20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****

Moby Dick (1956)

When it’s on: Monday, 7 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’ll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition’s flames before I give him up.

In preparation for watching Moby Dick, I downloaded Herman Melville’s novel onto my Kindle with the intention of ploughing through it and comparing text with film. Sadly, I’ve only made it to the 10% mark so far, quite enjoying what I’ve read though it’s a tough-going tome in places, pages and pages of nothing much happening yet much in terms of foreboding and whalecraft.

Adapting Melville into a film was always going to be a tall order, though the book’s classic status ensures many have tried. Presumably one of the main problems is the story’s lack of romance, the long passages involving descriptions of life on board the Pequod and the way everything takes place right at the end. John Huston’s 1956 entry is nevertheless a manful effort. The attempt to outline the crew’s relationship with their captain, Ahab, brings to life the occasionally claustrophobic, always mutually dependent world of the nineteenth century whaler. Moby Dick is told from the perspective of Ishmael (Richard Basehart), who’s recounting the tale as the Pequod’s sole survivor. A cypher with the task of describing the characters around him, Ishmael isn’t the most interesting seafarer, but then he’s never meant to be. Much better value are Leo Genn as the Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) and inevitably Ahab himself.

The story opens with the Pequod’s crew steadily assembling in Nantucket. They attend church service before they go, a great scene in which the cameras roams along the pews, picking out plaques dedicated to the dead (all have perished at sea, a warning if ever there was one) before focusing on Orson Welles’s sermon. Welles is as ever brilliant value in his cameo, pontificating from a pulpit that’s dressed up as a masthead – apparently, he took the part in order to fund his own stage version of the book (I always love looking into the reasons for Welles popping up in films; it was always to help finance his own projects).

Soon enough, they’re at sea, searching for whales whilst Ahab glowers in his cabin. Half an hour passes before we get our first proper glimpse of him, all wooden legged and scarred face, played by Gregory Peck. Ahab gets the best speeches in the script (my favourite bit of dialogue heads this entry), driven ever by his desire to get revenge against the enormous white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg. True to his motivation throughout the story, Ahab clashes with his crew often – they’re in it for profit and have no interest in his vengeance, but he’s the captain and they follow him sullenly, never fully aware of how far he’s prepared to take the men in realising his goal. There’s several marvellous scenes that illustrate the tension – one in which Starbuck prepares for mutiny, another when Ahab refuses to help a boat that’s searching for the captain’s son.

Two aspects stood against Moby Dick, which experienced a troubled shoot and escalating costs. One is the effects work involving the whale. Plenty was invested in getting this right, but Moby often enough looks like what it is – a model – and pre-CGI, it must have been almost impossible to make the thing work. The original model was 75 feet long and floated out to sea, leaving the crew to rely on ‘whale parts’ for the shots where it interacts with actors, and miniatures otherwise. Secondly, Peck’s performance, which earned mixed reactions from audiences used to seeing him as a hero. Generally cast as the romantic lead, Peck toned down his handsome looks with Ahab’s scarring and an unhinged, shouty performance and, whilst there may have been more obvious choices (James Mason springs to mind) he’s actually pretty good, convincing as the captain with terrifying levels of obsession.

Moby Dick: ***

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 5 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Years ago, Mrs Mike and I went on holiday to Luxor. She was five months’ pregnant (the perils of booking well in advance) so we didn’t get to hazard the peril-strewn train journey to Cairo and the pyramids, but I saw them anyway. 20,000+ feet in the air, flying over the endless Saharan desert with its thin strip of blue, and they were easily visible, amongst the few man-made objects I can imagine being able to recognise from that height. Without wanting to wax lyrical, even from such a distance they were still pretty awesome.

