Escape to Athena (1979)

When it’s on: Monday, 21 December (10.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve never been a great fan of Second World War movies made as action adventure, I guess because as a History student I tend to believe it’s a subject that ought to be treated more seriously. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy and, when they’re done well, as in the classic Where Eagles Dare, these films can be very good fun, however I far prefer titles like Saving Private Ryan, or the British entries from the 1950s that show the consequences and emotional toll that being involved in warfare can take on people. All the same, there was clearly a market for this sort of fare, inspired by countless comic books and boys’ own yarns, and it took an arch entertainment figure like Sir Lew Grade to finance the likes of Escape to Athena, which offered thrills, exotic locations and an all-star line-up.

Filmed entirely on the Greek island of Rhodes, it’s a fantastic looking film. The opening and closing shots allow director George Cosmatos to serve up sweeping shots of the topography, the buildings clinging to mountainsides, monasteries built atop high plateaus, all framed by gorgeous seas and endless blue skies. Lovely. But that’s the highlight, the script having a sense of going through the motions and largely wasting its ensemble cast. And what a cast! As was the tradition in these films, Escape to Athena features a galaxy of stars, led by Roger Moore who at the time was at the height of his James Bond pomp. Fancying a change of roles after years playing heroes, Moore signed up on the basis that he would be a German commandant, however the screenplay made him an Austrian and a sympathetic Nazi, a former antiques dealer who is only present in Greece to excavate his prison camp for buried treasure. Once Stefanie Powers’s dancer arrives, his thoughts quickly turn to wooing her, and he soon throws in his lot with the freedom fighters and prisoners after they have taken over. It would be nice to say that the role brings out a tougher edge in Moore, whose playing of 007 came with a cheeky raised eyebrow, but in truth his German accent is pretty terrible (the standard dropping of German words like ‘und’ into his sentences is about all it amounts to) and he has little air of authority. Far more believable is Michael Sheard as his Sergeant, another Nazi part for the actor who was a ‘go to guy’ for fascist roles and only cast because the producers failed to recruit a bigger star, and even his austere playing collapses over the course of the picture.

On the side of the angels, Telly Savalas is probably the highlight. Playing Zeno, a former monk who has since shacked up with Claudia Cardinale’s brothel madame and head of the local resistance movement, there’s a sense of purpose to him that’s largely missing elsewhere. He gets some good action scenes, though the best one goes to Elliott Gould who enjoys a motorbike chase through the narrow back streets of the Greek town that’s breathtakingly shot. Gould’s role is a strange one. Oscillating between action hero and fey comic relief, spewing out a string of wisecracks, it’s as though his part was two separate ones and at some stage they were merged into his. David Niven plays an archaeologist who’s now a prisoner of war and planning his escape. By this stage nearly 70, he featured in a project that was being produced by his son, David Niven Jr, and was clearly too old for the part, perhaps also beginning to show signs of the motor neurone disease that would be the end of him a few years later. Richard Roundtree and Sonny Bono are fellow star names who add to the roster of prisoners. None are especially well characterised, the latter two especially being handed a few action scenes each but otherwise given little to do. The biggest waste is Cardinale, capable of demonstrating endless levels of emotion and sensuousness and yet existing here solely to provide a moll for Savalas.

The story is largely about people on the make. Moore’s Otto Hecht is happy enough to sit out the war in his benevolently run camp, sending the ‘finds’ his prisoners dig up to his sister in Switzerland whilst avoiding the close attentions of the local SS officer, played by the late Anthony Valentine in sadistic Colditz mode. Knowing that Allied forces are on their way, Zeno leads an assault on the POW camp to take it over, which involves Hecht switching sides rather than be killed, and then the liberators turn their attention to the local monastery atop Mount Athena. The former prisoners go because Zeno persuades them that the building is stuffed with Byzantine antiques, but the reality is it’s a German garrison that contains a V-2 rocket. The mission turns into one of rescue, freeing the monks who are trapped there and stopping the missile from being launched.

As the action ramps up in these later scenes, Escape to Athena becomes a better film, though it’s the usual business of production line Nazis being decimated by gun toting heroes. But it takes a long time getting there, the first half focusing more on comedy, especially from the leaden Gould who nevertheless gets a great in-joke moment with William Holden, putting in a lovely little cameo that references his role in Stalag 17 (Holden was hanging around the set as he was married to Powers at the time). It sank both critically and at the box office, audience’s tastes no longer in tune with war films played as light adventure yarns, and its seventies roots are betrayed by a closing shot that depicts the town in modern times before the credits roll and a Heatwave song – nothing wrong with the tune, but it’s hopelessly out of place here – plays. There’s some fun to be had in Escape to Athena, and the sense that it’s trying its best to please the viewer is there, but all told it’s a bit of a limp experience. Despite that, the Greek influenced score by Lalo Schifrin is nice, and the photography’s a winner, suggesting the cast and crew were assembled with the promise of a fine shoot on sun-kissed Rhodes. It all looks rather voluptuous on the Blu-Ray I watched.

