Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 September (11.05 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Movies about exorcism continue to be good box office, years after the original The Exorcist hit the screens. Quality varies. Most seem content to rehash Friedkin’s 1973 classic, with direct sequels and even a rebooted TV version by Fox showing there’s life in the old dog, even if it’s very much one with fleas. Many films make an effort to lend credibility to their sensational content by claiming links to true stories, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose is no different in that regard. Its inspiration is the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died in 1976 after attempts to exorcise the demonic spirits possessing her couldn’t halt her demise through malnutrition and dehydration. While the courts found the priests and her parents guilty of negligent homicide, their sentences were minimised to suspended jail terms, which transformed the case into a worldwide sensation. The devout continue to make pilgrimages to her grave.

Michel’s story is here Americanised by Scott Derrickson and focuses on the legal drama that takes place after Emily’s death. Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, a defence attorney appointed on behalf of Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest in whose care Emily had placed herself and who helped her to reject medical care in favour of a spiritual cure. Bruner, a religious Agnostic with a successful defence of a suspected serial killer who’s gone on to repeat his crimes behind her, wants the Priest to plea bargain, but he isn’t interested. In his eyes, Father Richard isn’t guilty. He worked according to Emily’s own wishes and believes he did the right thing. The trial is his opportunity to tell Emily’s story, and over the course of the film her account is related.

As is made clear, The Exorcism of Emily Rose falls down squarely on the side of the Priest, the spiritual dimension. The trial progresses, as Bruner is plagued by strange noises and smells that occur every night at 3.00 am. Her star witness is a doctor who dies after he too is assailed by demonic forces. Above all is Emily’s tale. A devout girl from a Christian family that lives on a remote farm, Emily wins a scholarship to attend college and is soon after targeted by demons. Attempts to medicate her for diagnosed epilepsy lead to naught but further episodes and declining health. Emily ultimately turns to Father Moore, who agrees to perform the exorcism ceremony and witnesses firsthand the malevolent spirits controlling her. When she passes away, it’s as a consequence of refusing to eat over many months and the failure of the exorcism attempt. She depends on the Father to tell her story, which is what he does during the trial in an effort to prove the existence of angels and demons.

All this leads to some standard ‘exorcism’ scenes, the noble, steadfast preacher confronted with a wailing, thrashing possessed girl, speaking in tongues, sometimes reacting violently, contorting her body into impossible physical positions. It’s impressive to note that much of the latter is down to Jennifer Carpenter’s extraordinary flexibility as a performer, double-joined limb contortions that won her the role in rehearsals and look incredible on the screen. Her increasingly hysterical acting convinces, giving the impression of the girl suffering from untold mental and physical torture. Some special effects work was obviously carried out; no one can bend their spines the way she does in the film, yet much of it just her and it’s very good, and it makes the scenes including CGI that bit less convincing. Fortunately this is kept to a minimum, reserved for jump scares that are mercifully few, the tone on the whole making for an unsettling atmosphere of quietly mounting dread that for the most part works very well.

At the same time, because the film is in favour of its tale of possession, it fails in the end. Wilkinson’s Priest is presented as an infallible man of conscience. There’s little doubt that his character is on the right path, that he hasn’t made a mistake in giving Emily wholly over to a Christian cure, and this imbalances what could have been a clever courtroom drama, leaving audiences questioning the verdict. Because Bruner’s on the side of truth, her opposite number on the bench, Campbell Scott’s prosecution lawyer, becomes more petty minded and at times a bully, attempting to cajole the virtuous Father Moore, completely losing the audience’s sympathies when, in reality, the weight of evidence and the advantage of hard-headed realism would work in his favour. We’d believe in him, rather than see him increasingly as a villain, which is how he ends up being perceived. Multiple perspectives of the same scene show both the terrifying vision from Emily’s perspective and the bemused looks from onlookers as she appears to be suffering from delusions, and this is an angle I would have liked to have seen occur more. As it is, the film leaves us in no doubt of where its sympathies lie, who’s right, whereas you imagine a cleverer work would present both sides rationally and leave it up to us ultimately to make up our minds.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose ends on a semi-optimistic postscript. Bruner turns down the opportunity to take a partnership in her law firm, presumably sickened morally with the work she’s having to do. Father Moore refuses to appeal, his work on this earth done. Ignored is the rather messier epilogue from the real-life Michel case, in which her body was exhumed two years after its burial and found to have shown signs of constant deterioration caused by years suffering from mental illness. Far from attempting to save the girl, the priests exorcising her were indeed guilty of negligence.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: ***

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

When it’s on: Sunday, 6 March (3.55 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

One of the biggest differences between Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and current movie series is that these days films are conceived with the wider franchise firmly in mind. That’s why something like the most recent Star Wars film can finish on such an open ended note, all those threads left dangling so they can be picked up in the next instalment. It’s a neat trick, like a TV show and especially like the old cinema serials ending on a cliffhanger, keeping fans on tenterhooks and hopefully eager for more. No such consideration back in the early 1980s, where the Star Trek films were concerned. This entry’s predecessor, The Wrath of Khan, closed on a bitter-sweet note with the day won but at the expense of a major character who had sacrificed himself for the crew. The moment was effective because Spock was absolutely dead; whatever Leonard Nimoy’s reasons for pulling out of playing the character any longer, dramatically it was a devastating coda and a most satisfying pay-off to a picture that had provided more than its fair share of treats.