It’s that sense of awe that Howard Hawks attempted to capture in Land of the Pharaohs. The film was a flop, forcing Hawks into a self-imposed exile from film-making for several years, but it’s possible to see what he was trying to achieve. It’s a paean to the achievement of constructing something so monumentally vast and so ultimately futile. Hawks blew his budget on depicting the sheer scale of the pyramid building operation. Thousand of extras were hired to dress in contemporary garb, many wearing nothing more than loincloths. Shown working in the quarries, hauling enormous slabs of granite across the sand and toiling on the superstructure, no expense was spared in filming the massive labour that went into knocking up an ancient tomb.

Land of the Pharaohs clocks in at around half the time of most epics. The money clearly went on the extensive building scenes, Hawks filming in Cinemascope for the first time and filling the frame with hundreds and hundreds of bodies. It’s an impressive sight, as usual far more jaw-dropping than anything similar shown now because the camera’s picking up a real army of people, no matter how ant-like they appear on the screen (which presumably was the whole point); it’s the closest we will ever get to seeing how life really was around the time of the pyramid-building pharaohs. Hawks even tries to gauge the morale of the workers. At first, they’re happy to answer the call of their king, their god on earth with whom they have a living covenant. They sing while they work. But as the months turn into years and the pyramid refuses to near completion, the happy graft becomes hard toil. Singing gives way to drums and whips.

The entire effort of the film seems to go on this aspect, leaving the rest of the plot to be filled in around it. James Robertson Justice is the enslaved builder, Vashtar. His son, Senta, is played by Dewey Martin as a corn-fed American youth. Both work for Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who orders the building of the pyramid essentially because that’s what he does. Clearly having grown up in the traditions of the Pharaonic dynasty, it’s natural for him to expect this monument to his own glory. Unfortunately, Khufu’s prowess in battle is matched by his lust for women, a fatal flaw when he grows close to Joan Collins’s Princess Nellifer. ‘Nelly’ has ‘wrong ‘un’ written all over her and the young Collins is perfectly cast as a vain gold-digger.

Everything’s building up the the last scene, the sealing of the pyramid. As the pharaoh’s most loyal retainers wait inside the central tomb with their master, all around doors are sealed, slabs of stone slamming into place. For this sequence, Dimitr Tiomkin’s dramatic score is cut, leaving only the sound of enormous slabs sliding and shutting, heard by the people trapped within. It’s a moment of claustrophobic excellence, disturbing and frightening and quite out of kilter with everything that’s happened previously.

Land of the Pharaohs: ***

Mogambo (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 May (11.05 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Mogambo was John Ford’s remake of the 1932 film, Red Dust, and it’s that rarest of things when it comes to Ford flicks – average.

It had a lot going for it. Mogambo was made as Hollywood’s treatment of Africa began to change. No longer the Dark Continent of endless jungles, savage natives, Tarzan and restless danger, cameras focused more on its natural beauty and amazing wildlife, much of which appears in the film. Using Technicolor, the shoots on location are marvellous – we might have seen all this stuff many times, but a yarn in which the cast mix with African animals was something new and exotic for the mid-1950s.

Then there’s the cast. Ford was teamed with Clark Gable, reprising his star turn in Red Dust. In Mogambo, Gable plays Victor Marswell, a big game hunter whose trade is supplying animals for zoos. By now in his 50s, the star was still in good shape and his age actually suited the world weary Marswell, someone who’s supposed to have been around the block and knows the answers aren’t there. One day, he comes across good-time girl Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) taking a shower at his house. She’s here by mistake and should be the archetypal fish out of water, yet strangely her happy-go-lucky manner helps her to feel at home, not to mention raising feelings in Marswell himself.

Marswell attempts to get rid of ‘Kelly’ throughout the film (those emotions clearly aren’t welcome in his manly dwelling), but is never quite able to, either through circumstance or her resistance to being given the brush off. In the meantime, British anthropologist Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) arrives, hoping to be taken on safari by Marswell to study gorillas, and he brings along his young wife Linda (Grace Kelly). The hunter falls for her instantly, setting in place a love triangle that keeps the plot rattling along into gorilla country.

