Goldeneye (1995)

When it’s on: Friday, 5 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Looking back at Goldeneye and it’s easy to forget what a throw of the dice it was. Six years had elapsed since Licence to Kill, the last entry in the series, with many suggesting the gentleman spy had fired his last Walther PPK. Perhaps it was time. The underwhelming late Moore years, which saw 007 lapse into self-parody, gave way to two films starring Timothy Dalton that threatened to harden the tone of the character only to run into audience apathy. During Bond’s hiatus, a new film franchise introducing the character of CIA researcher Jack Ryan, based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels, seemed to serve up a replacement action hero. Ryan, played once by Alex Baldwin and twice by Harrison Ford, worked in a modern world that was comfortable with up to date technology and fought against contemporary opponents in the shape of terrorist cells and drug dealers. The biggest difference between Bond and Ryan was that the latter remained an implacable family man – Patriot Games pivoted on his wife and daughter being threatened – and had nothing but chaste respect for his female colleagues. A nail in the coffin of Bond’s old school casual liaisons with members of the opposite sex, possibly. Ryan appeared to be a hero for the post-AIDS 1990s. And then there was the fact the world itself had changed since Licence to Kill. During 007’s six year lay-off, the Berlin War had collapsed and the Cold War ended. Russia was blinking in the sunlight of a new capitalist era, consigning the Communist iconography to the graveyard. Did this include Bond, the character created to be a Cold Warrior and now without a war to fight?

At the time of Goldeneye’s release, I think most of us were just relieved that it wasn’t rubbish, in fact it was surprisingly good and part of its success was that it dealt directly with two of the franchise’s biggest issues – Bond’s womanising, and his existence within a post-Iron Curtain world. The new M was played by Judi Dench and made it clear at her first meeting with Bond that she didn’t think much of him, putting him firmly in his place after the sighing patronage of Bernard Lee. Goldeneye’s two female protagonists were also strong women. Izabella Scorupco’s computer programmer had an uncanny ability to stay alive without needing Bond’s help, whilst compensating for his technical limitations when the plot required some IT acumen. Femme fatale Xenia Onatopp(!) was played by Famke Janssen as an outright psychopath, capable of killing men with her thighs and achieving orgasm when gunning people down. A worthy adversary for 007, who at one stage nearly fell victim to her murderous legs.

As for the new world of the 1990s, Goldeneye made great use of the former Cold War by filming some action sequences in St Petersburg and placing one of its key scenes in a graveyard for Communist iconography. Old adversaries, such as Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster (watch out for a brief cameo by Minnie Driver as Coltrane’s wife, gleefully murdering Stand By Your Man as a heavily Russian accented country singer) are now uneasy allies in this spirit of Detente, one that leaves Bond feeling visibly uneasy. As M suggested, he’s a relic, uncertain of his place in this new era, and he knows it.

For their new actor, Eon went back to a previous drawing board and recruited the Irish star, Pierce Brosnan, who famously almost landed the part years earlier until contractual commitments to Remington Steele meant he couldn’t be released and it went to Timothy Dalton instead. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was capable of both levity and hard-nosed action, which pretty much made him ideal for the role. It’s too simple to look back at Brosnan’s quartet of Bonds as lightweight missed opportunities and see the actor as shouldering some of the blame. The intention of his movies was clearly to riff on the success of Goldfinger and the sequence of entries that followed, dropping the tough and gritty Dalton 007 in favour of a spy crafted in the Connery template – cheeky, sexy and fun. Brosnan played his part, recreating Connery’s invulnerability especially when making it unscathed through a hailstorm of bullets, but he also showed a neat harder edge when the role called for it. In the film, his former 00 colleague, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who Bond believed to be dead, resurfaces as a villain and proves he’s a match for the hero. Having to face and ultimately kill Trevelyan, the pain of this tells on the ordinarily chipper Bond, who contemplates his upcoming mission with suitable levels of solemnity. It’s a change in tone that only takes place in the film sporadically, but it fits the character and his situation, and demonstrated Brosnan was more than capable of acting these moments out.

The yin and yang aspect of the two former friends working against each other elevates Goldeneye into the best of the Brosnan series. Bean, saddled with some terrible moustache twirling dialogue, gets by thanks to sheer charisma and throwing himself into the action, a contrast to Jonathan Price’s more ‘classic’ villain in the following entry, which showed just how much this dimension – and Bean himself – added to the mix. Martin Campbell,  best known previously for helming the acclaimed BBC series Edge of Darkness, jollies the narrative along nicely as director, allowing the usual brilliant stuntcraft to become part of the story rather than the focal point of the entire movie. A good thing, as certain moments – such as Bond falling off a cliff edge behind a plane, skydiving into the craft’s door and then piloting it back to safety – stretch credibility to beyond even the breaking point of sequences in past entries, and it’s scenes like the Communist graveyard that really resonate.

There’s a thoughtful premise hidden within this one, a serious 007 that might have chimed with Bob Peck’s tortured hero in Edge of Darkness, or Daniel Craig as a young Bond in Campbell’s only other directorial outing in the series, Casino Royale. But Goldeneye never quite commits to either route. Too often, it wants to be both a thriller of substance and a bit of fun, and the two jar. Bond driving a tank through the streets of St Petersburg, whilst a laugh, does slap the face of anyone wanting to prefix 007’s agent status with the word ‘secret’, and the whole thing ends up in – but of course! – a lair hidden beneath a Caribbean lake. All the same, there’s nothing to really dislike, and Brosnan’s energetic performance was enough to breathe life back into old Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At least for a while.

