The Long Ships (1964)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 December (1.20 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

With some films, the troubled story of their making is far more interesting than the finished products. Reading about the background to The Long Ships, I’m left wondering how it managed to make it to the screen in any cohesive form at all. In truth it’s a mess of a picture, no denying that, though it isn’t without entertainment value and there’s lots to recommend about it, but I think about the problems it experienced throughout its production and find the fact we have a movie to enjoy at the end of it all to be approaching a minor miracle. The industry is full of such instances, of course. Cleopatra‘s a famous example of endless production problems, and I’ve recently been watching Hearts of Darkness, a chronicle of the ‘what could go wrong did go wrong’ making of Apocalypse Now, and as with The Long Ships I’m amazed there wasn’t a point where they didn’t just give up and go home. The reason was obviously money, too much invested to stop them from calling a halt, yet I end up admiring these people who exhausted themselves to the point of suffering breakdowns in getting the job done. If the finished films aren’t masterpieces, then there’s a point of accepting that we’re simply lucky to have something.

The Long Ships was made in an attempt to surf the wave of popularity for historical epics, most notably The Vikings, indeed it plays like a clash of the peoples from that Fleischer film and Anthony Mann’s El Cid in pitting Norsemen against Moors. There’s actual historical precedence for meetings between these two very different races, as the Vikings made incursions into Moorish Spain in the tenth century, only to be repelled. Accuracy wasn’t the first point of order for the production, however; neither was a desire to remain faithful to its source material, Frans Bengtsson’s two part novel that weaved the fantastical tale of the race and rivalry between both sides to acquire a fabled treasure. The rights to the story were acquired by Irwin Allen, who hired famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff to direct it. The choice of Cardiff seemed logical enough, given his astonishing and evocative photography for The Vikings, and the aim seems to have been to emulate that film’s success.

Cardiff later related that he thought the job would be much easier than it would turn out to be, believing it wouldn’t be so different from his experiences shooting The Vikings. Big mistake. Tito’s Yugoslavia was behind much of the film’s investment, with the production running from a studio in the Communist country. The hope was that it would encourage better relations with the West, but working there was a difficult experience. Sidney Poitier, already an Oscar winning actor and expecting star treatment, found Belgrade to filled with loathing towards him following incidents of locals clashing with African students brought in on scholarships. Richard Widmark, who was signed to play the ‘Kirk Douglas’ role, arrived with his own problems and demands, calling for nothing less than a complete rewrite of the script. This almost led to Cardiff’s departure from the production, before Widmark was persuaded that the new screenplay was a complete farce and they returned to the original.

Both lead actors had an unhappy time during the production, Widmark threatening to walk out due to clashes with Allen, and there’s something about these problems that is reflected in their performances. Widmark and Poitier act their parts as though they’re appearing in entirely different films. The latter, appearing as Moorish King Aly Mansuh, sports an incredible bouffant and plays it straight, lending his character a degree of solemn nobility, whilst Widmark comes across as a light-hearted adventurer, almost a comic performance. He plays Rolfe, a Viking marauder whose ship is wrecked off the coast of Africa. Destitute and left to sing for his supper, he’s earning a pittance by recounting tales of an enormous church bell moulded from solid gold. By chance, Aly Mansuh has been pursuing the bell all his life and captures Rolfe, demanding that he gives up the location. The Viking escapes before he can be made to talk and eventually makes it home to his father, Krok (Oskar Homolka). The family’s ruined thanks to Krok’s building of a funeral ship dedicated to the king, but Rolfe steals the boat alongside his brother, Orm (Russ Tamblyn), and a crew, with a mission to head back to Africa and find the bell, which he believes he has heard ringing and therefore knows its location. But the Moors are never far behind, and eventually their paths will lead them to seek the object together, with an air of mistrust making their mutual cause an uneasy alliance.

The plot’s rambling and a number of characters are really short-changed. Tamblyn, who’s third billed, gets very little to do and is forced to wear a costume that appears to have forgotten it needs a bottom half. A storyline that involves a kidnapped Viking princess amounts to virtually nothing, and there’s little better in store for the gorgeous Rosanna Schiaffino who plays Aly Mansuh’s favourite wife. Widmark and Poitier dominate the proceedings through sheer force of will and possible script rewrites that brought them both to the fore, at everyone else’s expense. Homolka’s role seems to demand only that he laugh hysterically at everything, as though Krok is stumbling through the entire film in a drunken stupor.

Despite everything, and there’s a lot of ‘despite’ in The Long Ships, it’s very good fun, maintains a fast pace for a two hour film and has no trouble using liberal amounts of gore (largely implied, but it does stretch the boundaries of its certification). One Moorish method of execution, a killing machine called the Steel Mare that forces the victim to slide down the length of a sharp blade, is rather blood-curdling and needs to be seen in order to be believed. Cardiff’s involvement ensures the whole production looks ravishing, its modest budget belied by some beautiful photography. It also benefits from a lovely opening sequence that narrates the legend of the bell. Designed by Maurice Binder, of 007 credits fame, it has monks shown in silhouette sourcing and crafting the bell, and it’s wonderfully done, if tonally different from anything that follows. But then that nicely describes the entire movie, a messy collage of scenes and images that come together fitfully. It isn’t consistent, but neither is it uninteresting.