But wait! Having unexpectedly enjoyed his time making the film, Nimoy found himself increasingly reticent about leaving the series and, in collusion with director Nicholas Meyer, improvised Spock’s pre-death scene to give the character a ‘resurrection pass’ if they chose to take it, and if the decision was made to carry on with the story beyond this entry. At the time, no one knew if this was the end of the fledgling Trek films, but Wrath of Khan turned a good profit, earned overwhelmingly positive notices, and the goodwill continued when it was later made available to buy on video and sold well. The green light for the third instalment was duly given; Spock’s pass was activated, and Nimoy compensated for his lack of time on the screen (Spock features heavily, but Nimoy himself gives a cameo appearance only) by being handed his first directorial assignment.

The film’s title is pretty much a giveaway for what happens, the Genesis project introduced in Wrath of Khan turning out to be a Deus Ex Machina, not only giving life to a dead planet but also restoring dead things that are left there, principally Spock’s corpse. You can sum up the basic plot in a sentence or two, and so writer Harve Bennett introduced several elements to add tension and meat to the bare bones story. Most sensational is the moment the starship Enterprise itself is destroyed, a fan pleasing set piece within a film featuring so much service to Trekkies that it’s impossible to watch the thing without being at least a little familiar with the lore. To an extent that’s nice, a sign of the series’ growing confidence in its own material, though newcomers would be forgiven their bafflement over, for instance, the critical ‘Pon Farr’ scene, which turns out to be all about sexual awakening. Who knew?

Over the years, The Search for Spock has dated rather badly compared with many of the other episodes. One obvious problem is the low budget, the money available to the production again being considerably less than the amounts lavished on The Motion Picture. In The Wrath of Khan, it mattered little as so much of the action took place on ships’ bridges, but here the focus is on the Genesis planet itself. Mattes and sound stage dressing substitute for location shooting, and the end result is risibly easy to spot. The effects take a knock also, early Industrial Light and Magic work looking fairly shoddy compared with the state of the art, big budget efforts created for Return of the Jedi.

In terms of plotting, The Search for Spock takes a darker world view than the usual optimistic outlook promoted by the Star Trek universe. Genesis, seen very much as a positive development in The Wrath of Khan, is here exposed as a failure, truly bringing planets to life but also accelerating the process exponentially so that its only use is as a weapon, an element rife for being taken advantage of by Christopher Lloyd’s renegade Klingon. The Federation, which represents the future of human exploration into space, is cast as backward thinking and overly bureaucratic, an obstacle for Kirk and his mates to bypass in order to get the job done. All this is done to ramp up the suspense, to stop the heroes getting from A to B in what is otherwise a fairly routine mission that involves picking up the Spock child and transporting him and McCoy – who’s possessed with Spock’s living soul (go with it) – to Vulcan in order to fix them both.

At least the cast is good. By now, all the principals are comfortable with both their roles and their advancement into middle age. I’ve always had a lot of goodwill for William Shatner, who whilst undeniably hammy more often than not hits the right notes. There’s a sense that Kirk is given a fight scene purely because it’s not a proper movie if Kirk doesn’t get to use his fists, but the largely wasted scene in which his son is killed is laden with gravitas thanks purely to Shatner’s emotive playing. DeForest Kelley loses much of McCoy’s traditional sardonic wit as a consequence of being laden with Spock’s memories, but this just gives more exposure to actors who normally support from outside the ‘Holy Trinity’, notably James Doohan and Walter Koenig, who both enjoy great moments and show perfect comic timing. Robin Curtis as Saavik is a weaker link. The part had gone to Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, who demanded more money to reprise it and so it was duly recast, robbing the Vulcan of all the sass and ambition Alley had brought to the table. Lloyd is good value though, lending his character a forceful violence and unquenchable evil. As for the direction, Nimoy proves that he’s no Meyer. Sure this was his first time, but there are few flourishes in The Search for Spock and it’s all told rather flatly. If there’s a saving grace, then it is that however ordinary Nimoy was in ‘the chair’ he was certainly better than Shatner, who took over for the forgettable fifth instalment.

The Search for Spock is quite good fun in places, when not overladen with solemnity. The Enterprise’s flight from the Federation’s space dock is exciting, and the face-off between Kirk’s crew and the Klingon Bird of Prey has echoes of the classic brinkmanship that made Wrath of Khan such a blast. Many of the finest bits are elevated thanks to James Horner’s score. The late Horner, who would go on to win two Oscars (both for Titanic), composed music that elicited all the wonder and sense of adventure that underpins Star Trek. It’s simply ravishing and it makes a lot more of what’s taking place on the screen than is otherwise deserved. Despite moments, though, The Search for Spock largely obeys the general rule that followed these films – those with the even numbers were nearly always better.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: ***

Clash of the Titans (1981)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 23 December (4.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I don’t know if I’ve told this story before, but mine father regularly dines out on the time I was allowed to pick the film during a cinema visit in 1981. It was my ninth birthday and the choices were Clash of the Titans and a little known action adventure called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much to his consternation I opted for the former, and why wouldn’t I? At that age I was a nut for tales of mythology, not to mention having been raised on the films of Ray Harryhausen. It wasn’t really a choice at all. Of course since then it’s been made clear to me that I turned down one of the greatest entertaining films of all time for some Greek fluff, and in the end we went to see it anyway, but I didn’t regret my decision and I’ll remind readers that I was very young.