Escape to Athena: **

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 November (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

There have been so many Robin Hood films over the years. None to date have been as good as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, with only Robin and Marian coming anywhere close and for very different reasons. The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, made in 1946, doesn’t make the grade. It’s much cheaper, shorter, narrower in scope and pulls up short in pretty much every aspect. And yet on its own merits it isn’t a bad little swashbuckler. We can only see it in a frankly beautifully restored format thanks to the release in 2010 of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which prompted further interest in the mythical leader of the merry men and had Sony scrabbling through the archives to reissue several hoary old efforts. This is one of the better works they dug up.

Intended as a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Robin Hood, this one finds Robin as a much older man, played by Russell Hicks in his sixth decade and with King Richard’s pardon behind him. Now the Earl of Huntington, Robin is a veteran who’s grown old, but the revolutionary spirit within him flares when England’s Regent, William of Pembroke (Henry Daniell) proposes scrapping the Magna Carta and combining the armies of the nobility into one force to crush any rebellions. Robin disagrees, is stripped of his title and returns to his outlaw ways deep in Sherwood forest, the old gang quickly returning to him. They discover William’s plans are no more than a pretext to his real aim, which is to arrange an accident for the new king, a child, and assume the crown for himself. With the boy in custody and the Queen Mother (Jill Esmond) compelled to escape for her life in the company of Lady Catherine (Anita Louise), Robin calls on the services of his son Robert (Cornel Wilde) to help rescue the king and restore England to justice.

The film was adapted from Paul A Castleton’s novel Son of Robinhood, though due to legal issues over who owned the ‘Robin Hood’ name it was retitled and churned out as a B-movie action adventure. The castle sets were allegedly gathering dust before being brushed off for this, and it was all iced off with a slim cast, a smattering of extras in medieval costumes in order to represent olde England. Continuity with The Adventures was provided by cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who directed photography on both pictures and here helped to show the Technicolor process at its finest, adding lush vibrancy to the finished product. It looks great, though whether set designers were employed on this occasion to paint the leaves so that they would look even greener is unlikely. Cast members don’t even bother to mask their American accents in a film shot on location in California, and lazy script references to silk stockings betray a basic lack of care.

Still, comparing The Bandit of Sherwood Forest with its illustrious forebear from eight years beforehand seems ultimately churlish. It’s clear the earlier entry was a ‘no expenses spared’ affair whereas this had a quite different approach. While the plot is rather plodding, in its favour the film had Cornel Wilde, a lithe and agreeable star who graduated from the USA fencing team to become an athletic leading man in films that took advantage of his talents with a sword. Wilde’s good fun, a ‘Hood’ for lighter times who’s channelling the spirit of Errol Flynn, though bringing less of the Tasmanian’s star quality and charisma to the table – let’s be honest, Flynn as Robin Hood gushed lustful zest from every orifice. The action scenes are nicely played, even if none of Wilde’s opponents have a hope in hell against him. He simply blasts Edgar Buchanan’s Friar Tuck away, in a slightly uncomfortable sequence that proves an old, fat man is simply an old, fat man when facing Robert. Blame the script for this. Eugene Pallette was no mug in The Adventures; here, the good Friar, like the other merry men, is merely a supporting player with no room for more than one-dimensional development.

Henry Daniell makes for a fine villain, just the latest in a string of parts in which he honed a career as evil masterminds – had he been born later, his fate as a bad guy for James Bond to battle would have been sealed. He might very well be the best thing in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, a real moustache curler of a performance that deserves better than the material he was working with, and I can forgive the wild historical inaccuracy of presenting a major English figure from the age as a self-serving megalomaniac (in reality, Pembroke supported the young king, Henry III’s ascent, all the way) because he does it so well. Daniell will always have a place in the heart of this site for his regular appearances as villains in the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which culminated him being given the plum role of Moriarty in The Woman in Green.