Goldeneye: ***

Rio Bravo (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rio Bravo: ****

Field of Dreams (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field of Dreams: ****

Backdraft (1991)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 March (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

At some point in the 2000s, Ron Howard became a darling of the awards industry. Beforehand, he’d directed a string of unpretentious, successful entertainments, the sort of films with one word titles that equally needed a single word to describe exactly what they were about e.g. Splash concerns MERMAIDS!, Cocoon = ALIENS!, Ransom = er, RANSOM! I’m not even being sniffy; they were perfectly fine, diverting efforts, a couple of hours where you could sink into your seat and enjoy what was happening on the screen – nothing wrong with that. It was only with the worthy and rather fine Apollo 13 that Howard starting tackling meatier subjects, and then he came up with A Beautiful Mind, which scooped four Academy Awards, including one for the director. Based on its entertainment value, I didn’t mind the film; as a biopic I loathed it, especially for the way it treated its central subject, the mathematician John Nash, transforming him into a romantic, tortured genius just for the sake of creating a sympathetic hero.

But that’s one for another time. Today’s entry is Backdraft, which is about fire (FIRE!), and indeed fire is the star of the film. Despite assembling a cast that would be the envy of any picture from the early 1990s, the strongest memories come from those scenes that show the inferno in all its forms. Beautifully shot and moving almost seductively across the screen, fire steals the show. At one point, Robert De Niro’s character tells us we have to see fire as something that’s living and that’s exactly what the film tries to do, even adding sound effects to suggest an angry god at work in the background, possibly one with the demanding intonation of Arthur Brown.

Elsewhere, Backdraft is a bit of a mess, somehow running over two hours long thanks to confused plotting and the attempt to wrong-foot viewers. There’s a point when watching it is a spotter’s reference guide to other movies (Top Gun and The Silence of the Lambs spring immediately to mind), and you could almost invent a drinking game around the number of clichés that mount up, starting with the opening scene in which a fireman is killed in an explosion and a charred helmet drops to the feet of his watching son.

One plot strand follows the relationship between fire fighter brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). It’s their father who died and they’ve followed in his footsteps. The older Stephen has turned into a macho hero, working for the toughest fire fighting unit and being committed enough to the service to alienate his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) into separation. Brian has just entered the service and joins Stephen’s team, much to his chagrin. From the start, he’s belittled by his brother, made to stay by his side and wear protective gear whilst Stephen doesn’t even bother to don his mask. Ultimately, he leaves to join Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (De Niro), who investigates the causes of fires breaking out and is currently looking into a series of similar deaths caused by ‘backdraft’ explosions.

That’s the second strand. Rimgale and Brian’s sleuthing leads them into the orbit of Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), a Chicago mayoral candidate, along with his glamorous assistant and Brian’s old flame, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The backdraft killings appear awful and planned carefully, victims opening a door to find themselves facing an unstoppable torrent of fire heading in their direction. Who’s responsible? Finding out lands the pair into the company of Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), an insane, convicted arsonist who knows enough about fire to deliver an important clue.

Getting to this stage takes a long time, a long and unnecessary amount of time as Bartel points out the obvious to Brian – connect the victims and work out who benefits. Sutherland is one of many talents in the film that is wasted, forced to channel the spirit of Hannibal Lecter in terms of only giving up what he knows in exchange for details of Brian’s personal life. Similarly, Leigh has little to do apart from have a sex scene with Brian (on top of a fire engine, which of course sets off on a job halfway through their business!) and then deliver some important information to him at a key point. De Niro practically plays himself.

At least Kurt Russell is good value. He’s perfectly cast, effortless in fact as the hero fireman who puts his life on the line with every mission for no better reason than to experience the rush. Few did this kind of thing better, and playing it completely straight so that his character becomes almost fascistic in his dedication, not to mention blinkered to the feelings of his co-workers, led by Scott Glenn’s world weary veteran of the force. Baldwin, who’s kind of slipped off the radar following some major roles in the nineties, isn’t bad either, and there’s some nice interplay between the pair. They’re ideally cast even physically, Baldwin lanky and a little awkward besides Russell’s beefier classic leading man.

A shame that more wasn’t made of this and that some of the less important and jumbled plot contrivances didn’t have to be shoehorned in. There’s a very good ninety-minute movie somewhere in the mix, but amidst all the superfluousness it gets lost. Great fire effects though, and it was for these the film received several Oscar nominations.

Backdraft: **

Dunkirk (1958)

When it’s on: Sunday, 22 February (2.25 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of stranded British soldiers off the eponymous beleaguered beach from two points of view. In one, an earthy corporal, John Mills, leads a group of squaddies to Dunkirk after they’ve been cut off from their unit in embattled northern France. Pursued by Nazis, fired upon by swarming Stukas and sometimes having to cross enemy lines as the Blitzkrieg advance is often quicker than their own movements, theirs is a desperate scramble for safety with no guarantee that reaching their comrades will make any difference. Meanwhile, back in England Bernard Lee’s journalist tries in vain to persuade the public that the so-called phoney war is exactly that, convinced this is a prelude to all-out attack and yet finding complacency among his friends, not least businessman Richard Attenborough who would rather focus on his company and new baby than anything happening across the English Channel.