Widmark and Poitier would go on to star together in the following year’s The Bedford Incident, a far more interesting, relevant and cohesively told Cold War film that better represented the strengths of its performers. In contrast, The Long Ships feels like what it is – a dumb fun adventure yarn, one that is spoken of negatively by those who were involved in it, and when you consider the production difficulties and somewhat sloppy outcome that isn’t a surprise. It was a victim of poor timing, audiences’ love for historical epics on the slide by this point, which only adds to the sense that the cast and crew would rather forget that it had been made. However years later, when this doesn’t matter and we can enjoy it on its own merits, it’s a surprisingly decent watch, rambling, silly and uneven to be certain, but not without some merit. I certainly found it an easy way to pass two hours, and when I think about the other films I mentioned that experienced troubled productions – Cleopatra and Apocalypse Now – that’s saying something.

The Long Ships: ***

Superman (1978)

When it’s on: Saturday, 10 October (3.40 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

Superman (the Movie, as it used to be referred to) holds a special place in my heart. My family acquired its first video recorder in 1981, a Betamax because back then it was a straight choice between that format and VHS. This was its virgin voyage, a title loaned from one of the video rental stores that were popping up in our town centre. I was nine years old and already developing a love for all things cinematic. We’d already seen Superman II at the cinema, grateful for the lengthy recap of what had taken place before during the opening credits because, back then, it was virtually impossible to see a film unless you’d caught it on the big screen or on television, and so it was a very big deal to be able to watch this, at our leisure and a time of our choosing, at home. It seems impossible to get across now what a treat this was. Unless you were lucky enough to own a home movie projector or the prohibitively expensive but certainly flash looking LaserDisc, this was about as good as it got. Nowadays, of course, the kids can access virtually any content they want at the click of a mouse button, but the dawn of the video age mattered, and the choice of a quality picture like Superman helped to make it an important addition to what passed for home entertainment.

The film was produced by the father-son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, whose choice of Superman was in part a good case of timing, with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars marking a return of big budget matinee entertainment. The Salkinds had scored considerable successes with their Musketeer movies (the second of which is covered here), made simultaneously to save on time and costs, and they mimicked this approach for what was intended to be a one-two punch of Man of Steelage, both to be directed by Richard Donner and featuring the same cast in a single, over-arching story. Things didn’t turn out so swell, though. The budget rocketed as the production’s special effects work proved problematic and lengthy, and the decision was made to finish the first film on the resources they had and focus on the second if it turned out well.

But along with being in the right place at the right time, the resulting film turned out to be a very good piece of work, trailing only Grease in terms of box office receipts for 1978, and earning a string of positive notices. It did well because it was made as a prestige production, hiring household names to fill much of its cast, sporting an iconic score from John Williams and sparing no expense on its production. Superman movies have been made before and since, often cheaply, and it shows. The Salkinds bet the farm on their work, or at least sunk $55 million of Warner Brothers money into it, but the effort paid off.

In the tradition of Star Wars, which cast prestigious acting talent to support its little known leads, Superman uses a raft of big names. Gene Hackman was one of the major box office draws of the 1970s and was hired to play arch-villain, Lex Luthor. Bringing a lot of comedy to the role, especially when playing against his buffoonish sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty), Hackman manages the fine balance between humour and nastiness, feeling nothing but naked ambition and greed over the prospect of destroying California. An even bigger name, Marlon Brando, plays Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. Paid an enormous $3.7 million for the ten minutes he appears on the screen, Brando’s stately gravitas nevertheless made the whole Krypton prologue convincing. Even smaller supporting roles were handed to Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews as a pair of Krypton elders, both renowned veterans of British cinema. Another British star, Susannah York, appears very briefly as Jor-El’s wife and Superman’s mother. Terence Stamp makes a cameo as Kyptonian villain, Zod, setting the character up for his meatier role in the sequel. On Earth, Superman’s Smallville parents are played by two stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Phillis Thaxter and Glenn Ford, the latter one of America’s most popular stars of the 1940s and 50s. Jackie Cooper, who had been Oscar nominated in 1931 at the age of nine, plays the bad tempered editor of the Daily Planet, Perry White, chewing his way gloriously throughout every scene in which he appears. There are even cameos for the two stars of the 1940s Superman serial, Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who show up very briefly as Lois’s parents.

The two main roles, those of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, were the subject of endless casting, a string of actors trying out for the parts. For the former, pretty much everyone who was anyone was approached. Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds were all linked. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted the part, largely on the strength of his physique. Once Donner was attached as director, the decision was made to hire an unknown, and whilst Christopher Reeve was initially considered too skinny to be Superman, Donner felt that he could bulk up and the actor went through six months of body-building under the tutelage of Dave Prowse in order to prepare for the part. Good call. Though the film’s special effects, whilst primitive by today’s standards, were state of the art, it’s Reeve’s performance that sells the existence of Superman, also the duality of his identity as he’s just as good in the role of the nervous, clumsy, forever fiddling with his spectacles Clark Kent. There’s one scene where, dressed as Clark, Superman is prepared to reveal himself to Lois. Suddenly, the shoulders straighten, the posture becomes more erect, the face sharper, before he rethinks his decision and morphs back, and there are no effects involved in this moment, just good acting, and you see how he’s clinched the two characters perfectly. Anne Archer and Stockard Channing were among the actresses considered for the part of Lois, but the final choice of Margot Kidder was another masterstroke. A Canadian who only moved to the USA in 1970, Kidder sounds like a born and bred New Yorker, ballsy and assured, before her interactions with Superman make all that melt away.