There’s plenty going along to make the show work, and in many places it does. Even the occasionally obvious mix of stock footage and the cast filmed in a Borehamwood studio set doesn’t really hurt. Both Kelly and Gardner were Oscar nominated, but while the Princess is lumbered with a role that requires her to be prim and repressed, Ava steals every scene she’s in. She’s splendid, brassy and pulling out all the stops to make the screen come alive.

Despite Ms Gardner’s best efforts, there’s no getting around the fact this is Ford in phoned-in mode. Clashes with his cast (Ford wanted Maureen O’Hara over Gardner) and a lack of interest dominated the shoot, which resulted in a meandering narrative that never really shifted into third gear. In places, it’s as though Ford simply pointed the camera in the right direction and left the cast to fend for themselves. Neither did he bother to bring the adulterous shenanigans between Gable and Kelly to life. Their’s is a passionless encounter, surely leaving audiences baffled – just like this writer – at the between-the-eyes fact that any man would choose the blousey, funny and adorable Gardner any day.

Still, Mogambo was a hit with audiences, helped by the star-studded cast but also no doubt by some cracking cinematography in Africa (photographed by Robert Surtees and Freddie Young) and an interesting soundtrack that chose tribal beats and animal noises over the usual orchestral score.

Mogambo: **

Rommel, Desert Fox (1951)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 May (3.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Desert Fox is an almost staggeringly brave film, considering it told the story of a World War II German officer sympathetically at a time when Nazis were routinely depicted as monsters. This is no ordinary Nazi, however; it’s the tale of Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel, known as the Desert Fox for his exploits in the North African theatre of war. The film depicts his successes against mounting odds and his gradual disillusionment in the German high command.

Rommel is played by James Mason, himself no stranger to difficult, edgy roles. Glossing over the Fox’s reputation for his harshness to subordinates and gambling with his men, he comes across as a respected and brilliant field commander, pragmatic and charismatic. His story becomes the subject of Desmond Young, playing himself as a captured allied soldier who briefly met Rommel and, after the war, wrote his biography. Young questions why Rommel died in 1944, and after discussions with whoever would talk to him pieced together the Marshal’s role in an assassination attempt on Hitler.

Mason plays his character’s growing dissatisfaction with the Führer to marvellous effect. At the beginning, as his command in North Africa becomes a fight he can’t win, he’s bewildered by an order from Hitler demanding ‘Victory or Death’. By the time he’s leading troops in France against a mounting tide of Allied troops, the same order comes and he realises ‘the Bohemian Corporal’ is now a liability.

Desert Fox’s attempts at realism end with Luther Adler’s portrayal of Hitler, where it’s made clear he’s a bellowing, pontificating madman. Perhaps the very suggestion the Führer could be put on screen as a rational human being who ordered the lives of willing millions was a step too far. Strangely, whilst the other actors playing Germans speak with English accents, Adler gives Hitler’s voice the kind of comic German twang that wouldn’t look out of place on Allo Allo.

Another criticism of the film is that it’s just too short. Much of Rommel’s success in North Africa is dealt with via a mixture of archive footage and Michael Rennie’s narration, which ensures the episodes we get show him always on the losing side. Everyone who discusses Rommel runs over his abilities, yet thanks to the lack of desert foxcraft we have to accept this on reputation alone. To be fair to Mason, he acts with restrained dignity, playing the Field Marshall as an assiduous figure who possesses consideration for his soldiers, very much a good man who has the misfortune of batting for the wrong side.

Desert Fox was received lukewarmly, whilst veterans of North Africa criticised its sensitive depiction of their old nemesis. In response, when 20th Century Fox released The Desert Rats two years later, Mason appeared once again as the Field Marshal, only this time playing a much nastier piece of work.

Rommel, Desert Fox: ***

Detective Story (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 April 2012 (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’m drowning – drowning in my own juice…

The more times I watch films by William Wyler, the more it’s becoming apparent he’s one of my favourite directors. 90 Take Willie, a perfectionist renowned for filming scenes over and over until he’d got exactly what he wanted from them, might be better known for his three Academy Awards for directing, and for filming on vast canvases as in The Big Country and Ben-Hur, but Detective Story is an altogether smaller affair. Filmed almost entirely on a single set (the 21st police precinct in New York) and focusing on a day in the life of both the cops and robbers who frequent it, the picture’s an intimate portrayal of one man’s descent into despair.