I’ve discussed before on this site how well the British war films of the 1950s did at deglamourising many of the events that took place. Dunkirk was seen at the time as something of a victory, a morale boosting pulling together of resources when in reality it was the tail-end of a total debacle, and it’s this the film conveys. Whilst there are no heroes, it tells us, ordinary people were capable of heroic acts, from Mills’s ‘Tubby’ Binns, forced by rank to push his exhausted troops to the coast, to Holden (Attenborough) steadily becoming more involved in the rescue by a mixture of conscience and circumstance. At more than two hours it’s overlong, too many scenes that involve Charles (Lee) cynically telling anyone he meets that the Dunkirk rescues have needed to take place through basic incompetence, generals trying to apply World War One principles to the new conflict, when the action itself should convey this message on its own. Once the film reaches the beach, thousands of soldiers waiting around for rescue whilst the German planes attack ruthlessly, the pointlessness of it all resonates to shattering effect. Some boats make it safely out of the harbour. Others are bombed, everyone on board having to leap into the sea or die. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they’re relying increasingly on the intervention of smaller boats, like those piloted by Charles and Holden (Attenborough). Their very presence at Dunkirk is as much an indictment of outmoded military strategy in a time of lightning attacks as it is a pooling of British pluck and resolve, and of course it did make all the difference.

As a bit of added research for this piece, I rewatched Atonement, the 2007 film by Joe Wright that features some pivotal action on the beaches of Dunkirk (interestingly, these scenes were filmed in my home town, Redcar, and even takes in the facade of the old fleapit, the Regent Cinema, which I frequented often as a young ‘un). Atonement does a really impressive job at conveying the chaos and despair of Dunkirk, particularly as it’s introduced in a dazzling single take that must have been technically exhausting to produce. Yet even with the standards of 2007 allowing for a grittier and more visceral scene, it’s no more harrowing than the sights confronted by Mills and Company in the 1958 film. Worst for them is the constant harrowing from the air, the random selection of victims as the planes take their victims from so many thousands of bodies on the beach, but there’s also the collapsing line over which to worry, the awful possibility that the Nazis will break through and capture or kill everyone before they have a chance to be lifted. It’s effortlessly tense because it must have been exactly that.

Director Leslie Norman (father of film critic, Barry) had been involved in the British film industry since 1930, when as a nineteen year old he was helping out with the editing process. By the early fifties he was a producer, with The Cruel Sea standing out among his credits, and Dunkirk was a directorial effort for Ealing that showed similarly the best and worst of the studio. The latter comes in the form of bulging the content, all those superfluous moments that emphasise the contrast between attitudes at home and what’s happening abroad, not to mention the budgetary limits leading to obvious use of stock footage and models.

At the same time, my admiration for John Mills grows with every film I watch. A winner at the British box office throughout this era, his ability to convincingly portray a normal man forced by circumstance into committing exceptional acts comes across really well, his frantic efforts to get his men to safety, his rising gall upon realising that Dunkirk is little better than a death trap. Great work from a fine actor. Attenborough puts in an equally good performance, wholly convincing as a coward who hopes that the war will just happen elsewhere, away from his watch, but over time pulled in to become about as heroic as anybody. The effect is helped by the actor looking older than his years, aiming to look the comfortable English gentleman at a time of extreme distress.

Sadly, Dunkirk was a late flourish for Ealing, which had expired as an independent production company after producing a series of films that made only losses. The BBC had already bought the studio in 1955 and the production team was working under MGM by this stage, still able to bear the old Ealing logo on its films but depending on the money of Hollywood distributors. An ignominious end to the Ealing career of producer Michael Balcon, who perhaps appreciated better than most that its day in the sun was ended.

Dunkirk: ***

Troy (2004)

When it’s on: Sunday, 4 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

First there was Gladiator, then came The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and suddenly it was fashionable to make big budget epic films once again. Not an unhappy development for this writer, who grew up loving the likes of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, with their lengthy running times, lavish sets, gorgeous locations and casts of thousands. There had always been ‘epic’ films that drew on stories from the past for their inspiration, though their heyday was in the 1950s, when the impact of the HUAC blacklistings and the attempt to drag viewers from their TV screens and back into theatres led to movies built on spectacle and featuring strong, moral heroes. When these films started to fail at the box office, though, so their demise hastened, the massive investment in them becoming a considerable risk as their budgets had the potential to ruin entire studios. It was only with Gladiator that the possibilities CGI of replacing the millions spent on extras, set designs and costumes were realised. Instead of building large-scale recreations of the Roman forum, you now had the capacity to generate them from a computer. Vast numbers of extras, which found their ultimate expression in the employment of the Soviet Union army dressed in Napoleonic era uniforms for the ruinous Waterloo, could now be rendered digitally.

The success of Ridley Scott’s Roman flick, both critically and in ticket sales, ensured further forays into the past, and Troy, made for a considerable $175 million by Wolfgang Petersen. In the grand epic tradition, Troy assembled a cast of big names, followed a sweeping narrative based on the events of the Trojan War (and is very loosely derived from Homer’s The Iliad) and put thousands of computer generated combatants in the field against each other. The film did well enough at the box office to be considered a sound commercial success, despite its violent content ensuring a ’15’ rating in the UK; critically it faced something of a battering. Naysayers highlighted its lack of faith to Homer, the excising of the impact of the Greek Gods on what happens, its dodgy acting, its absence of dramatic weight, the suggestion that it was, in reality, a showcase for stars like Brad Pitt.