Superman isn’t a short film. I watched the 2000 restoration version for this, a good two and a half hours, and yet the time flies by. There’s just so much happening, big swathes of exposition explained quickly before the action moves on. Donner makes the decision to treat the material seriously, giving Superman an almost iconographic status, which Reeve also bought into, feeling that the values his character stood for were worth all the effort in his work and performance. This is in sharp contrast to parts of the second film and all the third, with Richard Lester taking over and adding stronger comedic elements. Whilst this film contains humour, it posits a world into which the man of steel enters as a reality, and the film is all the better for it. In later entries, much of this would be replaced with knowing winks at the audience, a ‘you and I both know this is nonsense, right?’ attitude that can’t help but dilute the story’s impact because it has little credibility remaining.

And of course, with serious money behind it the effects on Superman are pretty good, indeed they’re strangely better than any entry up to 2006’s Superman Returns because of the investment and commitment to quality. Most of the flying scenes are as seamless as they could ever be, though the cracks appear in certain places, such as the dam bursting scene that borrowed footage from Earthquake. On the whole though, it’s possible to come away from Superman believing that a man can fly, which is a key element in the film’s success. And finally, the score. This period really did belong to John Williams, who provided iconic music for the likes of Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman might be his best work of the lot. The film’s beginning really ramps up the showcase to come, the music building through a very brief introduction before the credits start flying out of the screen and then the signature tune takes over with the appearance of the Superman logo. Classic stuff.

These days, superhero flicks are an industry in themselves thanks to the output by Marvel and increasingly DC. I admit to getting increasingly bored with them, particularly as the majority follow what feels like an identical plotline and everything appears to depend on CGI splashed liberally across the screen and lots of noise. They all owe a debt to Superman, for me the first of the big budget comic book adaptations and still the best.

Superman: ****

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

When it’s on: Friday, 10 July (12.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m a complete sucker for matinee flicks and today’s entry, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, is about as good as they get. From the start, it reminds me of misspent youthful Bank Holidays, idling in front of the television, letting the simple fantasy and imagination wash over me. There’s just nothing to dislike here, from the winning lead performance of Kerwin Mathews, Torin Thatcher’s villainy, winsome Kathryn Grant, through to Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score and, of course, the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen. I remember catching it many moons ago and being impressed enough to wonder what the other six voyages had been like!

It’s easy to see Harryhausen’s stop motion work as looking hopelessly out of date, which it is obviously. But put yourself into the mind of someone going to see this in 1958, viewing these wonders for the very first time. Harryhausen was by this stage acknowledged as the master of special effects, his work producing giant gorillas (Mighty Joe Young), an artificially enlarged octopus (It Came from Beneath the Sea) and dinosaurs (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Real creatures, transformed into terrifying monsters. Whilst 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth toyed with his first creature wholly of the imagination, it was here that he really went to town, tapping into ancient mythology to provide the beasts that Sinbad comes across. The giant cyclops, dragon, roc and, naturally, a sword fighting skeleton, all brought to glorious life and featuring heavily in the story. Of these, I think I like the Roc the best for the thought that Harryhausen decided to insert an enormous eagle into his picture and then gave it two heads… just because he could. Then there’s the skeleton, to all intents and purposes duelling seamlessly with Mathews’s Sinbad. To make the scene more effective, the actor trained with an Olympic fencing master in order to look the part, thrusting and parrying with fresh air before his opponent was inserted into the film later.

The film was based on the character Sinbad from One Thousand and One Nights, though that’s about all retained from the account of his seventh voyage. Nevertheless, having read the book several years ago, I think it does a nice job of holding onto the spirit of its chance encounters leading to moral decisions that ultimately affect the outcome. Many of the creatures in the film appear at various points in the book, and Scheherazade’s imaginative outpouring of fantastical creatures is certainly present and correct.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was not the first cinematic appearance of the title character, yet it hurls him straight into action as a seaman and adventurer of distinction, charged with transporting the Princess Parisa (Grant) to his home land of Persia. The two are to be married, which will secure peace between his realm and that of her father’s. On the way, they stop at the island of Colossa to pick up supplies, and as a ‘bonus’ find a magician, Sokurah (Thatcher), who’s busy fleeing from a Cyclops, armed only with a lamp. Obviously it’s magic, Sokurah explaining it contains a genie that can be summoned to make his wishes come true. With the genie’s (Richard Eyer) help, they escape the Cyclops, but not before it recaptures the lamp. This scene works well because whilst the genie has erected a kind of invisible force field that separates the Cyclops from Sinbad’s crew, it’s hardly stupid and figures out that it can hurl a rock over the barrier to capsize their rowing boat.