Years later, not having watched Clash of the Titans for some time but sitting uncomfortably through the somewhat awful 2010 remake, I wasn’t expecting very much. Comments I’ve read note some terrible acting, shoddy compositing and naturally the stop motion creatures, which even in 1981 were beginning to look a little quaint. Harryhausen has noted his influence over the next generation of film makers, the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, but it was these very people, directors who’d grown up admiring his artistry, who were now rendering him obsolete. A classic like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, made more than twenty years beforehand and using broadly the same technology, suggested that special effects and audience tastes had moved on a long time ago, notably to a galaxy far, far away.

But I shouldn’t have worried. While seeing a HD transfer had the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting some of the shortcomings within the effects work, the finished result was still every bit as much fun as I remember. At their worst, Harryhausen films acted as vessels for the money shots, the plot a mere excuse for stringing the creature appearances together, but here there’s a good story and it’s very nicely acted for the most part. True, Harry Hamlin makes for a bland lead, but having caught any number of matinee flicks over the years he’s a consistent presence – handsome, square jawed, in no danger of upstaging the film’s real stars. Backed with a solid $15 million budget and working from its Pinewood base, the production used European locations rather than the standard California/Grand Canyon, and shooting in places like Andalusia and Malta lends it an authentic look. That climax looks much better for it being filmed by the Azure Window in Gozo, a majestic backdrop for mythological action.

The funding ensured a good cast of mainly British actors, most used to fill the roles of the Greek Gods. No less a figure than Laurence Olivier was hired to play Zeus, the logic being that only the grandest thespianic name could fill the sandals belonging to the Father of the Gods. Despite being ill, Olivier adds real heft and authority to a part that could have been overblown and silly, a difficult balancing act that he pulls off. Elsewhere, Claire Bloom appears as Hera, Ursula Andress’s Aphrodite has nothing to do but be pretty and Maggie Smith enjoys some fine scene stealing fun as the more roundly characterised Thetis. By all accounts, Burgess Meredith was cast as Perseus’s theatrical mate, Ammon, to try and ensure a slightly more American presence on a very British sounding film. He’s good, even if of all the characters he’s the one who gives the biggest impression of taking not a second of it seriously.

As always, the real draws are the Harryhausen creatures, though it’s nice to see a greater focus on the players, an attempt to emphasise the growing affection between Perseus and Andromeda (Judi Bowker), and the manipulation of the Gods on the humans, those whims and caprices that kick start all the major plot points. Whilst it’s true that the effects were losing much of the jaw dropping wonder they previously possessed, looking increasingly like the models they clearly were, there’s the effort to give them personalities that helps bring them to life. Harryhausen also knew enough to mix special effects with dramatic tension. The scene in Medusa’s temple, where Perseus knows he can’t leave without collecting her head, is thrilling even now. Often shot in shadow or half-lit, the noises of her body slithering along giving as much sign of her approach as anything shown visually, builds the suspense really well, while the actors play their part by appearing terrified of her. There are some great close-ups of Hamlin, perspiring and frightened, and by the end of it he’s visibly exhausted by the effort of what he’s achieved. A note too for Laurence Rosenthal’s tingling score, which adds extra layers to the drama.

It’s worth drawing a comparison with the 2010 film here. Someone on YouTube has nicely collated the same scene from both movies, flicking between the two ostensibly to show how effects have advanced in the 29 years between them. What is actually revealed is the vacuum of any tension in the update, CGI and snap editing being used to fill in the blanks and falling short. Sure, the creature played by Natalia Vodianova in 2010 is a far slicker Medusa, capable of moving at speed and apparently more dangerous, and yet the scene has the feel of a videogame sequence, Sam Worthington jumping platforms in order to get away whilst seemingly showing little effort for his troubles. Here’s the video, see what you think:

Some of the other creations are less successful. That isn’t always the fault of the animation; the Kraken is really present solely to be turned to stone at the film’s close. The giant scorpions are simply monsters for Perseus to fight, the same with the two-headed dog, and there’s a far greater sense of threat from the villains played by actors, like the Stygian witches and Neil McCarthy’s rather tragic Calibos. But then there’s the marvellous mechanical owl, Bubo, criticised for being a riff on R2-D2 from Star Wars though Harryhausen claimed he had designed the character beforehand, and nevertheless a good fun addition. The winged horse, Pegasus, is fine and well rendered, and adds to the fantasy as he carries Perseus into the skies.

Clash of the Titans is a very nice addition to the grand tradition of mythological cinema, made for matinee screenings and carrying out its brief well enough. If there’s a sense of it coming after these kinds of films had had their time, then you can argue equally that it’s a last hurrah for the faded genre, a late addition to the Harryhausen collection that reminded younger viewers of what the contemporary film making heroes had drawn their inspiration from. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Clash of the Titans: ***

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

When it’s on: Monday, 29 December (12.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’m not ashamed to admit that there are entire passages of The Glenn Miller Story that leave me with a big smile on my face, the whole sequence that runs from Miller ‘discovering’ his sound through to the beginning of the climactic war segment. The film focuses on the songs, those immortal big band tunes, and by this stage has established Miller as such a likeable presence that the sight of him finally making it and giving joy to the masses through his music is just an enormous pleasure.