Of the film’s two credited directors, George Sherman had a long career helming Westerns, especially in this period micro-budgeted Oaters, and it shows in a project that at times feels like a generic Western plot that’s been transferred to Sherwood forest. There are lots of shots of horsemanship, including the old staple of tracking someone who’s riding at breakneck speed, which suggests a rather bland photographic exercise overall. But there’s also pace, the camera never lingering on a scene too long, Wilde slipping from his seduction of Anita Louise to saving peasants who are about to be hanged by firing his arrows with perfect accuracy, to fighting several guards at once with his flashing blade and a smile. It’s all heartily done, makes good use of the limited sets and never outstays its welcome. It’s weightless, matinee adventure from a more innocent age, and I had a lot more fun watching it than with many other Robin Hood capers.

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest: ***

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Thief of Bagdad: *****

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunt for Red October: ****

High Noon (1952)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 April (11.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve said before on these pages that I came pretty late to the Westerns party. In an effort to catch up, I scoured the ‘top’ lists and sought out the greatest offerings from the genre, a pretty tall order because everyone has their own individual favourites, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who puts the effort into writing about films they’ve especially enjoyed deserve to have them seen by others and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. From list to list, certain titles invariably come out on top again and again, and High Noon is one of them. This 1952 offering, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gary Cooper, was one of the big winners at the Academy Awards, inexplicably losing the Best Picture accolade to The Greatest Show on Earth, but handing Best Actor to Cooper whilst it also won in the editing and music categories.

So I’ll just put it out there right now – since watching High Noon, it has clearly become my favourite Western, in fact forget the Westerns part, it’s up there with my all-timers. After finishing it the first time, I had the strong urge to play the whole thing over again. Seeing it ahead of this review was just a pleasure, and I’ve no idea how many times I have dug out the disc since buying it. It’s just one of those titles, I guess; I don’t get bored of it and find myself getting caught up in the film’s ratcheting tension with each and every viewing. Irrational aside – there’s a small part of me hoping, this time, that Cooper will forget his obligations to Hadleyville and keep that wagon rolling, enjoy the company of the lovely Grace Kelly in whatever life they choose instead of turning around in order to face Frank Miller. Just keep going, Gary – they don’t deserve you!

In the interests of putting together enough material for a balanced critique, I jotted some bullet points as the film was playing. Here’s what I produced:

I hope you can read that – if not, here’s a larger version that will open in a new tab (I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting, sorry). Don’t worry; I’m not about to go into each and every point here, but I would like to start by eulogising Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, in particular the High Noon ballad that opens the picture, as the credits roll and Miller’s compadres assemble in readiness for their showdown. If there’s one single element that draws me back to High Noon, it’s that simple song, with its melancholic Tex Ritter vocals about Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, begging for his new wife Amy (Kelly) not to forsake him while he meets his destiny against Miller. It’s lovely and haunting, and it follows Kane about for the next eighty five minutes as he prepares for his fate, indeed much of the film’s score is a riff on the ballad.

Stripped back, High Noon is a fairly straightforward and even standard Western story. Kane is the Marshal in a little backwater town named Hadleyville. It’s his last day in the job before standing down, and he’s getting married in a little Quaker ceremony to Amy. As he’s preparing to leave town for good, he learns that a dangerous gunslinger called Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from gaol and is on his way back; his train will arrive at noon. Years earlier, Marshall was a troubling presence in Hadleyville before Kane apprehended him and oversaw the delivery of the death penalty by Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger). With Miller gone, Hadleyville grew in peace and prosperity under Kane’s marshalship, but he and the judge both recall the villain’s portentous words of vengeance when he was convicted, and in the meantime his date with the noose was prorogued to a prison sentence. Kane’s torn between skipping and leaving Hadleyville to its fate, or staying and fighting Miller. What he doesn’t count on are the feelings of the town itself, the community of friends that steadily deserts him as the clock ticks down to noon, not to mention Amy’s vehement disagreement with his decision to remain.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story opens at around quarter to eleven and the events building up to Miller’s arrival play out in real time, meaning that over the next hour Kane comes to realise that he has to stand up to him alone. The ticking of the clock, revisited often with the minute hands progressing inexorably, generate instant suspense as Kane is refused again and again by people he thought of as friends.