At first, Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) appears to have it all – the glamorous wife (Eleanor Parker) and uncompromising attitude to law-breakers. His policy of zero tolerance might very well make him the Daily Mail‘s perfect copper as he switches from case to case with crisp, almost insouciant ease. But there are flaws in his armour, witnessed by those around him (reliable character actors like William Bendix and Horace McMahon) who realise he’s a timebomb of hate and anger and spend part of their day trying to temper his force of nature. McLeod’s darker side rises to the surface with the appearance of Dr Karl Schneider (George Macready), an accused abortionist with the blood of many women on his conscience. The detective’s been trying to bring him to justice for a year and grows increasingly frustrated with his unwillingness to confess, beating him savagely on a trip to the hospital to visit a witness after Schneider suggests he has information that concerns McLeod himself.

That information turns out to concern Mrs McLeod in a story teased out by the detective’s boss, Lieutenant Monahan (McMahon). And here, McLeod’s thin veneer of self-control starts to unravel. His harshness to the mainly petty criminals brought in increases, notably to Arthur (Craig Kindred), a first timer who’s committed an offence of burglary against his employer. McLeod’s partner, Brody (Bendix), thinks that Arthur’s made a young man’s mistake and can be let off with a warning, but the detective’s having none of it, seeing Arthur as inevitably starting on a slippery slope that will lead him to the career criminality exhibited by two harder cases who’ve been brought in.

Detective Story is adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 play. Wyler uses his limited set to film from all angles, largely reflecting McLeod’s state of mind. The early shots are more controlled as he’s in calm control, concentrating mostly on the apparently endless series of cases brought to the precinct and the staff’s attempts to keep on top of everything. Later, the space surrounding Douglas seems to compress, shutting him in. The rooms he uses to talk with his wife become more cramped and claustrophobic, and it’s no surprise that the ‘talking to’ he gets from Brody takes place on the roof, the wide open cityscape at night mirroring the possibilities of a bright future he’s hearing.

The film relies on strong performances from its cast and it gets them. Douglas is at his most commanding, but there is time to explore the other lives and especially affecting is the turn delivered by Lee Grant, the petty shoplifter who’s being booked and from whose perspective much of the story unfolds. Grant was one of several cast members who reprised her role in the play, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her playing of the bewildered woman trying to cope with the dizzying blur of activity into which she’s been thrown.

Detective Story: ****

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 27 April 2012 (3.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

There are days, reader(s), when I wish someone would put me out of my misery and let me stay at home with a Film4 line-up of afternoon matinee classics. This site would have a lot less to talk about without Channel 4’s movie service and the kind of schedule that slips The Day the Earth Stood Still betwixt The Sea Chase and A Matter of Life and Death. Bliss.

This is the original version, made more than sixty years ago as a Cold War allegory and sparking a decade of science fiction flicks riffing off the paranoia of 1950s America. Forget the worthless 2008 update. Robert Wise’s tale of the benevolent alien appearing to us with a warning might look primitive, both in terms of its effects and its portrayal of American life and values, but it’s pure storytelling. And not just the over-arching plot, rather the canny way it probes gently into all its characters’ lives, whether this comes via a conversation or even a well-judged shot of someone’s reaction. Its magic lies in the lovely, warm and honest relationship between Klaatu (Yorkshire-born actor, Michael Rennie) and Bobby (Billy Gray), the way the child’s open questions and sense of wonder affects his friend from another world. Or the acceptance of Klaatu’s wisdom from Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), not to mention the very human responses of Helen (Patricia Neal) to his revelations and the stripping away of his identity.

