools who even consider either delivering or receiving such treatment. No one deserves it.

All the same, the term was well enough known to provide the hook for a low budget British thriller, Donkey Punch, made in 2008 by Oliver Blackburn, and looking beyond the title and the promise of sun worshipping, scantily clad Brits getting involved in the sort of business they wouldn’t tell their mums about, it’s surprisingly effective and well made. It reminded me of that other nautical Adrenalin ride, Dead Calm, in using a single location – most of it takes place on a boat – to sustain a mood of claustrophobia, people locked together in cramped quarters where there’s really little running space, where violence is the outcome of sheer desperation and heightened terror.

Sian Breckin, Jaime Winstone and Nichola Burley play three young girls from Leeds, who are on holiday in Mallorca after one of them has suffered a painful break-up. Determined to forget the past and enjoy themselves, they go out on the sort of ‘Club’ style bender that any self respecting travel agent would love to use in its promotional material. Fun, booze and good times ensue. And then they run into a bunch of upper class lads who persuade them to visit the luxury yacht they happen to be crewing. They pilot the boat out to sea. Laughs are had. Drugs are imbibed. And then they start having sex, which leads to one of the men (Julian Morris) at the height of passion delivering the donkey punch and accidentally breaking Breckin’s neck.

An evening of hedonistic fun suddenly becomes tense. The men close ranks, suggest dumping the body overboard and claiming to the authorities that she fell into the sea and could not be recovered. Morris’s character has a slightly sinister knowledge of maritime legislation depending on which part of the sea they choose to lose the corpse. They discuss this without including the two remaining women, who are understandably terrified and take on an increased ‘prisoner’ status whilst the fate of their friend is decided for them. Bluey (Tom Burke) is a paranoid substance abuser. Marcus (Jay Taylor) has a loose leadership of the group and just wants to get the episode over with. Robert Boulter plays Sean, the one member of the male faction who shows any kind of remorse despite not being involved with the sex session, at the time chatting with Tammi (Burley). Josh (Morris) refuses to take any responsibility and just comes across as an odious, sociopathic shit.

Poor Breckin is duly buried at sea, weighed down with an anchor to help her body sink. But by now the men have made enemies of their former guests, who start fighting back, sure that they aren’t going to come out of this situation in any good way. The levels of violence increase. People are locked in rooms. By the end, only one of the characters will get away, though the ultimate fate awaiting them is ambiguous, suggesting a night of debauched fun has led to undoubted tragedy for all.

The other title it reminds me of a little is The Descent, Neil Marshall’s terrifying horror about potholers facing subterranean creatures of nightmare with thousands of tonnes of rock pressing down on them. Donkey Punch isn’t a patch on that clever little shocker, but it has its moments, smartly putting a group of irresponsible young people together and then leaving them to deal with a shocking moment that they have little chance or motivation to resolve responsibly. It does begin to fall apart later in the film, when some of the deaths are a little too contrived just to fit neatly within conventions of the genre rather than staying true to the characters, but there’s some fun to be had from working out who will survive and who has their cards coming to them.

As usual with these things, the more virtuous and virginal characters have a better chance of making it; the wanton likes of Breckin are doomed virtually from the start. More impressive is the attempt to find a downside to all those terrible ‘holiday rep’ shows, the consequences of buying into the sun-kissed, self-gratifying lifestyles advertised so wantonly and without any degree of responsibility. For the most part, there’s something frighteningly plausible about it all, the terror very real, with performances – particularly Burley – that more often than not hit the right notes. It’s a film that has certainly divided the critics, with the Daily Mail going for the obvious jugular in expanding the synopsis into a rant about moral outrage, whilst other, more sensible reviews have picked on the general unlikeability of the characters to ruminate on why they don’t care about their fates. I think it’s slickly made and worth checking out.

Donkey Punch: ***

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****