There’s tones of plot getting peeled away as the clock ticks down, and it’s a product of the slick editing by Elmo Williams and Harry W Gerstad that a raft of stories connected to so many individuals are outlined or even hinted at. By the end, High Noon feels like a much longer film than its running time due to the sheer swathes of clever characterisation and plot developments that are being rolled out all the time. One of the principal sub-plots involve Ellen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), owner of Hadleyville’s drinking hole and hotel. It emerges that she was Miller’s girl once upon a time, before turning her affections to Kane and finally to his young Deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Her ‘previous’ is a great source of tension between Kane and Pell, the way she’s a lot wiser than the latter and still harbours feelings for Kane, knowing – and teling Pell – that he isn’t half the man the Marshal is. Moreover, Ellen develops into the town’s heart. She knows exactly what will happen, that Kane will be abandoned by the community, and quickly sells her business and packs to leave as she understands that the day’s events will mark the end of Hadleyville as she knows it. The contrast between her, Kane’s ex, and Amy, his present, is irresistible, even down to the black clothes Ellen wears jarring with the bride’s virginal white dress. For much of High Noon, its emotions are firmly in tune with Jurado’s character, plain speaking, passionate and beautiful, against the callow Amy, who only comes into her own at the end.

And Ellen’s only the highlight. Bridges teases all the resentment and jealousy out of Pell, loathing Kane’s status and wanting his job, whilst knowing deep down that he’ll never measure up the same. Lon Chaney Jr puts in an appearance as Hadleyville’s former Marshal, broken by thankless years of service and seeing nothing but doom in Kane’s sticking around. Mayor Jonas Henderson is played by Thomas Mitchell, who reveals the town’s yellow heart during an impassioned speech to the church congregation, arguing they’re all better off without Kane because they might get left alone by Miller if he isn’t around, in the course of which exposing the tissue-thin extent of his friendship with the Marshal. There’s also the town barber who orders more coffins to be built when he hears Miller is approaching, the weasly hotel clerk who has nothing good to say about the Marshal, Kane’s friend Sam (Tom London) who’s too terrified to help out and gets his wife to make his excuses, the young lad who’s devoted to him and Kruger’s judge who knows exactly when he needs to move on.

You guessed it, Hadleyville is stuffed with a rogues’ gallery of selfish and greedy people, happy to be sheltered by Kane when it suits them but quick to turn their backs when the going gets tough. Towering above them all is Kane himself, wandering the dusty streets with that Tiomkin ballad playing in the background and looking more hopeless and solitary with each passing minute. Gary Cooper wasn’t the first choice for the role. Acting in movies since the early 1920s, Cooper was entering his fifties when High Noon was released and looked more like Grace Kelly’s father than her groom. Other names included Gregory Peck, who was concerned about how it would play against his previous Western The Gunfighter, and would later admit that turning it down was one of the worst career decisions he made. To add to Cooper’s problems, he was ill at the time, suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments, though in the film this all worked to his advantage as he was so convincingly able to convey the physical toll on Kane and needing little in terms of make-up to replicate the character’s hardships.

High Noon’s deeper subtext is a reflection of the time in which it was made, when the House of Un-American Activities Committee was fixing its gaze on Hollywood and blacklisting many of its major players. One such was the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, a former Communist who knew his time in the American industry was up, despite Cooper’s defence of him before the Committee. Foreman turned in a script about one man fighting the forces of ambivalence alone in a way that apparently mirrored his own plight. Zinneman, who won two Academy Awards for direction, was only nominated here, but made his Western as a taut thriller, with some brilliant shots – those close-ups of the town’s faces and of Miller’s gang staring menacingly right into the camera, the railroad filmed from the tracks themselves (which as the train neared almost did for Zinneman and his cameraman as they didn’t realise until the last moment that its brakes were failing), the zoom out from a beleagured Kane as he’s left utterly alone on the deserted streets.

John Wayne, a supporter of blacklisting, disliked the film and made Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a riposte from the more conservative perspective. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition to fall either on one side or the other. The difference is that in the Hawks-Wayne movie the emphasis is on togetherness, the banding of ‘brothers’ (Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) against a common enemy, It’s a warmer message, certainly, and I refer you to Colin’s excellent review for more on this affirmed classic of the genre, but like him I tend to strip away the politics (the benefit of being born much later than the sociological drivers behind both films) and look at the end products, the pictures we’re left to admire today, on their own terms. I like Rio Bravo, but for me High Noon represents something of a pinnacle, a film I enjoy and am gripped by with every viewing. From my point of view, it’s perilously close to perfection.

High Noon: *****

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.

Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.

Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.

This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.

Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.

In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.

However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.

Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.

All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.

The Battle of the River Plate: ***

The Cruel Sea (1953)

The Cruel Sea

When it’s on: Friday, 22 February (11.05 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve always approached wartime films that are set at sea with trepidation. By all accounts a terrifying theatre of war, the adaptations just seem to have the potential for tedium, lengthy passages where nothing much happens, which in capable hands can produce gripping tension but can equally be dull. For me, a fine example of the former is Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, whilst I confess to switching off during much of The Battle of the River Plate, and that was directed by the mighty Powell and Pressburger.