The story opens with the Trojan princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom), in Sparta to negotiate a peace treaty with King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Returning home, Hector discovers that his younger brother has spirited away Menelaus’s young wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), which is the lever for full-scale war between Troy and the Greek city states, united under Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Of course, Menelaus’s anger is just the trigger as far as the power mad Agamemnon is concerned; he just wants an excuse, any excuse, to invade, and sure enough the thousand ships are soon launched across the Aegean. The wildcard for Greece is Achilles (Pitt), its greatest warrior but a brooding and insolent presence, wanting little to do with his leader’s megalomania but unable to resist the chance for glory in battle. Also in the Greek ranks is Odysseus (Sean Bean), Achilles’s sole ally amongst the leadership and carrying a reputation for coming up with cunning plans. The Trojans, in the meantime, prepare for a war they know is surely coming. Their king, Priam (Peter O’Toole), balances the grounded advice offered by Hector against the more bombastic predictions of the Gods, as mouthed by his priests. Soon after, the Greeks are at the walls, but the superior Trojan defences and Achilles’s unwillingness to be drawn into battle and possibly turn the tide in Agamemnon’s favour ensures the struggle will become a long, bloody and drawn out affair…

Though the film features many figures from history, and gives most just enough screen time to lend them the sort of one-dimensional characterisation that makes them unmemorable and lacking in any depth (Agamemnon is GREEDY, Paris is VAIN, etc), there’s sufficient exploration of Achilles to hint at someone with divided loyalties and gaps in his search for happiness. Pitt does all right with the material. A handsome man with enough charisma to head the cast, Pitt suggests a tormented Achilles, long since tired of his killing machine abilities and capable of finding peace when he falls in love with priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne). That said, the film is unable to convince us that Pitt is anything other than Brad Pitt playing a part. It does better with Eric Bana, who brings real presence to the screen as the noble Hector and whose tortured countenance gives the impression that he knows Troy’s number is most likely up, especially when arguing for a moderate approach to the Greek attacks that are met with resistance by a divinity-obsessed Priam.

Troy marked the beginning of Orlando Bloom’s decline as a potential leading man. I’ve always thought the accusations that he can’t act to be unfair, though it’s certain he lacks the sort of command needed to breathe life into such a pivotal character as Paris. Diane Kruger was better known as a model before appearing in this film and is obviously ravishing, though it’s hard to imagine her looks alone being sufficient to elicit one of the most heralded conflicts in history. As for Peter O’Toole, he gets one of the best scenes in the film when he appears in Achilles’s tent to beg for the return of his son’s body. Suddenly, the one-note characterisation falls away and Priam is exposed as a desolate and imploring father. A shame there isn’t more room for this kind of human drama.

But there isn’t, and that’s the overall problem with Troy. There’s a sense that the characters are pieces on a chessboard; in The Iliad that’s pretty much what they were, moved at the whims of the Gods, but here they serve the needs of the plot and you’re never sure who to cheer for, or indeed for whom you should care. Both sides have their heroes and villains. Pitt turns Achilles into such an anti-hero that it’s difficult to be fully engaged in either his struggle or romantic sub-plot. Bloom fails completely to fill the vacuum left by Bana’s Hector. Titanic armies clash, but often the results are inconclusive enough to remove any heft; all those people who die for nothing, though obviously they aren’t really people at all, just sprites created in some CGI laboratory. One tussle ends abruptly with the unfortunate death of a minor character; really, that would happen? Besides which, I’ve always struggled with battles that open with two enormous massed armies charging at each other from the off, when even a tiny knowledge of military tactics would lead to awareness that they didn’t happen like this at all.

Overall, Troy is a film that just happens, simply retreading the plot with obvious characters who perform exactly as you’d expect. There’s a director’s cut available that I haven’t seen, which apparently adds enough to flesh out the characters and bring the film to life, and this is something I witnessed for myself in the extended version of Kingdom of Heaven. Theatrically it was all a bit thin, curious for a film that told such a dramatically weighty story and contained so many important characters. It’s entirely meaningless, and it should have been anything but that.

Troy: **

Destry Rides Again (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 23 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Destry Rides Again came out in 1939, the same year as Stagecoach, and it seems that it will go down with the epitaph ‘The One that wasn’t Stagecoach.’ 1939 was the year that also brought us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the tale of an idealistic young Senator played with such conviction by James Stewart, at this stage a star on the rise. Stewart was suddenly hot property, and ensured Destry Rides Again would be pumped out quickly to capitalise on his winning ‘Aw shucks’ charisma. In the years that followed, especially after his experiences in World War Two, Stewart’s range would broaden and become far more complicated, but for now it was easy to see him as the idealistic young American, with his provincial, awkward manner of speaking, his steadfast resoluteness and offbeat appeal.