Back in Baghdad, Sokurah’s pleas to return to Colossa with Sinbad’s help and retrieve the lamp are met with refusal, so he uses his magic to miniaturise Parisa and advises the only way she can be restored is via materials that can be found in just one place. And so they return, with a tiny princess on board and a crew that is now augmented with condemned men from the Persian jails. The prisoners revolt, take over the ship, and after further adventures hit Colossa and its various creatures.

It’s obvious that at some stage Sinbad will figure out Sokurah’s treachery, find a way to return Parisa back to her natural form and escape with the genie, which takes the form of a small boy longing to be just that, working a future as the sailor’s cabin boy. But getting there is such fun, thrill after spill crammed into less than ninety minutes of action directed breathlessly by Harryhausen’s regular collaborator, Nathan Juran. Mathews, unlikely ever to be considered an acting great, is fine value as Sinbad, interacting well with the creatures and buckling his swash to suitably dramatic effect. He was no one’s idea of the new Errol Flynn, but he was handsome, lithe and knew how to look good wielding a sword, and that’s what mattered here. The cross-eyed Thatcher is a great villain, affecting a vague Middle Eastern accent and shaving his head, all adding to an inscrutable performance of rather subtle evil that only becomes more explicit later in the story when the stakes are raised.

Mathews and Thatcher played against each other once more in 1962’s Jack the Giant Killer, again directed by Juran but this time utilising the effects work of Jim Danforth. Harryhausen struggled to forgive the director and had the last laugh when the film’s stop motion animation wasn’t up to scratch, although the overall effect was somewhat scarier than the family friendly work produced for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In the meantime, Harryhausen went on to even greater heights with his designs for 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, in which the hero had to fight not one skeleton but seven, though not before encountering the titanic iron colossus, Talos, arguably the greatest creation of them all. What worked well in Jason was just as effective here, the interactions between actors and beasts. The scene with the Roc is brilliant because its attack comes with wings flapping, sending gusts of wind to assault the men. Even better is the skeleton fight, a bonus extra on the disc showing Mathews attacking nothing before it was spliced into the picture, the effect virtually perfect and the action rousing enough to quash any attempt to spot the ‘joins’. It’s a great film that never loses its sense of fun.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: ****

Ben-Hur (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 April (3.05 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I did have something different in mind to cover today – Miyazaki’s gorgeous ode to childhood, My Neighbour Totoro, in case you’re wondering – but hey, it’s Easter, and considering this is a site often driven by nostalgia I wanted to look instead at a picture I consider to be quintessential viewing for the season.

Ben-Hur isn’t the only Easter movie, obviously; neither can it claim to be the only Biblical Epic with some link to the season. Staying with the nostalgic note, it takes me back to childhood Easters, when the school break and especially the four-day Bank Holiday weekend was a time for classical epic cinema to dominate the schedules. King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. And then there was the Zefferilli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as the eponymous son of God heading inexorably towards Calvary. I used to gorge on this stuff, often I confess devoured with Easter Eggs. These films were invariably long-haul affairs and opened my eyes to a stylised ancient world with all those fabulous sets, costumes and armies of extras. We might have had a mini-revival of epicry with the likes of Gladiator and Troy in more recent years, but the difference back then was in knowing that those colossal Roman scenes were all created to look full scale; the people in contemporary costumes were really there.

Ben-Hur was the biggest of them all. It’s very, very long, leaving the viewer with little change from four hours. It was a serious award winner, holding the record for number of Oscars claimed for many years, until Titanic and The Return of the King came along, and even then only won enough to share the record, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that all three films are fine examples of, in their own way, epic cinema. Spectacle counts, after all. It’s in part what the industry is based on, the opportunity to show audiences things they would never get to see otherwise, and where Ben-Hur is concerned the timing of its release really mattered. Put yourself in the place of a 1959 working class viewer, somewhere colourless, like in northern England perhaps, and then imagine the feast for your eyes that this movie would have been. These films were made to persuade the public to switch off their little black and white television sets and go back to the cinema, watch something made in dazzling Technicolor, on a wide canvas, the stereo sound blasting out, and into which millions of dollars had clearly been plunged. It must have been a deliriously rich experience, the sort of thing we so rarely get these days as the studios basically out-CGI each other and audiences know intrinsically that everything they are watching is produced artificially.

I’ve never read General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century novel, on which this – and a number of earlier versions of the story – is based, but it was a major bestseller in its day, indeed at one point claimed to be second only to the Bible in terms of units shifted. I think, however, that it sold so well because it’s a glorious concoction of a very personal story told against the biggest backdrop possible. Much of it is a tale of revenge, and the man seeking vengeance has about as good a reason for doing so as any. It’s a yarn many of us can empathise with, though the pay-off for our hero comes when his actions happen to cross his path with that of Jesus and he learns, before the end, from the influence of Christ to quell his hateful thirst and focus on forgiveness, gaining some peace of heart at last. However faithful you happen to be, it’s a good story, simple morality clashing with complicated individuals and their entangled, damaged lives.