Wise said that he wanted his film to appear believable, leading to all those reaction  shots of ordinary people, the logical curiosity and suspicion surrounding Klaatu’s flying saucer and the sentinel, Gort, in reality 7’7″ Lock Martin lumbering along in a claustrophobic robot suit. The contemporary feeling of suspicion that inspired the film was called up by composer Bernard Herrman, taking his first job since moving to Hollywood and deploying two theremins to create that famous, otherworldly atmosphere.

Watched now, there are elements of The Day the Earth Stood Still that seem quaint. The science underpinning it is incredibly limited. Klaatu is conveniently identical to human beings (this was a point the 2008 film addressed). His powers of recovery were toned down in the script so audiences wouldn’t be upset with the idea that anyone but God could be omnipotent and immortal. But these are mere quibbles and far from reason enough to avoid watching it. First time viewers are in for a real treat from science fiction’s golden age. Those who’ve seen it before – perhaps, like me, on some midweek, early evening BBC2 schedule, which used to be the optimum time to screen old monster movies – will find its worth to be absolutely intact.

And remember – Klaatu barada nikto.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: *****

Moonfleet (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 April 2012 (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Moonfleet is a 1955 offering by Fritz Lang that came towards the end of both the director’s American career and the studio system. Underfunded and unloved, the film ultimately found favour with French audiences who drew easy comparisons between its Gothic imagery and that of his earlier, German output.

It’s based on the 1898 novel by J Meade Falkner, but as is often the case the adaptation is a smash and grab of the text. The main diversion is a completely new main character, Jeremy Fox, who forms an unlikely double act with the book’s main character, young John Mohune. The setting, eighteenth century Dorset, is retained, as is the tale of south coast smugglers and skulduggery, though Fox looms large as the man with feet in both worlds – the gentleman of leisure, rubbing shoulders with the rich, and the leader of a motley crew of buccaneers. In Moonfleet, Fox is played by Stewart Granger at the apex of his box office clout. He finds the arrival of ten-year old John (Jon Whitely) an unwelcome diversion, but he’s strangely drawn to the boy, who turns up in Moonfleet at the behest of his dying mother; years ago she was Fox’s illicit lover. Back then, Fox was considered not good enough for the upper class Mohunes and was sent away with a flogging. But the years have been unkind to the family, now facing destitution, whilst Fox – thanks to his no-good profiteering – has become rich and powerful.

As the authorities steadily work out the source of Fox’s wealth, due in no small part to the testament of those he’s discarded along the way, his circumstances grow more desperate, and ultimately he comes to rely on John’s help in retrieving a long lost diamond that was hidden years ago by ‘Redbeard’ Mohune. Even in a lesser Lang there’s a dark edge, and it comes in the treacherous form of Fox, a morally bankrupt opportunist who is obviously going to double-cross John when the moment is right. This is made all the more tragic because the boy becomes swiftly devoted to his new benefactor, following him everywhere with adorable dedication and complete faith.

The reasons for the link between the two are telegraphed ahead without ever being made explicit and there are several lovely moments when Fox comes to John’s rescue without explaining why. The best of these comes in a duel between Fox and one of the treacherous buccaneers, the gentleman with his rapier battling the sort of enormous battleaxe that comes straight out of World of Warcraft. The final scene strikes an optimistic note that wasn’t in Lang’s original vision, but the director admitted later it was better than the dark and tragic climax he would have filmed.

Moonfleet clocks in at less than ninety minutes, giving it the feel of a Hammer-esque quickie that was in fact produced with 1962’s Captain Clegg, a smuggling yarn owing much to Lang’s earlier work. Captain Clegg is well worth checking out; it’s one of those Hammer releases made obscure because it didn’t deal in horror, but it deserves better and can be found tucked away on Universal’s Hammer Horror Series set. Moonfleet features less fun, yet stylistically it hits home. Much of the story is told in inky semi-darkness. Apart from John, its characters are a rogue’s gallery of grotesques. Our introduction to Fox’s gang of criminals is a shot of them glaring down at John, leering with menace and intent. The local poshos into whose company Fox works himself are little better. George Sanders puts in a reliable turn as Lord John Ashwood, who’s looking to make money from Fox’s capers. Lord John’s wife is played by Joan Greenwood, an altogether unlovely piece of work in fine silks.