The real star of the show at the time, however, was Marlene Dietrich, the Berliner who was approaching 40 and presumably nearing the tail end of her long, glittering career. As Frenchy, the owner of lawless Bottleneck’s rowdy saloon, she’s a jaded singer who’s seen it all, betting the pants off other barflies over card games and being embroiled by association with the schemes of the town’s unofficial boss, Kent (Brian Dunlevy). She knows all the twists and angles, and she also sings for the bar’s denizens, her tunes lampooned mercilessly in the later Blazing Saddles (fascinating for viewers like me who saw Saddles first and had no idea Madeline Kahn was satirising Dietrich throughout the film).

Like the rest of Bottleneck, she is at first optimistic when former soak and new, ‘tame’ Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) declares he will clean up the town by hiring as his deputy the son of famous lawman Tom Destry, and then falls into jaded cynicism when young Destry (Stewart) turns up and shows he’s far from the action hero she thinks is needed. Destry Jr doesn’t carry guns. He orders a cup of tea at the bar. He talks of resolving problems without shooting, which sends everyone into confusion and makes him appear at first ridiculous. And Frenchy, the one who seems to have had her hopes dashed hardest, turns to the bottle and enters into a no holds barred catfight with another woman.

Destry might indeed abhor violence, but he has steel. Resolving as much as he can without resorting to reaching for ’em, he nonetheless shows he knows how to shoot in one bravura scene, and only dons the pistols when there’s no other way. The parallels with America itself are clear enough. Fashioned as the peace loving, pacifist nation that only entered conflict when the bloodletting became too great, the USA was wavering over whether to enter the brewing conflict that would escalate into the Second World War and provided decisive when it finally flexed its mighty muscles. The same with Destry, who resorts to action when Dimsdale is gunned down senselessly, the shameful result of a town that uses violence cheaply.

For Stewart, this and Mr Smith were career making turns, transforming a jobbing actor into one of Hollywood’s major stars, though the juxtaposition between Destry and the characters he played in his 1950s Westerns are stark. Dietrich worked hard on the film, at turns tragic and comic, retaining her beauty whilst looking lived in and with sad stories to tell.

The film’s part comedy, but one with dark overtones as the situation in which Bottleneck finds itself in is all too credible. Credit goes to Donlevy as the oily Kent, his eyes on everyone whilst remaining a credible low key villain. It’s good stuff, and alongside Stagecoach helped to revitalise the Western genre.

Destry Rides Again: ****

Firefox (1982)

Firefox

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 February (11.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Firefox is 30 this year. I don’t suppose this will provoke any kind of celebration, though back in its day the film prompted a minor flurry of interest for the effects work of John Dykstra, filling the screen with shots of the world’s quickest military plane in action. Certainly, it was the promise of Firefox itself that dominated the picture’s publicity, and led to playground disappointment in my school when it emerged you got two-thirds Cold War thriller to one-third aerial dogfights. The view from those who’d seen it was that Firefox was boring. It’s probably for this reason that I didn’t catch it myself until years later. Perhaps it was this opinion, writ large in contemporary reviews, that ensured Firefox scraped into the top twenty in 1982’s American box office returns.

For me, one word that most certainly doesn’t sum Firefox up is boring. And indeed, watched many, many years after its initial release, the more interesting element of the film turns out to be the story building up to the eponymous plane’s appearance. Firefox, once its star and director, Clint Eastwood, mounts the cockpit, becomes another reference to the influence of Star Wars, with its effects heavy, niftily edited sequences of the craft shooting along at impossibly fast speeds; in fact much of the work put into these moments now looks rather dated – these things really did work out better when they had the inky vacuum of space as a background.

Fortunately, the espionage yarn that dominates Firefox is pretty effective stuff, even if it’s skewed by the paranoid politics of the era. Perestroika was some years away. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, his administration ushering in a new freezing of East-West relations as the USSR was once again perceived as the implacable foe, not just an opponent of colossal size and unguessable resources  but one with unknown developments in weapons technology, all designed of course to gain the upper hand in some upcoming World War Three. One of the best known books to arise from this perception was The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy, which postulated an advanced Russian nuclear submarine that had the ability to ‘vanish’ from radars. Craig Thomas’s Firefox, published in 1977, did the same for fighter aircraft, though his wasn’t a tale about defection but rather American efforts to infiltrate the Soviet Union and physically steal the plane.

In the adaptation, Eastwood directs himself as Mitchell Gant, a former pilot involved in Vietnam. He’s handpicked for the job of nicking Firefox because of his Russian mother, which makes him not only fluent in the language but, crucially, able to think in Russian. This is important because Firefox is a plane controlled by thought, a development that makes reactions instantaneous and giving it a split second’s advantage in any aerial fight. Gant might be considered ‘the best of the best’ as a pilot, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, at moments of distress returning helplessly in his mind to flashbacks of a young Vietnamese girl being incinerated in a napalm strike.

After an ominous pep talk from military adviser Freddie Jones, who cheerfully advises him of the steps he must take to avoid certain death, Gant, disguised as a businessman with legitimate reasons for visiting the Soviet Union, finds himself in Moscow. Here, he’s helped to the base where Firefox is stationed by a string of sympathisers, in reality British actors (Warren Clarke, Nigel Hawthorne, etc) with thick accents, whilst a similar cabal of Brits, led by Kenneth Colley, play the KGB officials slowly get wind of the theft plot. Criticism has been made of Eastwood’s rather austere performance as Gant, with the word ‘wooden’ used rather unfairly, but it’s made clear he’s no spy and is being swept along for much of the film by people trying to help him to reach his goal. As he’s trafficked towards Firefox, Gant is little more than a bystander, watching his new ‘friends’ get killed routinely by the authorities while he remains just out of reach. In fact, Eastwood captures the sense of paranoia his character undergoes rather well, the mounting dread he experiences as the enormity of his mission and the price being paid is hammered home. This is Russia as a dangerous place, where everyone is a potential informer and every glance is filled with suspicion and mistrust. The claustrophobic atmosphere is utterly palpable, even during a throwaway scene where Gant’s papers are checked by a policeman.