In the film, Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, at the height of his fame and working once again with director William Wyler after their collaboration on The Big Country. Heston’s quality as a leading man in the biggest productions had already been evidenced in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. With sufficient gravitas and presence, he was one of the few actors who could stand tall with plagues and parting seas taking place around him, and he was the perfect choice to take on Ben-Hur. His character is a rich Jewish nobleman in a country that has been conquered and is now ruled by Rome. His childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), is a Roman Tribune who has risen through the ranks to become the regional army commander. Messala knows from his own experiences that Judea will not be an easy place to control given the troublesome population, and this – mixed in with his own ambition – makes him consider shows of cruelty to be the most effective way of guaranteeing order. However, when he asks Judah to help by identifying the chief troublemakers, his friend sees it as a betrayal of his countrymen and has to refuse, which sets the pair up as mutual enemies. Sure enough, during an armed procession through the streets of Jerusalem, Judah’s family watching from their rooftop terrace, his sister accidentally causes a loose tile to fall to the ground, nearly killing the governor, and Messala uses the incident as a pretext to ruin the family. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Judah himself is sold as a galley slave. His life, they believe, is over.

What Messala doesn’t figure on is Judah’s survival instinct, belying the mortality rate of the average slave and driven by thoughts of revenge into continuing. Rowing in a warship. For four long years. A naval battle takes place and the ship for which he rows is hit, but he manages to get free and save a Consul, the patrician Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who’s fallen into the sea. Despite the loss of his own boat, Arrius, who was commanding the battle, wants to kill himself as a consequence of what he perceives to be his failure and is only prevented from doing so by Judah, but later finds he’s won a major victory and takes the slave with him for his victory parade, both in thanks for saving his life and in respect for his spirit. Judah’s fortunes have transformed once again. He’s adopted by Arrius and his prestige as a young Roman nobleman begins to rise. But his lust for vengeance remains, and knowing of Messala’s participation in the famous Jerusalem chariot races he plans to confront his old nemesis in the arena. Even a strange experience he had when he was at his lowest ebb can’t quench it. During his initial enslavement, Judah was marched across the desert in chains along with the other captives; in Nazareth he finally collapses through sheer exhaustion, thirst and mainly despair, when a young carpenter offers him water. He’ll meet the man again and gain an important life message from those meetings.

Judah’s final redemption doesn’t happen until very late in Ben-Hur. Until then, he’s a cauldron of hate and Heston plays the part superbly, his face a rictus of revenge, indeed I can’t recall seeing acting that brings out so well the urge to strike back. It’s a performance that adds real bite to the story, one in which Jesus has a small but critical part to play, and for the most part focuses on human rage. Heston, speaking through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, commands every scene he’s in, though Boyd does well as the villain. There’s an argument for suggesting a hidden complexity to his role, and I’m not referring to the legend that he was told to play Messala as having a past sexual relationship with Judah in order to add nuance to their scenes together. Clearly the character sees himself as having a job to do in Judea, and that his rough justice against Ben-Hur isn’t so much motivated by paying him back for his lack of support but more the simple act of showing the people what happens to those with anti-Roman sentiment. That suggests Messala is a good old-fashioned megalomaniac, though there’s also sufficient levels of pent up anger in his acting to give the impression of a strong personal dimension in the mix also. Essentially, the fractured relationship between the pair boils enough to add levels of tension to the fateful chariot race, turning it into the ultimate personal battle.

There are some cinema scenes that stay with you forever, whether they’re small, personal moments loaded with significance or those on the largest scale possible. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is one of those, certainly in the latter bracket, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the greatest scenes I am ever likely to see. The entire film has been building up to it, and when it happens it doesn’t disappoint, not just for the suspense but the massive spectacle it produces. There’s that enormous arena, with its racetrack wrapping around two massive statues. The cheering crowds high up in the stands above. The ornamental fish, one of which is dipped with each lap. The chariots with their teams of four horses; obviously Messala’s are black, Judah’s white Arabic. The real sense of danger as the chariots navigate around the hairpin bends, often crashing into one another. The way that Messala’s chariot wheels, in one final sign of his evil nature, are armed with spikes for cutting into anyone who gets too close to his carriage. The rather excellent stunt work, especially when Judah’s chariot has to somehow jump over another that has collapsed directly in his path. The absence of Rosza’s score and instead letting the noise of the hurtling chariots and the spectators dominate the soundtrack. So many elements just to produce this one bravura scene; it’s worth the admission price alone and little wonder, considering it’s a ten minute sequence within a far larger film, that it’s the one dominating all the art work, posters, trailers and peoples’ memories of Ben-Hur.

The final straw for Judah has comes when he discovers that his mother and sister, imprisoned years earlier by Messala, have contracted leprosy, which effectively means their death sentence. This is devastating for the hero, even after he’s had his revenge, leading him to question everything he’s worked towards and if anything builds his levels of internal anger. Yet it’s no accident that the film has dovetailed his story very carefully with that of Jesus. Opening with a beautifully filmed Nativity scene, Ben-Hur shows how the young Christ’s reputation as a prophet has grown. When Messala arrives in Judea, the departing commander, played by André Morell, tells him that he finds Jesus’s teachings to be surprisingly profound, and there’s more as Judah finds himself coming increasingly into the world of those who have listened to his sermons. As the archetypal angry young man, Judah sees nothing for him in the teachings of peace and forgiveness, but the film’s culmination at the crucifixion turns into the final piece in his own redemptive arc.