The Glenn Miller story follows Miller (James Stewart) from his early days as a struggling trombonist, working from band to band whilst attempting to get his own arrangements noticed. His instrument moves in and out of pawn shops as his fortunes fluctuate, and whilst his talent as a musician is never in doubt his attempts to get recognised for his compositions fare less well. Miller has faith in himself, but knows he hasn’t yet hit upon the right sound and this eventually comes about as a combination of hard, painstaking work at the piano and a turn of fortune. In the meantime, he courts and marries Helen Burger (June Allyson), almost the perfect American wife – loving, endlessly supportive, the practical, financially savvy partner to his artist – and much of the film tracks their idealised relationship, and his use of her as a muse for such famous tracks as Pennsylvania 6-5000 and Little Brown Jug, whilst Helen herself comes up for the title of what will emerge as Moonlight Serenade. Incidentally, the film was nearly called Moonlight Serenade, and indeed carried this title in certain countries.

It’s lovely stuff, with the almost complete absence of tension compensated for with good music (I’m listening to Miller whilst writing these words) and Stewart’s heartwarming chemistry with Allyson. As a directorial project for Anthony Mann, it’s a departure. At the time, his collaboration with Stewart in a string of brilliant and gritty (for the time) Westerns was extremely fruitful, and it was the actor who persuaded him to sign up for The Glenn Miller Story, which turned into a major hit for Universal. Mann brought to the project his usual sense of economy, the film never dragging as the narrative moves seamlessly through Miller’s career. There are also some great moments. My favourite has Miller and his band playing In the Mood for injured American soldiers in Britain. It’s wartime; the bombs are still dropping and whilst the song plays a V-2 rocket soars overhead, then the engine cuts out, which means it’s about to drop. GIs duck or rush for cover, but Miller makes the band play on as the bomb explodes nearby, making a triumph of the music over destruction.

Visually, it’s as good as one might expect from a Mann film. It features fine use of Technicolor, most prominently in a scene where Miller and Helen go to see Louis Armstrong (appearing as himself, along with various other musicians from the big band era) play in a jazz club, a projector turning the performers into a kaleidoscope of colours to go with the freeform music.

Harry Morgan, in real life a good friend of Miller’s, co-stars as his best mate and pianist, Chummy. It’s Stewart’s film, though. Having the benefit of actually looking like Miller (a fact nicely teased out by the poster I chose for this entry), he went to the trouble of learning to play the trombone for his performance, although he was never skilled enough for the film and his scenes were dubbed by Joe Yukl, who would perform off-camera whilst Stewart’s correct hand movements gave the impression of authenticity.

The film builds to a poignant close, with its gentle scene of a heart quietly breaking, but music emerges as the triumph. It’s a really great picture.

The Glenn Miller Story: ****

Watership Down (1978)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 December (2.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

There aren’t many ‘U’ rated animated features like Watership Down, and on a personal note it’s one of the first movies I remember watching in full. As a treat one Christmas, my primary school (I can’t have been any older than eight) stopped classes one afternoon and screened it on their projection system. I can imagine the teachers’ train of thought – nice film about rabbits… good family fare… nothing harmful or corrupting there, and the terror that must have gone through their minds as the gore-soaked odyssey unfolded on the screen. I can only imagine the string of nervous Number Six that were smoked in the staff room that afternoon.

I remember very clearly loving it. Seeing it as an adult, I fully appreciate the concern some might have that it isn’t really a film for young kids, and by any family-rated movie’s standards it contains a lot of blood and more than its fair share of haunting imagery. There’s a powerful counter-argument that Watership Down to some extent delivers precisely what children want from their films, and very rarely get, an unblinking, visceral experience that makes no attempt to water down its material or condescend to young audiences. Added to that is genuine heart. If Watership Down has a message, it is that life is always precious, and very often fragile.

The film is of course based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, and tracks it closely in terms of the spirit and themes the author was attempting to convey. What really impresses about the story is the mythology Adams has created for his rabbit characters. These aren’t Disney bunnies, humans in animal form. They have their own stories, their own names for things e.g. ‘Hrududu,’ the rabbit word for moving motor vehicles, which is presumably – not to mention ingeniously – based on the noise they make and, critically in terms of the plot, their own ideas about death and the afterlife. The rabbits’ story about how they are all descended from El-ahrairah, the original prince of all rabbits, is told in the film’s prologue, a sublimely nasty piece of film that is shown as a kind of animated series of woodcuts. What it does is firmly establish the rabbits’ own sense of their place in the world – perils are all around. They have a thousand enemies, a fact reinforced by the sequence of dangers experienced by the film’s main characters. Yet they aren’t helpless. Frith, the rabbits’ God represented by the sun, gifts them with cunning and speed.

The story opens with frail ‘seer’ rabbit, Fiver (Richard Briers) begging his leaders to leave the warren and search for a new home. A human sign erected nearby has given him a vague yet horribly strong premonition of danger, illustrated as he sees their field covered in the dying oranges of the setting sun, which turns into blood. Unfortunately, the chief rabbit is unmoved when Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) present their case. Fat and complacent, the head of the owsla (rabbit police) doesn’t want to know, and our heroes are compelled to steal away in the night with several others who believe their warnings. Sure enough, as the rabbits leave, they pass a board they obviously wouldn’t be able to read that tells us the land is scheduled for development. Later in the film, a captain from the owsla catches up with the runaways, and tells them the warren was blocked up by humans. In probably the movie’s most horrific scene, we see red-eyed rabbits clamber over each other, asphyxiating in their desperate struggle to escape their blocked-up tunnels and ploughed land.