Vienna filled in for Moscow, back when a film like Firefox naturally couldn’t be shot on location in the USSR, which leads to several moments of unintentional comedy (Eastwood walks before an obvious projection of Red Square; he’s staying in Moscow Hotel, Moscow, etc) but never looks terrible, allowing for a certain suspension of disbelief. The introduction of Firefox itself is a rather fine money shot, all smooth lines, painted in black and clearly built for aerodynamic advantage. It’s only when Gant takes to the air in his new toy that the film loses some of its interest. The tone changes from thriller to action, Eastwood having to audibly describe what he’s doing to keep bewildered viewers informed of his progress. He’s being pursued by the second prototype, one that can be refueled in the air whilst he has to stop in the Arctic Circle and get topped up by a US submarine, which means it will catch up and they’ll have it out in the film’s climactic dogfight. It’s decent enough, but with big machines taking over from the plight of a single, vulnerable human being among millions of potential enemies, the stakes drop.

Firefox: ***

The Far Country (1955)

The Far Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Today’s screening of The Far Country reflects the fact it’s last of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborative Westerns that I’ve seen. Before moving onto the specific title, I thought I may take some time to discuss the partnership in general terms, particularly considering it produced such rich viewing.

I’m reasonably new to the Western. For years, it seemed to me a genre that ‘your Grandad watched’, but it never felt like it would mean anything to me. It’s an established assumption that the Western had its Golden Age in the 1950s, many years after it had first appeared in American cinemas and ebbed and flowed in popularity since the earliest days of the form. But the fifites were a long time ago, even when I was a child, and the Western has muddled along ever since, relegated to niche or novelty projects while other subjects have long since taken over domination of our screens. In short, it felt old hat.

But times and attitudes change, and I don’t know if it was a viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that did it, but there was a certain point when I realised I’d missed something pretty damn good and started to catch up with Westerns. Over the last few years, I know I’ve watched more films set in the Old West than any other; not just that, but the DVDs have dominated my shopping basket as my tastes have reverted with increasing frequency to classic cinema, indeed my Christmas list (we still write them in my house – get over it) was a series of titles almost wholly from the 1940s and 1950s, along with The Artist, which itself is a hark back to simpler times. It’s fortunate that some very fine bloggers are also big Western fans. Their recommendations and sheer enthusiasm have helped to guide me, though it’s been just as much fun to stumble across something like The Last Train to Gun Hill (because it was available on LoveFILM Instant) and lose myself to its virtuosity.

Randolph Scott in Badman's Territory

I’ve watched an awful lot of Westerns over the last few years, making a point of catching the titles that routinely make up the ‘Best of’ lists but delving deeper still, realising of course that the genre was as capable as any other of churning out generic offerings (‘oaters’, I suppose) yet throwing up the odd nice surprise at the same time. An instance of the latter came with Badman’s Territory, screened by the BBC over the holiday and, in retrospect, doing little more than providing a footnote in Randolph Scott’s development as the tall, dark, handsome, and often barely speaking, hero of the frontier. In reality, it’s matinee fluff, condescending its audience with some blarney about a lawless oblong of pre-Oklahoma land that served as an excuse to shoehorn together a number of real-life Western legends who could never have actually rubbed shoulders. But there came a point that I started to really enjoy it, in particular Scott’s sheer presence commanding the screen as the plot unfolds.

Badman’s Territory is no one’s idea of an essential title, though I’m glad I watched it. There’s no comparison with the best of John Ford, though one man’s work in the genre that stands up to scrutiny is that of Anthony Mann, especially the films he made with James Stewart in a starring role. I think one of the things I like best about the Mann-Stewart pentology (sorry) is its brevity. Without checking this for accuracy, I don’t remember any of their movies running far past the 90-minute mark, and under someone else’s guidance it probably would have been a different story. Had, say, Bend of the River been a John Ford film, I might have expected an extra thirty minutes, allowing for further ‘sprawl’ and the development of certain sub-plots. Hey, it might have worked just as well, having more to say about American values as supporting characters are teased into metaphors for moral codes or contemporary attitudes. Yet Mann’s approach allows instead for really tight plotting, a gift to viewers as his films are often packed with lots happening and consequently I finish them almost out of breath, barely able to believe so much was covered in an hour and a half. Credit here goes to Borden Chase, the former gangster’s chauffeur who made the unlikely step from driving Frankie Yale around to writing the marvelous scripts of three Mann-Stewart Westerns and stuffing them with dense plotting, focusing on the ratcheted-up tension of human drama borne out of difficult situations. Yet it couldn’t have worked without good direction, and happily these films were knocked up by one of the best, albeit one of the most underrated, in the business.