I’m a confirmed atheist, so a yarn that relies on the power of Christ to deliver hope into someone’s shattered life could be something for an old cynic like me to sneer at. But you know what, I find it to be a rather lovely message. Whether you believe in any of this or not, there’s no denying the power of a man who’s had little to feel happy and at peace about suddenly having an epiphany thanks solely to someone else’s message and self-sacrifice, which at heart is the story of Ben-Hur. The film takes an interesting stylistic choice in never showing Jesus’s face, only filming him from behind or at a distance, and depending on the reactions of other characters towards him in marking him out as someone special. This is never better revealed than in his meeting with a Roman centurion, who is utterly unable to do anything but just stare at him, all his beliefs and conviction temporarily confounded.

If there’s a downside to the Ben-Hur, it’s in that formidable running time. Epic cinema rarely produced the briskest narratives; everything was in the scope, the sense of ‘we paid a lot of money for these sets so we’re going to linger on them for a bit longer, damn it!’ at the expense of pace. Those used to the snappily edited ethic of twenty first century film making are likely to find it rather grandiose and stately. And not all of it works. I find many of the film’s more romantic interludes, the scenes between Heston and Haya Harareet’s Esther to distract from the main story, to an extent shoehorned in to a tale of vengeance. There’s nothing especially wrong with the performances of either actor during these moments, just the level of distraction from the main narrative, the comparative lack of interest that these bits generate.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and Ben-Hur remains the jewel in Wyler’s crown. A meticulous director with an attention for detail and propensity for multiple takes that defined his directorial style, he serves up almost the ultimate visual treat here, a drama that just seems to grow and grow in stature until it culminates in the legendary chariot race, filmed on the largest scale and providing a real pay-off for viewers who have sat through more than two hours of build-up to it in the best way possible. It’s all the more impressive because, amidst the grand scale, it never loses sight of the personal drama at its heart, the magnificent hatred between Judah and Messala. Talking of the latter, whilst the film won all its Academy Awards, the oversight in the case of Boyd stands as one of those historically unfair snubs. The Best Supporting Actor award instead went to Hugh Griffith, who plays a kindly Sheikh, whilst Boyd wasn’t even nominated. Griffith is fine, absolutely fine, but the picture belongs to Heston and Boyd and it’s those two characters that you remember afterwards.

There’s a sparkling recent and restored version of Ben-Hur that’s available to buy, which even has its own glossy website (it’s worth a visit, not just for the way it showcases the chariot scenes but for the gimmick of showing us some of Heston’s on-set diary entries). I still own the 2006 four-disc release, with which I have no complaints. The main feature is spread over two discs, looking as glorious and fresh as I could wish for really. Disc three contains the 1925 film, which was pretty much the, er, Ben-Hur of its day. Made every bit as lavishly as the film discussed here, there’s a clear link between the chariot races in both films, and it matters also that Wyler worked on that production as an Assistant Director and staffed one of the 42 cameras operating on chariot set. The final disc carries some great ‘Making Of’ extras, including a piece that talks about the influence of Ben-Hur over the years, interviewing directors who have since gone on to make epics of their own and cite this as a significant reference point. I think it also comes with a warning. The pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace might be the most glaring example of a sequence inspired by Ben-Hur, but it also shows much of what’s wrong, I believe, with modern cinema, the possibilities opened up by CGI that turned the sequence into something from a video game and removing any degree of credibility and identification. Who can possibly ‘feel’ anything for a film where the things that happen couldn’t possibility be endured by a human being?

Ben-Hur: ****

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 March (12.55 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

The premise of Fantastic Voyage is this – the Cold War simmers on, and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have developed the technology to miniaturise objects and even human beings. The possibilities this represents are perceived to be decisive potentially, but there’s a catch. The miniaturisation process lasts for only sixty minutes, after which the subject will irrevocably expand back to the original size. One Russian boffin has discovered a solution and, even better, he wants to defect to the west. Getting off the plane on US soil, he’s gunned down by enemy agents, and is left fighting for his life, comatose and with a blood clot on his brain. Not removing the clot will kill him, and the only way to do so is to use the new process, inject a microscopic team of surgeons into the man’s bloodstream and get them to use a laser to clear it. All in the space of an hour.

Enter Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who helped the scientist to defect. He joins the small crew taking a submarine, the Proteus, into the scientist’s body. His fellows include mission leader, Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). As the team is miniaturised, the procedure is overseen by military staff who work through innumerable cups of coffee and cigars whilst the ‘operation’ takes place.

Fantastic Voyage was one of those films that constantly seemed to be on television when I was a child. A major success and rather a thrilling premise, the fun was had from the moment the team enters the scientist’s bloodstream and experience the human body from a unique perspective. Thrillingly, the plot moves as quickly as possible to get them to this juncture, and the hour they spend in miniature form is played in close to real time, the countdown adding to the tension as they face various pitfalls on their journey. What makes it even better is that one of the crew is clearly a double agent and out to sabotage the mission, a plot Grant attempts to uncover as the minutes tick away.