Scarier than all of them is Moonfleet’s churchyard, according to legend haunted by Redbeard and concealing the hidden entrance to the smugglers’ cove. The pick of its jagged, shadowy gravestones is a glassy-eyed Angel of Death, perhaps the most frightening statue ever committed to celluloid and an early warning to John that all is far from well in the den of thieves into which he’s been sent.

Moonfleet: ***

The Sea Chase (1955)

When it’s on: Monday, 23 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Those who watch The Sea Chase out of a sense of intrigue are likely to come away disappointed. Yes, John Wayne plays a World War II German, but it’s quickly established he’s no card carrying Nazi; he even orders his men to switch off a radio broadcast of one of Hitler’s speeches early in the film. The Duke is Karl Ehrlich, captain of a battered German freighter, the Ergenstrasse. As news of the war breaks, Ehrlich and his men are docked in Sydney. Here, the captain meets his old friend, Jack Napier (David Farrar), a British naval commander, who introduces him to his German fiancé, Elsa (Lana Turner). Napier passes on the warning that the Ergenstrasse’s crew may need to be interned, but worse follows with the revelation Elsa is a spy, her role to use her womanly wiles on high ranking British officials and pass on their secrets.

Soon enough, Ehrlich is sailing out of Sydney harbour under dead of night, with Elsa on board and Napier in hot pursuit. The British feel capturing the Ergenstrasse won’t be a problem. It’s a hulk, low on fuel and supplies and no match for Britain’s finest. But Napier knows different, dropping hints that Ehrlich is a far more cunning and able seaman than his current post suggests. The scene is therefore set for a cat and mouse chase across the South Pacific.

The Ergenstrasse’s first stop is Auckland Island, home of a remote supply base. Ehrlich sends his First Officer, Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) for the requisition, who subsequently comes across some marooned British sailors and kills them. Unlike his captain, Kirchner is a proper Nazi, which broadly translates into being a nasty piece of work. His slaying of unarmed man will have fateful consequences for the ship’s crew, and for its honourable captain…

The story was adapted from Andrew Clare Geer’s novel, which in turn was based on the real-life tale of the Erlangen, a German freighter that gave its pursuers the slip and eluded capture all the way to neutral Valparaíso, Chile. A yarn that has the potential for great suspense never quite exploits it in the film. The evil Nazi on board commits no further atrocities. A crew on the verge of mutiny as the ship’s slim resources tell on morale resolves its issues as Ehrlich’s noble spirit wins everyone over. The Ergenstrasse stops for some time on the uninhabited – and fictional – Pacific island of Pom Pom Galli in order to gather as much wood as possible for the voyage to Chile. Here it stays, unmolested as the British are forced to check every South Seas island for their prey, even though Napier knows where they are likely to have gone. This makes for a tension-free chunk of movie, scenes of sweaty crewmen chopping down trees barely plugging the gaps; neither does the lukewarm chemistry between Wayne and Turner.

The Sea Chase isn’t without some worth, however.  John Farrow’s leisurely direction explores every inch of the Ergenstrasse, minuting the life of its crew in fine detail. The response of the shipmates to the death of one of their own following a shark attack is moving. The slow turnaround of Ehrlich’s popularity with his men makes narrative sense. He cares for them, making it clear he wants to get them home safely. The relationship between Ehrlich and Napier is also satisfying. There’s a mutual bond of respect, and the pain of betrayal is clear on the British officer’s face as he learns of the Auckland murder (though not its real protagonist). Wayne convinces as Ehrlich, the captain rather than the lover, and how Turner escapes more than some lingering stares as she struts around the ship in figure hugging sweaters is entirely beyond this writer. A pity none of it is as exciting as the posters (‘He was a skipper sworn never to be taken! She was the fuse of his floating time-bomb!‘) and publicity suggested.