Having snapped up The Cruel Sea on The War Collection boxset following the recommendation of Simon Heffer on a recent BBC4 documentary, it was finally time to raise the anchor and watch two hours of watery drama. The entry it’s most routinely compared with is In Which We Serve, the collaborative effort of Noel Coward and David Lean, and I guess it’s a comparison that makes some broad sense, given that both entries are resolutely British naval war films about much the same subject. But that’s about it. The earlier release was intended to contain a strong propaganda element, focusing on the captain who, despite his class difference to the men, maintains complete control and earns everyone’s respect thanks to his sure-footed command. Even after the destruction of his ship, Coward’s ‘Captain D’ can look back on his band of seafaring brothers with fondness and a real sense of camaraderie. It’s an emotionally heavy tale with its optimistic message about the fighting British spirit, which is nothing less than you’d expect.

The Cruel Sea is quite a different animal, and it’s worth noting the film’s year of release – 1953 – with the war in the past and bittersweet sentiments seeping in. It was based on Nicholas Monsarrat’s bestselling novel, the rights for which were bought by Ealing after the author requested that such an obviously British tale ought to be made by a native studio. What’s striking is its willingness to refrain from telling a chest beating story, capturing not just the book’s theme of futility in war but also the mood of the contemporary British public. This country might have been on the winning side, it argues, but at what cost? The contrast with American war cinema, which only fully embraced such sentiments after Vietnam, can’t be overstated.

Charles Frend was hired to direct The Cruel Sea. His other great entry into the Ealing catalogue was Scott of the Antarctic, in which the indomitable human spirit was conveyed as well as its powerlessness in the face of the South Pole’s relentless conditions. The freezing temperatures are here replaced with the north Atlantic, which in the opening narration is outlined clearly as the enemy. It’s the story of Ericson (Jack Hawkins), a former merchant navy Captain who’s pressed into service at the head of an obviously inexperienced crew. These include British stalwarts like Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliott, whilst Stanley Baker gets a notable cameo as Ericson’s initial First Lieutenant who masks his own fears with harshness and brutality to others. Sinden soon takes over as ‘Number One’ on the Compass Rose, a small corvette charged with leading convoys of supply ships across the ocean. Each voyage is filled with peril. British naval superiority over Germany has been established early, so the enemy retaliates with U-Boat attacks, made worse because the ship’s sonar equipment is still relatively primitive and everyone knows they’re a relatively easy target.

Whilst The Cruel Sea contains a number of scenes that involve men waiting around for attack, the tension is ratcheted up both by the threat of the U-Boats and the conditions. The North Atlantic is established as dangerous enough in its own right, capable of producing storms that are every bit as terrifying as the human enemy, particularly to a ‘green’ crew that is forced to mature into a seafaring force quickly. But once the weather calms, the submarine attacks resume. The inadequacies of the ship’s sonar equipment becomes apparent as vessels around the Compass Rose are picked off, seemingly at will, and it’s never clear where the U-Boats are. One of the film’s most famous scenes involves the Rose going to pick up some survivors from an attack, who are floating in the water, but then the detection equipment picks up the presence of a U-Boat right beneath the men. Ericson is left with an agonising decision – save the men and risk everyone’s lives, or fire on the submarine and doom the survivors. The latter action is the only one he can choose, yet the cost is immense. Not only does the enemy escape, but he’s haunted by his actions, turning to drink and tears as the enormity of what he’s done stays with him.

This feeling of guilt returns when the Compass Rose is finally capsized after a depth charge attack. Unable to do anything but get as many men off the boat as possible,  Captain Ericson can hear through the stokers the doomed screams of those trapped in the lower decks as water floods in, before he closes the pipe in sheer frustration and despair. Later, as he and Lockhart (Sinden) take over their impressive new ship, Ericson is stood alone by the stokers and once again listens to the echo of their screams, a poignant reminder of the blood he feels is on his hands, a point underlined by the fact that after spending the entire war at sea he’s been responsible for destroying just two U-Boats.

Scenes on land are spaced out and rare, with the contrast between the conflict at sea and in Britain writ large. It’s in the latter moments that a romance sparks between Lockhart and the beautiful Julie (Virginia McKenna), the latter’s prominent placing on the publicity and cast list belying her relatively few scenes. More telling is  the scene in which a seaman returns home until to find his sister has been killed in a Blitz raid, not to mention Elliott’s former lawyer learning that his wife (Moira Lister) has blithely transferred her affections in his absence.