What follows is the rabbits’ journey through an eternity of (mostly) perilous encounters, on their way to Watership Down, which Fiver describes as ‘high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry, and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn.’ It’s a real place, a hill in Hampshire that Adams evoked from his own childhood. Some of the dangers they come across are mild – a badger (or lendri) leering at them with blood-soaked teeth from the bushes. Others are less so. One rabbit is randomly picked off by a swooping hawk when she ventures from the safety of a cornfield. Hazel’s attempts to ‘rescue’ some tame doe rabbits from a farmhouse hutch are ever undermined by the presence of an ill-minded and predatory cat.

Creepier still is the heroes’ encounter with Cowslip, a seemingly friendly rabbit who offers to share his warren with them. Things seem too good to be true, and of course they are. The warren is riddled with snares and traps, its occupants ‘kept’ so that they can be killed and eaten by humans. Fiver, for all his moaning, is the one who sees it first, and who later helps to rescue the macho Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) from just such a snare.

The story culminates as the rabbits discover Watership Down, and find it’s every bit the perfect warren for them. Unfortunately they’ve arrived without any females, and the only place they can find any willing to join them is ruled by the fascist General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) and his ‘claw first, speak later’ owsla. The survival of the warren depends on whether they can extricate any of the does, some of whom are willing to come, but aren’t allowed to leave…

The fear of meeting the Black Rabbit of Death is all around. ‘When he comes for you, you have no choice but to go,’ Fiver warns, and in one of the film’s more dreamlike sequences, he indeed follows the black rabbit, which he believes is leading him towards the wounded Hazel. This is the sequence featuring Bright Eyes, the theme tune composed by Mike Batt and featuring the vocal stylings of Art Garfunkel that became a chart hit. It’s a scene that actually works incredibly well, Garfunkel’s voice taking on an ethereal quality as the black rabbit leaps elusively out of reach.

All of which is told using an animation style that has a rather beautiful, pastoral watercolour look. The English countryside scenery is detailed and gorgeous, and the animators’ attempt to create a very different style for the appearance of rabbit myths and legends is bold indeed. It’s not perfect; there’s sometimes an unnatural way that the animals move, no doubt a result of the technological limitations of the time, whilst the lack of shadows cast by the characters is an attention to detail that is addressed as a matter of course in modern films. Yet nothing looks quite like it, and the voice cast more than makes up for amy visual shortcomings. Briers lends Fiver exactly the nervous quality you would expect from a rabbit who can see dead people. Hurt is also on fine form as Hazel, and clearly has the kind of vocal range that makes him ideal for noble and heroic characters (he also made for a memorable Aragorn in the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings). A roll call of British luminaries – Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Roy Kinnear, Michael Hordern, Denholm Elliott – make up the rest of the cast, and there’s a winning turn from Zero Mostel, who in his last ever role provided the voice of Kehaar, the gull who helps the rabbits when not providing the film’s much needed comic relief.

Watership Down: ****

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

When it’s on: Friday, 26 December (5.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

A Shot in the Dark is the second Inspector Clouseau film, and the best. It marks the point that Peter Sellers’s bumbling French detective becomes centre stage, perfecting his incredible accent and slapstick comic moments, before the show becomes too much a series of set-piece pratfalls as would happen later in the series. Sellers was always funny as Clouseau, but never more so than here.

In the previous year’s The Pink Panther, Sellers was on hand as a supporting player to David Niven, yet stole the show and both he and director-producer Blake Edwards realised they had struck comedy gold. A sequel was quickly demanded, and for it the pair mined a project that the actor was already attached to, inserted Clouseau and made him the focus.

A Broadway hit, A Shot in the Dark was adapted from the French play L’Idiote, and starred Walter Matthau and William Shatner. Excising pretty much everything from the story apart from the central plot about a maid being accused of killing her lover, it was transformed into Clouseau’s efforts to crack the case whilst similarly falling in love with the main suspect and doing all he can to exonerate her.

The resulting film is owned so completely by Sellers that everything depends on how funny you find his hapless Inspector to be. Fortunately, he’s completely hilarious, tapping comedy from as simple a situation as placing a billiard cue into its rack or agreeing on a time to switch off the power with his perpetually fed up assistant, Hercule (Graham Stark). Utterly incompetent, and yet pompous and filled with implacable self-belief, the fun derives from his ability to conjure slapstick genius from virtually anything whilst those around him grow increasingly irritated.

No one does this better than Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, making his first appearance in the franchise as the boss driven literally insane by Clouseau. Further down the line, Dreyfus would become a villain, but it’s here that the descent into madness starts, Lom’s famous eye tic developing over the course of the film along with the introduction of his lunatic giggle. What drives him over the edge is his insistence that Clouseau be removed from the murder case, whilst someone ‘higher up’ demands that he stays on it, leaving him to clean up after every mess.

The film’s opening scenes focuses on a mansion in Paris, the home of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). Everyone in the house seems to be having an affair with someone else, occupants sneaking around into each other’s bedrooms, before eventually the Spanish driver, Miguel, is shot dead. His lover, Marie the maid (Elke Sommer) is the prime suspect as she’s found holding the smoking gun, but once Clouseau arrives and gets a whiff of her scent, he’s intoxicated and determines to prove that someone else is the murderer. What follows is a series of episodes that feature Marie being put in jail as the killings continue and she’s always on the scene, then getting released so that Clouseau can trail her, only each time he does he’s arrested for not having a license for whatever disguise he happens to be wearing.

A brilliant scene that has Sellers at his best takes place in a nudist camp to which Marie has retreated. Clouseau follows but has to do so naked, and wanders around covering his dignity with a strategically placed guitar, clearly very awkward and shamefaced. The moment can only end one way, with a naked Clouseau and Marie fleeing the camp in a car, before being caught in the middle of a Paris traffic jam and once again arrested, this time for indecent exposure.