Watched now, the cracks start to appear. The biology seems sound enough to layman viewers and there’s a note of authenticity before the film starts to add to its gravitas. Leonard Rosenman’s score doesn’t kick in until they’re in the bloodstream, as though giving the piece a documentary feel. However, the miniaturisation, whilst a cleverly assembled sequence, is straight out of science fiction. It’s a great process, the submarine shrunk until it’s the size of a toy car, before it’s placed carefully into a big cylinder of liquid that is then diminished so that it can form the trunk of a syringe. But it’s crazy, and they know it, keeping technobabble to a minimum so that audiences can enjoy the ride without being fobbed off with a pat explanation of how it all works.

The main length of the film, whilst the crew are inside the man, is good stuff, utilising contemporary cutting edge special effects that don’t look so terrible now (and indeed, it was for technical achievements that it won two Academy Awards). I like the scenes inside the lungs, which look like an alien landscape from an episode of Star Trek, when it’s explained that what appears to be rocks are in fact specks of dust. The whole sequence reminds me of the Starship Enterprise’s lengthy flight to the centre of V’ger in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which makes sense as Kirk and his crew were traversing the extended ‘body’ of the little probe.

But it is hokum, complete fiction, and this was recognised by writer Isaac Asimov, who was approached to pen the novelisation. At first dismissive, Asimov went ahead with the job with the proviso that he could lessen some of the film’s crazier leaps in logic, for instance dealing with the destruction of the Proteus. In the film, white blood cells attack and destroy the submarine, but any bits of wreckage left behind would be sure to expand after an hour, bursting horribly from within the scientist. Along with the discarded laser gun, this turned into a fatal oversight that was resolved in the book, though clearly it was hoped the excitement of the climactic moments would excise any of this from the thoughts of viewers.

Fantastic Voyage was directed by sure hand Richard Fleischer, who brought some of his technical people from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to help make the show look more realistic. Fleischer knew how to make a tale tick along, aware that audiences would want to get from the set-up to the realisation as quickly as possible and not wasting time in making it unfold. Boyd was entirely capable of playing square jawed heroes and, despite having no medical experience, comes to suggest solutions to the crew members that keep the mission going, relying on little more than his sense of authority and charisma. Kennedy’s job is to come out with philosophical statements that bring to life the wonders of the human body, saying things like ‘Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought’ whilst looking on in sheer amazement. Welch, who at the time was in the process of attaining stardom, has little to do beyond look good in her tight fitting (obviously) scuba diving costume and get into situations of peril, as in the moment when she’s attacked by antibodies and has the indignity of her fellow crew members removing them from all over her body. As for Pleasance, he’s one of those actors, like Herbert Lom and Brian Cox, whose presence removes any sense of mystery when there’s a secret villain within the crew…

The film inspired an animated series, novels and a comic book, and talks continue over the possibility of a remake, with various illustrious directors attached. It does seem to be one of those stories tailor-made for a twenty first century update, and there’s something tantalising about recreating the ‘inner space’ scenes using the latest CGI technology. For now, there’s this version, which remains a slice of good fun and certainly doesn’t fail to thrill, as in the famous scene involving a pair of dropped scissors, something mundane that creates great suspense.

Fantastic Voyage: ***

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I’m mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea’s ass at 200 meters. So why don’t you go hump somebody else’s leg, mutt face, before I push yours in.

In December 1986, an American film was released that completely rewrote the book on movie-making with a war theme. Humanistic and unsparing, it called an end to the blindly triumphal, chest-beating tone of war-related films that dominated the first half of the decade. That film was, of course, Platoon.

Released in the same month, Heartbreak Ridge was like a last throw of the old method, more channelling Top Gun (the year’s biggest success) than Oliver Stone’s opus and looking now like a bit of a relic. Even more strangely, it was directed by Clint Eastwood, an auteur clearly capable of better than this. And yet, at some point in the process Eastwood appears to have carefully detached certain nodes of his brain in order to revert to type, once again playing a character inspired by Harry Callaghan and making a film that’s been seen millions of times before.

James Carabotsis’s script was based on a real-life incident from the USA’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. At one point during the attack, a paratrooper used a pay-phone to call for extra support and was forced to use his credit card as the command unit wouldn’t accept the charges. This and a scene where the soldiers commandeer a bulldozer to charge an enemy position are the only two moments from the actual invasion to make the final cut. Eastwood wanted the Army’s support to make his film, but this was turned down as the hardline, hard-drinking hard as nails character he was playing didn’t chime with the image it wanted to promote. Instead, he turned to the US Marines, which duly backed Heartbreak Ridge and in turn swapped an army invasion of the Caribbean island into one undertaken by the Marines. Incidentally, the Marines also withdrew their support once the film was viewed.

What they objected to was one of the film’s more interesting themes. There are a couple of elements to Heartbreak Ridge that, had they been given more emphasis, could have led to a much more absorbing picture. The training camp to which Eastwood is assigned is portrayed as divisive and self-serving. His character, veteran soldier Tom ‘Gunny’ Highway, uses brute force and an iron will to get the best from his corps. They’re a dissolute bunch, completely resentful of his hardcore efforts to turn them into soldiers, but over the course of the film they come to respect his approach and his service record. The camp’s commanding officer, played by Everett McGill, is disdainful of Gunny and views his ‘recon’ corps as little more than cannon fodder. This turns into active dislike as the unlikely Marines start getting the better of his own, supposedly elite men. Whilst this picture of a Marine corps riven by jealousy and distrust was a big factor in the pulling of the forces’ backing, it’s no doubt actually happened before and makes for a fascinating image of soldiers trained to work as a single machine yet undermined by human nature. Also good are Gunny’s ham-fisted attempts to reconciliate with his ex-wife (Martha Mason), which he does by reading women’s magazines to get a better understanding of what makes her tick.