The point is one of many The Cruel Sea makes about the sacrifices and toll taken by men at war, hammered home by its underlying message of futility. There’s a sense that everything the crew have given up their lives for makes little difference in the long run, lending a tragic irony to the physical and mental hardships they suffer, and it’s a bold message to convey in a film from the 1950s. There’s little glory and few moments involving any cheer, only a grim-faced element of keeping calm and, excuse the cliché, carrying on, and it works rather well. I was also impressed with the degree of faith it maintained with the source material, truncating certain passages and omitting some of the novel’s grislier moments. It made stars of its cast, particularly Hawkins, whose shattered emotional core shines through after initially coming across every inch the stern-faced Captain.

The Cruel Sea: ****

Call Northside 777 (1948)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 14 August (11.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Apologies for both the lateness of this piece, and for the fact it’s going to be a bit rougher around the edges than normal. I should be doing a lot more justice to Call Northside 777, a film very much in the mould of The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! thanks to its documentary style and factual basis. It was however my birthday yesterday – 40, if you must pry – and I wasn’t allowed not to celebrate – part of that involved going to the IMAX to see The Dark Knight Rises, one of those over-hyped, breathlessly well reviewed releases that fortunately lives up to the praise.

In any case, back to the 1940s and a piece that takes as its inspiration another true story, that of the imprisonment of two men of Polish descent, James Mazczek and Theodore Marcinkewicz for murdering a police officer in Chicago in 1933. Part of the Prohibition crime wave, the men were convicted quickly following the testimony of Vera Walush, the speakeasy owner in whose store the killing took place. Eleven years later, an advert placed in the Chicago Times for information about the real gunmen put reporter James McGuire on the case, which after much investigation into police corruption and the need to get a result led to Mazczek’s exoneration in 1945. Marcinkewicz was released five years later.

Louis De Rochemont may not have been credited for Call Northside 777, but the legendary producer’s fingerprints are all over its tone and style. Truman Bradley’s narration adds a note of authenticity, as does the shooting on location in Chicago and the rounded performance of James Stewart as PJ McNeal, the cynical reporter who nonetheless senses a story and develops it. Stewart got involved after his war service, which found the actor seeking tougher roles based less on idealism and more on hardened experience leavened by conscience.

The story follows McNeal as he attempts to gain a pardon for one of the killers, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). There’s a sense throughout the film that this will be no easy feat. More than a decade after Wiecek’s incarceration, it’s clear people would rather forget about him and move on, leaving the man an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Conte is brilliant as Wiecek. Whilst protesting his innocence, he carries a streak of fatalism that comes with serving so much jail time and knowing that at least he gained a fresh start for his wife and baby. Seeing the actor impress so strongly as the villainous Mr Brown in The Big Combo (reviewed excellently over at Riding the High Country), it’s great to see him play a more sympathetic role and fall in with the film’s gritty tone. In one of his standout scenes, he takes a lie detector test. It’s an important moment because it’s appreciated the audience may have no idea how such an exercise works, so time is taken to explain the process and show Wiecek in the chair, smoking and trying not to break the examiner’s request to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to leading questions that demand more explanation. To add that final element of realism, the man playing the lie detector examiner was Leonarde Keeler, none other than the co-inventor of the actual polygraph.

Call Northside 777 was directed by Henry Hathaway, a reliable hand on such a project and someone who wouldn’t over-burden the narrative with melodrama or swamp the film in stylistic touches. It could be argued that Hathaway didn’t have to add much personality to what is a cracking, investigative story, and that he was able to get much of the tone he wanted simply through the use of location filming. Much of Polish Chicago looks dark and foreboding, never more so than when McNeal finally tracks down key witness Wanda Skutnik (based on Vera Walush) in a run-down part of town, a dimly lit apartment that reflects entirely the mentality of the hard-bitten character. Betty Garde is, incidentally, a study in nastiness as the skin preserving survivalist, Skutnik. Possibly better still is the scene in the Chicago prison McNeal visits, the long shot of the building’s cylindrical structure, pockmarked by hundreds of cells, which not only gives an impression of his ‘needle in a haystack’ chance of proving Wiecek’s innocence but also the hint of all those other stories hidden behind each austere cell door.