Any element of sleuthing is removed from the story as we never find out conclusively who the killer is and, besides, that’s never really the point. The murders are little more than a hook for more Sellers comedy, and this is always worth the film’s ultimate lack of interest in identifying the culprit. We also get the introduction of Clouseau’s manservant, Cato (Bert Kwuok), who the Inspector employs to help hone his martial arts skills by demanding he attack him at any time, leading to more hilarity. The confection is topped off with another winning score from Henry Mancini, who doesn’t reprise the Pink Panther theme (for which he was Oscar nominated) but produces a tune that’s every bit as fine, accompanied with some fantastic animation for the opening credits.

By all accounts, the making of A Shot in the Dark was strained as the working relationship between Edwards and Sellers – both men thought they were the driving force – was tense, bad tempered and frequently broke down. They needn’t have bothered. It was a big success, critically and commercially, and drove the pair back together for three sequels before Sellers’s untimely death in 1980. Even after his passing, Edwards used cutting room floor footage of the actor as the foundation for further Panthers.

A Shot in the Dark: ****

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Channel 5 dominate their Christmas Eve schedules with three stonewall classics. they start at 9.30 am with the epic Gone with the Wind, a stretch at more than four hours long but well worth the sofa creasing investment for a genuine slice of Golden Age cinema. Later in the afternoon, there’s the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge, routinely considered the best amidst a sea of Christmas Carol flicks with the always fantastic Alistair Sim at its crotchety centre. But if there’s one film in which to invest the time, for me it’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a box office smash from 1938 that redefined the matinee swashbuckler, it’s nothing less than an absolute treat.

Even as early as the thirties, the legends surrounding Robin Hood had already been committed to celluloid several times, the earliest entry dating from 1906 whilst the 1922 version starring Douglas Fairbanks had set the standard for all to follow. By the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers’ track record of scoring ticket selling gold with gritty crime dramas started to fall foul of the Hays Code, which imposed censorship standards upon studios based on moral acceptability. Searching for material that would meet the criteria, Warners opted for a new version of Robin Hood, tapping into the Boys Own potential of a pure-hearted, good versus evil action movie whilst chopping away the excesses that had made the Fairbanks film a bit of a trawl at times. Lopping off the lengthy introduction to the tale that involved Robin returning from the Crusades to focus on his adventures in Sherwood Forest, the studio went on to create a smash hit that would also gain approval at the Academy Awards. Three key elements would go on to set it apart – sound, colour and Errol Flynn.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was of course made at a time when sound came as standard, the ‘Talkies’ now fully ingrained a mere decade after they had began consigning silent cinema to a thing of the past. However, the production made the most of the technology. Professional archer Howard Hill was drafted in to play a small role (he features in the film’s archery contest), but also lent his shooting to the noise made by the arrows as they left bows and found the mark, thanks to the meaty sound produced by the thicker type of wood he favoured. It’s this attention to detail that helped make the film a hit. The arrows suddenly sounded like they had real impact, one felt no doubt by the extras who were paid $150 dollars each to take one in the chest from Hill’s bow. Further gold came from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Born in Vienna, Korngold moved to America to compose the score and narrowly avoided becoming a Jewish victim of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, which made him claim that Robin Hood saved the lives of himself and his family. In return, he produced a suite that captured the heraldry completely befitting a tale of legend. The main theme is memorable enough, but his music adds real dramatic heft to the scenes involving Norman oppression over England’s Anglo-Saxon population, whilst there’s delight to be had from the film’s romantic moments, Korngold accompanying the growing love between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with motifs that suggest the development of her understanding for his cause in fighting the good fight. It seems incredible to learn that Korngold initially begged to be released from his contract as he saw his work as utterly inappropriate to the style of film being made; the pair fit together perfectly.

Technicolor was still something of a novelty in the 1930s, yet it was a process that could make films look fresh and modern. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, used to it brilliant dramatic effect, juxtaposing the black and white of the Kansas based scenes to the bursts of colour when Dorothy has her adventures in the land of Oz. The three-strip process was expensive, and as costs on Robin Hood escalated it was agreed that colour would add to the film’s storybook feel, all those pennants, flags and crests showing up fantastically well. During the location shooting in Chico, California, which stood in for Sherwood Forest, the crew would spray-paint the foliage to make it look ‘greener’. The aim was to replicate the atmosphere evoked from those evocative, watercolour images in the books about the legend, and there’s little doubt it worked perfectly, leading to the film’s Oscar for its production design.

Initially, Warners turned to their marquee star, James Cagney, to play Robin Hood, and the very prospect of this short, angry, wholly American tough guy as England’s medieval outlaw hints at a very different film from the one that emerged. Industry differences ruled Cagney out, however (he walked out on Warners for breach of contract), and had them searching for a new Robin, a trail that led to Errol Flynn. Still an emerging force, the Tasmanian had impressed in 1935’s Captain Blood, a swashbuckler that pitted him against Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and had him demonstrate sizzling chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. All three were contracted for the major starring roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland doing well as a principled and memorable Marion, but it’s Flynn who owns the film with his cheerful and physical performance. Handsome and carefree, he makes every scene he’s in look natural and easy, setting the tone for future Robin Hood portrayals whilst his ‘light as air’ style makes him instantly likeable as the outlaws’ leader. Rathbone is excellent as the brooding Sir Guy, leading a great triumvirate of villains alongside Claude Rains’s camp Prince John and the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Of the merry men, Eugene Pallette almost steals the show as a wisecracking Friar Tuck, forever fending off jokes about his size, and Alan Hale Snr reprises his role from the Fairbanks Hood film as Little John.