Perhaps it’s Mann’s love of silent cinema that made the difference. Whilst his films contain a regular amount of dialogue, the director captured the language of bodies, facial expressions, interior sets and locations. The latter makes for some incredible viewing, barren landscapes that continually mirror the often brutal action and tension taking place among the characters. Make no mistake, his films seem to say, this is a harsh, dog eat dog world where no one can be trusted and each time you rely on another person remains a considerable gamble. The success of his work depended on good acting talent, and it’s our good fortune as viewers that he struck up a fruitful working partnership with James Stewart.

James Stewart in The Man from Laramie

There’s a clear line drawn between Stewart’s work before and after his war service. The idealistic, young man’s roles in which he excelled prior to his years in the US Air Force gave way to increasingly cynical and world weary character sketches, notably for Alfred Hitchcock but no less significantly in the Westerns he made with Mann. Taking advantage of his maturity (Stewart was in his forties during this period), the actor looked as though he’d barely been made up, appearing to have a good few years behind him, his face bearing the wrinkles and marks of a life that had been eventfully lived. Given that life expectancy on the frontier can’t have been at all high, the suggestion is of a man who’s seen and done a lot, and sure enough Stewart’s hallmark character arrives on the screen with a rounded back story. Often enough, his past has contained disreputable deeds, followed by a lengthy period of atonement that has left him older, wiser, skilled in gunmanship but most of all wishing to settle down for his waning years and appreciating similar desires in others. It’s a character trait that’s been copied often down the years, most successfully perhaps by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and like Will Munny the men Stewart plays have killed just about everything that walks or crawls and want nothing more than to walk away from that kind of living. Of course, that just isn’t going to happen and naturally, his old skills will be called upon, usually to devastating effect. What boils to the surface here are Stewart’s skills as a physical performer. Often, he undergoes some sort of ordeal in the course of his films, or needs to express extreme anger or pain, and Mann captures superbly the reactions on his careworn face. There’s a moment in The Man from Laramie (probably my favourite of the series, but not by a long chalk) when his character, Will Lockhart, is held down and gets shot in his hand. You might expect the picture’s hero to take it with a steely grimace, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Stewart whimpers, grimaces, clutches his mutilated hand, every nuance of the pain, the loss of dignity and power sprawled across his features. Or how about the explosion of rage when he overpowers a man in Winchester ’73? Or the look of naked hate he fixes on Arthur Kennedy’s traitor in Bend of the River as he tells him that ‘every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there.’ It’s powerful stuff, explicitly laid bare by Stewart and loaded with significance by Mann’s direction. The effect overall is to establish Stewart as an outstanding contributor to the genre, and Mann as a director straight out of the top drawer. And it seemed to work best when the pair collaborated. Neither Night Passage, Stewart’s first Western after the partnership ended, nor The Tin Star, Mann’s following film with Henry Fonda taking the ‘Stewart’ role against an underpowered Anthony Perkins, were in the same league.

The eponymous far country in this, the fourth entry in the partnership, is the Yukon,  the scene of the Klondike Gold Rush that had would-be prospectors flooding into north-western Canada at the close of the nineteenth century. Stewart plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Dawson because he knows the mining community will pay through the nose for good beef. But it’s a perilous journey. The film opens with Webster making the boat trip from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, the intention from here being to cross the difficult terrain into Canada and Dawson. But before he can take this step he’s apprehended in Skagway by the corrupt town boss, Gannon (John McIntire), who makes an attempt to confiscate his livestock unscrupulously. It turns out that Gannon exploits the window of opportunity opened by the gold rush far more ruthlessly than Webster. Whilst appearing more likeable and charismatic than the notably sullen hero, his aim is nothing less than to control all areas of potential profit within the region, hiring gangs to kill anyone who stands in his way.

Webster gets his chance to escape Gannon’s clutches when he agrees to accompany businesswoman Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and her supplies to Dawson, even managing to reclaim his cattle and eventually get his windfall. Yet once in Dawson, his conscience is increasingly pricked by the plight of the prospecting community, which is being decimated by Gannon’s greed, as the plot builds towards a climactic showdown between the pair.

Whilst Stewart specialised in playing morally complex characters for Mann, there are probably none more conflicted than Jeff Webster, who makes it clear from the outset that he isn’t interested in getting involved in anything more noble than making money and even rejects Dawson’s offer of the sheriff’s badge. He opts for the equally self-motivated Ronda over the romantic attentions of Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), the adorable french-Canadian girl who scratches a living from collecting gold dust in order to send her father to medical school in Vienna. He barely seems able to stand Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), the ageing sidekick who never leaves his side despite Webster’s brusque attitude. There’s a well conceived contrast between Webster and Gannon, with the latter presented initially as the better guy and almost persuading viewers to like him more. And as usual, Webster emerges into The Far Country as a fully rounded character, complete with a murderous past and desire to earn just enough to buy his dream ranch. Over the course of the film, he’s continually forced to re-examine his self-interested motives, as the bodies of people who aren’t ‘owned’ by Gannon pile up and it’s the death of a close friend that ultimately places him in heroic opposition.

The complicated, sprawling plot, with its various characters and issues made explicit, still make for a film that clocks in beneath the 100-minute mark, with room allowed for Henry Mancini’s fine score and some stunning photography by cinematographer William Daniels. The Far Country was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, allowing for a string of picture postcard images, particularly of  Saskatchewan Glacier, which both emphasise the remoteness of the film’s happenings and reflect Webster’s own, loner’s sensibilities.