The film loses the human tension that came in spades with Boomerang! by never taking place in a courtroom. It’s the more administrative Court of Appeal for McNeal and his hard won evidence, within a piece that never lets pace get in the way of the tough and often frustrating investigation he undertakes. In the end, it relies on modern technology for its result. The polygraph is one example of this; the other is the photo enlargement process that ultimately turns out the best bit of evidence McNeal can find. Like the lie detector, it’s explained in detail and there’s something  almost comedic about the entire Court of Appeal waiting by the ink drum of the wire service for the picture that may or may not free Wiecek.

A good picture, not to mention a bold piece of work that has many negative things to say about the police force’s desperation to get a result after the killing of one of their own, a murder mired in a number of similar, unsolved cases. The lack of an orchestral score (Alfred Newman’s work, as I recall, only appears on the film over the opening and closing credits) shows its faith in the strength of the material and the people who put it on the screen.

Call Northside 777: ****

Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 August (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

‘They will die the death of a thousand cuts!’
‘Oh! But that’s horrible!’
‘Not at all my little desert flower, the British are used to cuts!’

The Carry On team’s sixteenth film turns out to be one of its best. Carry On… Up the Khyber had one of the more generous budgets of the entries and married the quick wit of Talbot Rothwell’s screenplay to a story of insurrection and manners in the British Raj. Gleefully satirising any number of boys’ own yarns concerning the Northwest frontier, whilst poking fun at the attitude of the Empire builders from these very shores, it’s great fun from beginning to end, packed with riotous gags and fine performances.

I really enjoyed BBC4’s Kenneth Williams night last week, with its repeated Reputations documentary and another screening of Fantabulosa!, the dramatisation featuring some mesmerising mimicry by Michael Sheen. The former focused on the Carry On series as both the crowning glory and death knell of Williams’s career. Whilst the films put Ken’s bread on the table, he found the work degrading and a long way from the acting world he wanted to break into, which is a shame as he’s often the best thing in them. He’s on top form here as the Khasi of Khalabar, the local ruler who leads a revolt against the British when he learns that the ‘Skirted Devils’ (the kilt wearing soldiers, known as the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment) have taken to wearing underpants, proof of their lack of superhuman strength.

But he isn’t the best thing in this outing. That honour belongs squarely in the lap of Sir Sidney James, playing governor Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond. James reins in his usual ‘everyman’ shtick as the dignitary with far more airs than graces, trying to hold together a faltering British position by sharing flannel with the Khasi and only occasionally delivering his trademark laugh, normally to great effect. Worthy mentions go to Joan Sims as his blousey wife, Terry Scott’s over-zealous Sergeant Major with shades of Zulu‘s Nigel Green, Charles Hawtrey as the most unlikely frontier defender imaginable, and Bernard Bresslaw playing local warlod, Bungdit Din. Jim Dale was carrying on elsewhere whilst this was being filmed, so Roy Castle took the straight role as the dashing Captain.

Also brilliant is Peter Butterworth, an irregular team member who here plays Brother Belcher, a Christian missionary with a fatal eye for the ladies. His best moments come in the film’s standout scene. As the Khasi’s army starts laying waste to the Governor’s Palace, those inside settle down to dinner, exercising the stiffest of upper lips as the building collapses around them… All except Brother Belcher, who represents the sentiments of the audience and can’t believe the way everyone is ignoring the cannon shots and collapsing exteriors, finally turning to the bottle for solace.

Costs were fought off by filming the Khyber Pass scenes in Snowdonia, indeed the frontier is simply a gate on Snowdon’s Watkin Pass that’s guarded by Hawtrey. But it’s a laugh to think of such a legendary point in the Empire in such a way, and the film in general pays affectionate homage and pokes good-natured fun at both the real-life Raj and other, more serious films covering the period. There’s a danger of all the ribaldry being at the expense of politically correct attitudes, however this is a film approaching its 45th year and anyone chiding it for the white actors playing native Indians and dodgy punmanship can just Fakir off. It’s as close to the bone as Hawtrey in military uniform serving as a comment on the British army’s competence. There isn’t one. Its lack of bite is something to be cherished in an age of more ‘knowing’ comedies. Some fans have gone so far as to form their own 3rd Foot and Mouth regiment in honour of the film, which should act as a lasting comment on the lasting regard in which it’s held.

Carry On… Up the Khyber: ****

Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 10 July (11.25 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

1939 really was the key year in John Ford’s development as a film maker. Turning to tales of American history for inspiration, he directed films covering late nineteenth century Western pioneers (Stagecoach), the events that helped build the character of one of the USA’s greatest presidents (Young Mr Lincoln), and Drums along the Mohawk, set in the Revolutionary era. Faced with the competition, and indeed that of Gone with the Wind, which dominated historical epics released that year, it’s tempting to see Mohawk as the lesser work, a footnote in Ford’s lengthy filmography.