The production was originally offered to William Keighley as director, but as the footage was reviewed the lack of urgency and excitement in the action scenes led to his dismissal and replacement with Michael Curtiz, the reliable Hungarian responsible for Captain Blood and who would go on to helm the peerless Casablanca. Curtiz understood that Robin Hood was to be made as a fantasy, with little attention paid to the realities of medieval life and struggles, and instead placing the emphasis on action and fun, the result emerging as a tightly focused effort that ran little over 100 minutes. It must have dazzled contemporary audiences, with its opulent Technicolor palette and sheer joie de vivre. Thanks to the ‘no expenses spared’ approach, the rarely bettered action scenes and Flynn’s ability to fill the lead role so spiffingly, it’s barely dated at all. Comparisons with the many revisions that came later still leave it on top. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s up there with North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark as near perfect, good-time cinema.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: *****

The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai

When it’s on: Friday, 1 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Jules Brunet was a French artillery officer in the nineteenth century. He was dispatched to Japan by Napoleon III as part of a military attache charged with the task of modernising the Shogun’s army. When the Shogunate was overthrown and the French expelled, Brunet evidently turned native, helping the rebel forces in their efforts to return to power. This culminated in a climactic battle at Hokkaido, in which the army Brunet was involved with was outnumbered and ultimately defeated.

Brunet returned to France after his action in Japan, but the story wasn’t forgotten, and years later New Zealand based Executive Producer Vincent Ward resolved to turn it into a feature film. The production powerhouse team of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner got involved, seeing in Brunet’s adventures the potential for the actor’s latest star vehicle. All that remained was to turn the hero into an American and attach a director of epic cinema; step forward Edward Zwick, who brought his bravura work on Glory to bear on the proceedings.

The Last Samurai centres on Nathan Algren (Cruise), a decorated veteran of the Civil War who’s haunted by memories of the atrocities his cavalry division committed against Native Americans. His nightmares have turned him into a Bourbon-soaked cynic, willing to work for anyone and, at the film’s start, providing boozy demonstrations of the potency of the Winchester 73 rifle. The appearance of his friend, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) offers the opportunity for a further pay cheque, a trip to Japan to help supervise the training of a modern, technical army that will help transform the land of the Rising Sun into an energetic and emerging power. Algren takes the money, boards the ship for Japan and even stomachs the accompaniment of Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), a fellow officer who clearly has less scruples about the Indian blood on his hands.

Algren quickly learns that the political situation in Japan is more complicated than he thought originally. Though the young Emperor is surrounded by a self-interested cabal of modern thinkers, alternative counsel comes from Samurai chieftain Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), and a schism has developed in government between the progressives and the more traditionally minded Samurai. Clearly, the country’s soul remains with its ancient caste of warriors, whilst the ‘Saville Row’ clad politicians try to arrange profitable trade agreements with the great powers of the age. Long before he thinks they’re ready for action, Algren’s new model army is pressed into action against the Samurai rebels. One school of thought has it that the engagement should be a turkey shoot. The Samurai fight with medieval bows and swords, and ought to be no match for rifles. But once battle is joined, the modern, Western style regiments are swiftly routed by the warriors’ cavalry charges. Gant takes a sword through his chest and Algren is wounded and captured, transported deep into the Samurai mountain stronghold after putting on a brave last stand. Here he’ll spend winter, recuperating and talking with Katsumoto, who’s keen to learn all there is to know about his enemy.

There’s a strong argument for stating The Last Samurai is a Western that just happens to take place in Japan; the Samurai are the Native Americans whilst the modernists take on the role of the villains. The Western it most resembles is Dances with Wolves. Its release, coinciding with awards season, suggests the production aimed to emulate Kevin Costner’s Oscar winner with its tale of Algren’s self-discovery once he’s in the Samurai village, first as a hostage but growing to love the people as he learns about them and ultimately bonding with their cause. The middle section of the film focuses on this long period of realignment, Algren discovering he’s being nursed by the woman whose husband he killed during battle, watching village life and coming to admire the simple nobility of the populace. Mostly, he develops strong feelings of respect for Katsumoto, and the steady growth of friendship between the pair is a real highlight. But this is mainly down to Watanabe, who commands the screen with such little effort that it’s virtually impossible not to fall for his heroism in an uncertain time that’s stuffed with unscrupulous individuals.

If the film has a weak link, then unfortunately it’s Cruise himself. This isn’t an attempt to knock the easy target he represents. I’ve always thought Cruise was a perfectly fine actor, but it’s no surprise that Jerry Maguire remains his signature performance, playing as it does specifically to Cruise’s boyish charm and strength in forming personal relationships. In The Last Samurai, he’s very good in the scenes alongside Watanabe and earlier, as the disillusioned veteran who’s climbed inside a bottle for solace. It’s even a rather unselfish turn, Cruise constantly drawing in and deferring to his fellow players, for example in the rather lovely moment when he’s dining with the family he lives amongst and the guilt-ridden Algren is unable to respond to a child gurning at him. But the film builds up to an epic climax; the script calls for Algren to be someone who eventually takes a commanding role over 500 highly trained Samurai warriors, reflecting the respect he’s earned over the course of his time among the clan, and Cruise just gets swallowed up in the action. It’s a vacuum the film never manages to fill and it completely undermines the climactic engagement that gives The Last Samurai its poignancy and meaning. The Academy recognised Watanabe with a Supporting Actor nomination, but Cruise got nothing, a consequence of his fatal miscasting and an indictment of the hunt for Oscar glory going to his head.