Unfortunately, these aspects are sunk in a by-the-numbers tale of the unlikeliest group of squaddies imaginable being bullied into a fighting force by Gunny, who the DVD box describes brilliantly as ‘dog-faced’. Of the trainees, endless focus is placed on Mario Van Peebles’s part-time rap star and his weak tunes (more a poor man’s Prince than Public Enemy). Sure enough, Mario’s feelings for his Sergeant change when he learns the meaning of ‘Heartbreak Bridge’, a position Gunny won great honour at during the Korean War. The moment’s telegraphed, like much of the rest of the picture as its cliches fall neatly in line. Gunny has to impose himself on his men by beating up the massive Swede? Check. Gunny’s fractured relationship with his commanding officer will manifest itself in a fist fight? You got it. His troop will become the pivotal fighting force in Grenada? Why sure.

Heartbreak Ridge has its admirers because it delivers on the things that fans of the likes of Top Gun crave after – where there are obvious gaps, the script throws in bad language on an industrial scale and some incredible dialogue (see the above quote). But it’s an empty, lunk-headed experience, when other people were busy doing Eastwood’s job for him by reinventing the war genre.

Heartbreak Ridge: **

El Dorado (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 2 June (6.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

No Bond today, ITV focusing instead on the French Open and and an England friendly match. With Euro 2012 starting on Friday, one wonders whether 007 will be kicked around the schedules for several weeks to come – heaven knows what Q Branch would make of that…

Still, there’s plenty within the schedule elsewhere to chew upon. 5USA – a channel that remains relatively virgin territory where this site is concerned – serves up El Dorado as its early evening offering. A film made in 1966 but held back for the best part of a year (unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan) to give Nevada Smith a clean tilt at the box office and again to accommodate The War Wagon, it now feels like something from the previous decade. By the time it was released to American audiences, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been unleashed onto the States after a successful European run and the clash of styles was a jarring of old and new perspectives. Leone approached Fistful with a mind to deliver something fresh, vital, visceral and separate from the oft-stagnant production line of American Westerns. El Dorado remained true to its classical roots. The latter, while no slouch in terms of ticket sales, couldn’t compete culturally and has become a footnote in the careers of its stars (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum) and famed director Howard Hawks. The unavoidable impression that it’s a retread of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo didn’t help its critical summation as personifying a genre that had run out of gas.

In 2012, El Dorado can be enjoyed thoroughly on its own merits, of course, without needing to place it within the context of its initial release. And it is, at heart, a perfectly watchable picture that plays right into the affections of Wayne fans. The Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger for hire who rejects a contract with rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner) when he realises it would pitch him against an old friend and the Sheriff of El Dorado, JP Harrah (Mitchum). The months pass. Thornton has teamed up with a young greenhorn named Mississippi (James Caan) and via him learns that a slick gunfighter has taken up Jason’s offer of work. Figuring the danger this spells for Harrah, he returns to El Dorado with Mississippi, who’s freshly armed with a fearsome shotgun, only to find JP in his cups and utterly unable to help himself, let alone anyone else, as the villains close in.

From here, El Dorado effectively becomes Rio Bravo, the three unlikely buddies holed up in the sheriff’s building alongside Harrah’s wisecracking deputy, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and facing huge odds. As in Hawks’s previous film, it celebrates the diverse ‘family’ that’s been pitched together, and whilst it’s an idealised version of the Western it’s an altogether winning one. Wayne plays Wayne, naturally, but Mitchum is a more effective soak than Dean Martin and Caan wipes all memories of Ricky Nelson off the screen. Fortunately, the latter quotes Poe’s poetry rather than sing and is on hand largely for his comic asides. Apart from one utterly awful and dated gag (providing 5USA doesn’t cut it – which would be understandable – you really can’t miss it), he’s very good in the part.

The downside of the film is that it’s little more than comfort viewing. It says nothing new about the genre, simply retreading old ground and filling in the gaps with comedy (a fight between Wayne and a pissed Mitchum is played entirely for pratfalls). Most of the hard edges from Harry Brown’s source novel were smoothed out by Hawks and Leigh Brackett, only an early tragedy retained to showcase Wayne’s nobility and to remind us the Old West was a tough place. Not that there’s anything so wrong with its attempt to show us more of the same. Its ideals and values – really those of Rio Bravo – have been copied many times, showing there’s always life in this old dog. Speaking of which, Pauline Kael might have criticised Wayne and Mitchum for their ‘exhausted’, middle-aged performances, and she might even have had a point, but they seem entirely relaxed in their roles, at ease with the world their characters live in, which only adds to the film’s overall charm. And I think it’s with affection for Hawks’s old world vision that El Dorado should be viewed.

El Dorado: ***