Certainly, there’s little of the earnest melodrama present in Victor Fleming’s lengthy Oscar vacuum. Drums along the Mohawk is less than half the length of Gone with the Wind and presents its main characters essentially as stoical pioneers with a collective ‘make do and mend’ approach in the face of considerable perils. The impression should be obvious enough – the Mohawk Valley settlers represent the American spirit at its steadfast, dependable and redoubtable best. When any of the settlers’ homesteads is ransacked and razed by Indian raiding parties, they simply move on to the next free plot and start all over again. At the film’s close, Henry Fonda turns to Claudette Colbert and tells her they’d ‘better be getting back to work, there’ll be a heap to do from now on’, which comes after a stirring, flag-raising sequence and sums up the idealised American mentality at its finest, indeed Fonda and Colbert’s characters are really nothing less than Mr and Mrs USA. He’s reliable and firmly believes in doing the right thing. She shows a fierce determination to rough it in the cause of standing by her man.

That these sentiments don’t melt the film into hopeless sap is a mark of Ford’s greatness as a storyteller. There’s a considerable effort to show the progress of Fonda and Colbert’s newlywedded settlers as something that happens organically rather than according to narrative conventions. Especially touching is their arrival at the log cabin he’s built, the first time Colbert’s seen it. It’s pouring down and the humble little house looks a world away from the fine living she’s enjoyed in Albany to that point. The arrival of Christian Native American, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) to welcome them is the final straw. Colbert gets uncontrollably hysterical and Fonda has to slap her in order to shock her into calming down. Blue Back promptly returns with a switch so that Fonda can maintain household discipline, but it’s clear he’ll never need to use it. Their love is too strong. Her despair is fleeting. Despite its lowliness, the cabin becomes an earthly paradise for the young couple, who are soon seen happily farming and planning their future together.

The film never quite manages to convey the loneliness and sense of great distance that tortured real life settlers, instead portraying the loosely dotted community as happy and there for each other, gathering at the fort for square dances, assemblies of the local militia and forging friendships. Prominent amongst them are Ward Bond’s eternally cheerful Adam Hartman, and Edna May Oliver as widowed landowner, Mrs McKlennar, who lets the young couple move in with her and help out when their home is torched. Oliver’s salty attitude steals the show. When it’s her turn to suffer an Indian raid, she forces her invaders to help her move the bed out of the room they’ve recently put to the torch.

Given the political realities of 1939, Drums along the Mohawk is careful not to cite the British as outright villains, instead labelling the American Tories with the ‘bad guys’ motif. This has some basis in the actual history of the Mohawk Valley. It was invaded by Colonel St Leger as a diversion to the main attack on Albany, much of the fighting carried out by Indians in the pay of Tory, Guy Johnson. In the film, Johnson becomes Caldwell, an eyepatch-wearing wrong ‘un played by John Carradine, who co-ordinates the attack on the fort, which during the exciting climax is defended by the local militia.

This follows the militia’s mobilisation and departure to aid the Revolution’s war effort. Ford’s focus remains on the women, the agonies they experience in waiting for their men’s return and inability to get any news in advance. When they eventually make it back, ragged and riddled with injuries, the reunification of Colbert with Fonda is an incredibly touching moment, due in no small part to the care in which Ford has shown their growing love and the pair’s on-screen chemistry. Rather than lavish money on filming an actual battle, Ford has Fonda relate his personal experiences to Colbert, which he does in gory, minute detail. Famously, the scene was filmed by the director asking Fonda questions and getting him to improvise his answers while remaining in character.

Fonda also carries off one of the film’s most blazing scenes, when he leaves the besieged fort to seek reinforcements. Pursued on foot by Indians, the chase lasts an entire day, Ford getting in some brilliant shots of the runners silhouetted against vast, dramatic skies. This was the director’s first colour film, and he took advantage by creating a gorgeous palette, never better looking than in the lengthy chase.

Drums along the Mohawk is simply a wonderful slice of entertainment. Both the director and his main star did more celebrated work together and Gone with the Wind took the plaudits for historical drama shot in colour, but the effort here to create a seldom seen part of American history on screen is beautifully put together, rarely gets overwhelmed with mawkishness and gives its female characters something to do beyond waiting for rescue. Colbert’s character grows visibly; as the Indians invade the fort and break into the room where the women hide, she waits for them with a loaded musket. Her development from the spoiled girl who cries at the sight of a Native American could hardly be expressed more clearly.

Drums along the Mohawk: ****