The Sea Chase: **

The Vikings (1958)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 April 2012 (3.15 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

With a respectful nod to Mad Men, my favourite show on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, the lavish adaptation of George R R Martin’s historically inspired series of fantasy novels. HBO have done a fantastic job of bringing a complicated, adult narrative to the screen and doing so reverentially whilst introducing elements that weren’t in the text. The casting is almost entirely spot on, producing some top drawer acting. There’s a feeling of authenticity to its sets and locations; real care has been put into its production values, which reach easily the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect of HBO. If I have a small criticism of the show, it is the endless shoehorning in of nudity and sex. I’m no prude and Martin’s books are by nobody’s measure safe for the faint-hearted. Yet an episode can’t pass without a visit to the brothel, or a coupling of some kind, often a sex scene that is only implied as taking place in the text but here made clear and graphic.

It seems a strange thing to have a beef about, but then I’m not 14. Sometimes, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing happened off-screen, insinuated without the need to unfold before my eyes in messy detail. It makes me hark back to a cinema age when this is exactly how sex was dealt with, when the most we saw was a passionate kiss with all the promise it suggested. It makes me reminisce over a matinee classic like The Vikings, sort of a forebear to Game of Thrones with its culling of historical sources for the purpose of entertainment.

The Vikings is now more than fifty years old, and in places it feels like it. Some of the dialogue comes straight from that rotten stable of clichés and stilted hackneyism, the rotten nonsense you imagine the actors having to stifle the giggles whilst quoting. In an almost unbearable courtship scene between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the former has to come out with ‘Let’s not question our flesh for wanting to remain flesh’ and keep a straight face. Fortunately, the chemistry is intact thanks to the pair being real-life spouses at the time, but it’s arm-gnawing stuff.

Like all historical epics, there’s a certain obviousness to the plot that was utterly standard for this fare, yet otherwise The Vikings is a definite cut above. For one thing, there’s the trim running time. It sails home at under two hours, ensuring the padding that slowed many of these films down just isn’t there. Perhaps this was because Viking villages weren’t as costly to replicate as Roman sets, so the camera didn’t need to linger on them. The slowest it gets is during the scenes of merriment in Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) mead hall; elsewhere the pace is consistently nifty and dull moments are rare.

The research that went into The Vikings was impressive. Longboats were built to real historical specifications; it was gleaned almost too late that human beings were generally shorter and stockier a thousand years ago, which made being an oarsman on set a cramped experience. Village sets, costumes and weaponry were also designed to comply with what is known of the time. That’s a real Norwegian fjord the longboat’s sailing alongside, etc. The sense of and need for authenticity was practised as well as preached by the film’s star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas, who not only spent the majority of it wearing an enormously painful contact lens but also performed the famous oar run for real, several times, he and the stuntmen who were doing it alongside him.

Veteran action film director Richard Fleischer was drafted to do an economical job of helming the picture (which led to his nomination for Outstanding Direction by the Directors Guild of America), but the real credits belong elsewhere. Jack Cardiff was Director of Photography, churning out those wonderful, evocative shots of longboats cruising home, or disappearing into the mists. In one breathtaking scene,  Douglas’s character hears Ragnar’s ship approaching. He leaves his house to take a look, which just happens to be down a sheer cliff face, the boat a toy in the distance. I also fell in love with Mario Nascimbene’s score, which carried shades of Wagnerian grandeur and sweep but also seemed kind of melancholic. The arrangement as the Vikings leave their home for the Kingdom of Northumbria suggests the reality – not all of them are going to make it back…

After that, the rest of the film’s treats come in a generous shower. The Vikings has one of the loveliest credit sequences I’ve seen in any film, a series of animated scenes inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry as we are treated to a potted history of the people, which is narrated by the appropriately grandiose Orson Welles. That’s just the opening salvo, a promise of adventure, brotherly feuds, brilliantly staged sword fights with the music muted to let the satisfying clang of the blades ring true, Douglas and Curtis at their lusty best, Leigh at her most incredibly beautiful… There’s even a chance it could teach a thing or two to many newer productions.

The Vikings: ****