Even the most ardent Cruise knocker would surely admit that, otherwise, The Last Samurai is top order film making. The battle scenes are brilliantly put together; if the fighting that introduces the Gatling Gun to Japan at the end doesn’t satisfy, with its rolling green hills and relatively small scale, then the tussle earlier most certainly does. The night time battle, which takes place in a ghostly forest, all blood and breath on the air, is an awesome construction, perfectly illustrating the strength of the Samurai against a modernised but under-trained army and ending in Algren’s desperate stand. The choreography is stunning throughout, taking full advantage of New Zealand’s big countryside to show a country that is nothing like as modern as its rulers would like to believe. The Last Samurai’s Director of Photography was John Toll, no stranger to the kind of work with the likes of Legends of the Fall (another Zwick direction, for which Toll won an Oscar) and Braveheart on his curriculum vitae.

The Last Samurai: ***

Krull (1983)

When it’s on: Sunday, 22 July (12.25 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

An entry on this site posted around a month ago lamented the fact I had watched Krull in anticipation of its scheduling on a Sunday afternoon, only to find Channel 5 had changed their minds and decided the British viewing public just wasn’t ready for family-friendly fantasy adventure. Five weeks on and Krull’s here, double-billed with Clash of the Titans (the version from 1981, thankfully, not the recent CGI snorer) to show us how these things used to be done in the pre-digital age.

Rightly or wrongly, I have a lot of affection for both films, I think because they were around at the same time as I spent many afternoons and all the pocket money I could scrounge on cinema visits. The Black HoleThe Dark CrystalThe Last Starfighter… Each title as forgotten as the last, and perhaps rightly so, but I devoured them all, often with the official novelisation (Alan Dean Foster feels like a name that cropped up often here) as a starter, which for some reason didn’t spoil the picture but simply added to the fun.

As for Krull, watching it again – possibly for the first time since my trip to the Regent in January/February 1984 – made for a wallowing in pure nostalgia. It was out at the perfect time for me – I’d just made the promotion from primary (juniors) to secondary (seniors) school and hadn’t yet developed the teenage surliness that would have turned it into a jaded no thanks. I recall enjoying it immensely, not because of its quality, rather the earnest attempt to entertain that’s thrown into each and every frame. By anyone’s standards, it’s no classic. The entire affair is derivative – the film seems to have been conceived as a mish-mash of Tolkein and Star Wars, with various elements cheekily grabbed from other genre entries (the Black Fortress, to me, was snatched off Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle) – as though put together by a focus group bent on working out what the kids wanted and throwing it at them. Some bits work. Others don’t. But it is good fun, and a decent $27 million budget was lavished on it that ensured the effects and technical elements looked no worse than anything else put out at the time.

Its major shortcoming is the two stars. Ken Marshall plays Colwyn, a Prince about to wed Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), the Princess of a neighbouring kingdom. All seems to be going well with the nuptials until the Slayers, alien invaders from the Black Fortress (a castle that lands on Krull from the depths of space) kidnap her, kill everyone else and leave Colwyn for dead. The villains’ aim is for their leader, The Beast, to marry Lyssa and conquer the planet, and in this they do the film a massive service. Colwyn and Lyssa aren’t reunited until the end, which ensures audiences don’t have to spend longer than is absolutely necessary to see Marshall and Anthony together; they have zero chemistry and reserve their worst acting for the brief romantic interludes between them. Fortunately, the bulk of the tale finds Lyssa trapped in the nightmarish maze that is the Fortress’s inner chambers, where she either tries and fails to escape or listens to the Beast wooing her with a mixture of taunts and threats.

As for Colwyn, he’s revived by a passing wise man, Ynyr (Freddie Jones), who joins him on a quest to defeat the evil Beast and his slayers. First, he needs to retrieve a mythical weapon called the Glaive, a rather nifty looking five-pointed boomerang with blades that featured prominently on Krull’s publicity. Then it’s off the Fortress, accompanied over the course of the film by a ragtag band of British character actors, who are by some distance the best bit about it. Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson and Todd Carty turn up in ‘before they were famous/in Eastenders’ supporting roles. Alun Armstrong is good fun as the cynical leader of a band of thieves. A hapless magician named Ergo the Magnificent (‘short in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose and wide of vision’) is the comic relief, played by David Battley. The pick is Bernard Bresslaw’s Cyclops. Bresslaw won the role through sheer physical presence, and it’s strange to see a Carry On veteran turn out to be so effective in a somewhat melancholic part. In one of the film’s better scripted moments, it’s told that cyclops have one eye because they once sacrificed the other in exchange for the gift of seeing the future, only to learn they were tricked and could foresee naught but the moment of their own deaths.

Krull is scattered with similar lovely little bits of business, moments that shine through the formulaic narrative like scraps handed down from more original thinkers. Peter Yates filmed much of it in studio sets at Pinewood, which occasionally lends it an otherworldly veneer it might have lost on location. The scenes set in a swamp are surprisingly effective and eerie, particularly when Slayers emerge silently from one of the pools. Otherwise, it’s hit and miss, but rarely terrible and for a box office failure, a surprisingly watchable matinee movie.

Krull: ***