The Far Country: ****

The Big Country (1958)

The Big Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 30 December (4.40 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Something of a forgotten entry from the golden age of the Western, you will rarely find William Wyler’s The Big Country on Top Ten lists, and yet it remains one of my favourites. It’s unfashionably epic in scope, running twenty minutes short of the three-hour mark. It works either as the straightforward tale of two feuding families or as a parable of the Cold War, which was reaching its hottest point at the time. There’s no involvement with Native Americans, who are relegated to ‘mentioned anecdotally’ status. Its main character is an impossibly good fish out of water, constantly trying to comprehend the animosity raging around him, whilst the best performances arguably come from the film’s supporting players.

Wyler’s adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s short story, Ambush at Blanco Canyon, was his attempt to weave a classic tale related on the widest canvas. Together with cinematographer Franz Planer, his backdrop was the vast plains of some long tamed frontier land, endless grassland with blue skies that stretched forever, the idealised big country of the title, indeed the contrast between the two families is reflected stylistically in their locales – the wealthy Terrills live amidst lush greenery; bleached, stark limestone canyons mark the world of the redneck Hannasseys. The source of the factions’ tension is cattle, specifically grazing rights to the disputed Big Muddy and its vital water supply. This is owned by schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who wants no part in the strife and refuses to sell to either party.

The leaders of their respective clans are works of art, and with his considerable running time Wyler has adequate time to breathe life into these old school monsters. The Terrills are headed by Major Henry (Charles Bickford), all surface amiability yet perpetually looking down his nose at anyone who challenges his hegemony in his world. The main object of his ire is Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), an unrefined rancher who feels every glare of belittlement, whilst maintaining a raw nobility when it comes to resolving his own family matters. The Major’s daughter is Pat (Carroll Baker), his faithful foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), with sexual tension simmering between the pair as Steve aims to work his way into the Terrill’s fortunes.

It’s unfortunate for him that the film opens with Pat’s fiance arriving in town, a dapper, well-heeled gentleman who looks as though he belongs to the Old West as you or I might. This is James McKay (Gregory Peck), a retired naval captain with a completely defined set of values and plans for the troubled Big Muddy. Much is made of his genteel otherworldliness, especially by Leech, who sees him as entirely unworthy of at and does all he can to drive home the fact. McKay is ridiculed for refusing to take his turn on the volatile horse, Old Thunder, a kind of rite of passage for newcomers to the Terrill ranch, for wandering off alone for a couple of days and finally for backing down from a fight with Leech, who won’t accept his assertion that he hadn’t gotten himself lost. In turn, he steadily loses Pat’s respect, though she doesn’t learn until it’s too late that he’s not only tamed Thunder but also fought Leech to an exhausted stalemate, preferring to settle these matters privately due to having nothing to prove. By then, he’s already falling for Julie and in the thick of the hatred between both families as the Hannasseys try to match the teacher with Rufus’s errant son, Buck (Chuck Connors).

All this is filmed extravagantly, much of it enhanced by Jerome Moross’s sweeping score. How Moross lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s work on The Old Man and the Sea is anyone’s guess. It’s almost the perfect score, capturing virtuously the crackling tension and eulogising appropriately over those soaring shots of the big country. And yet one of the film’s best scenes – the dawn fistfight between McKay and Leech  – has no musical accompaniment, the soundtrack instead dominated by connecting fists, groans and bodies colliding with the dirt, Wyler directing beautifully the pair framed like ants against the landscape.

The Big Country has time and space to build steadily to its climax, a ‘worth waiting for’ escalation of trouble until all parties clash in Blanco Canyon. By now, the principal characters have been explored so thoroughly that it’s tough to tell the good from the bad, though it’s clear the ugly is represented by Buck, who attempts to rape Julie before turning ‘yeller’ in his climactic duel with McKay. Moross’s music is never better than in the scene where Major Terrill and his men are about to enter the Canyon. Leech refuses to follow his boss; he knows the canyon is guarded with guns behind every rock and they’d be walking into a deathtrap. The rest follow Leech’s lead, leaving the Major marching in alone. As the music rises, the camera tracks the Major, a lone rider approaching him from behind. It’s Leech, who’s joined in turn by the rest of the marching party. The moment’s all the better because it contains no words, just looks and a smile on the Major’s face, Leech’s more enigmatic expression suggesting the conflict underneath, emphasised by how much quieter and more reflective he’s been since his fight with McKay.

A difficult shoot punctuated by various conflicts between the cast and crew that of course worked in producing the tension-filled overtones of the film, The Big Country remains great viewing. Peck looks like he’s in training for his career-defining Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The chemistry between Simmons and himself is too transparent to ensure the characters’ eventual union is anything less than obvious,  particularly as Baker is called on to play the unsympathetic, spoiled Daddy’s girl as Pat. Burl Ives won an Academy Award for his role, and a towering performance his is, never less than in the scene where he gatecrashes the Terrill’s party to deliver some choice words to the Major. My pick is perhaps Heston, taking a supporting part so that he could work with Wyler and being rewarded with the starring role in the forthcoming Ben Hur. He’s too big, both physically and in terms of presence, for his own character, yet the contradiction works because he’s there, glowering in the background as McKay courts Pat, an ever present source of smouldering tautness that neither can ignore.

The Big Country: ****