The Three Musketeers (1973)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 February (8.05 am)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

I’ve tried to be better at reading the classics than I am, but one title I had no trouble with was Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Fast paced, witty and fun, the novel never runs out of steam and its spirit was never better captured than in Richard Lester’s 1973 adaptation. It remains easily my favourite attempt at bringing the text to the screen, and does raise the question – given the material how can any film maker really go wrong?

It’s a film I have watched many times – in the early days of VCR, when I was a kid I saw it over and over – and in preparation for this piece catching it again was largely unnecessary. I still did it though, more out of pure pleasure than necessity, indeed a few happy hours were spent indulging in a double bill of this one and its immediate sequel, The Four Musketeers, which essentially gives us more of the same. It’s a well-known fact that Lester shot both movies at the same time, ostensibly deciding late in the process to split the story into two and in the process pissing off his entire cast, who would of course have earned more for appearing in separate works. Lester’s argument, that he learned part way through he had enough material to justify the split and thought the two films would work better than a more heavily edited single, held little water with his performers, who duly sued and increased their salaries. And yet, years later with all the legal wrangling long in the past and the two films remaining, it clearly stands as the right thing to do. There’s simply no bloat in either entry. Just like in Dumas’s novel, the action moves quickly and the characters are given time to become more than plot devices. George MacDonald Fraser scripted both, following the text closely and inserting moments of great comedy to augment the swashbuckling antics. Whilst two of the musketeers are less well developed than their fellows, it takes some screen writing genius to take so many persons and add flesh to their bones, where even a minor character like Spike Milligan’s cowardly husband gets to show off his chops and become a memorable presence.

One of The Three Musketeers’ more remarkable elements is its massive ensemble cast, a seventies trend in line with the star-filled disaster movies of the time. Originally, Lester conceived his adaptation as a vehicle for the Beatles, with whom he’d famously collaborated during the previous decade, but this was obviously not an option now. The first choice for d’Artagnan was Malcolm McDowell, who would go on to demonstrate he was a match for this sort of material in Lester’s later Royal Flash, but instead the role went to Michael York, who was already a star and a perfect match for the part. York was perhaps ten years older than d’Artagnan, yet brought a great athletic dimension to bear and conveyed beautifully the character’s youthful and sometimes too hasty sense of bravado. The other Musketeers called for older heads, and they were played by Oliver Reed as Athos, Rhichard Chamberlain (Aramis) and the late Frank Finlay (Porthos). They’re introduced to the story when d’Artagnan contrives to arrange duels with all three of them, though they become friends when they find themselves engaging in swordplay with the Cardinal’s guards instead. Again, great casting. Of the trio, Chamberlain’s Aramis is left a little in the background, though he brings suitable levels of dash to his performance. Finlay is mainly on hand to play the comic and pompous relief, and he’s very, very funny (he also turns up briefly as the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweller; there’s no mistaking that voice). The real revelation comes from Reed, derided too often for his heavy drinking lifestyle but beyond that was a superb, towering and gifted performer with whom the camera was clearly in love. The pathos of Athos’s previous with Faye Dunaway’s Milady comes in the second film, but here Reed plays beautifully the tangled mess of honour, drunkenness and his fatherly relationship with d’Artagnan that defines Athos. He also brings great physicality to his fighting. Whereas York duels with an almost balletic grace, Reed plays Athos as a bullish whirlwind, using his bulk and sheer power to overcome opponents. A story from the set has Christopher Lee (having great fun as the eye-patch wearing villain, Rochefort) begging Reed to calm down during a fight sequence – it’s only a movie, after all!

Eager to extend his range after being so typecast during his Hammer era, Lee is fine as Rochefort, deadly whilst being an effete snob. He’s an unlikely partner for Milady (Dunaway), whose character becomes higher profile in the follow-up but here still gets to tease out her villain’s combination of beauty and rotten core. They both provide unsavoury service to Cardinal Richelieu, who in a rare instance of miscasting is played by Charlton Heston. He does nothing wrong in playing France’s arch-manipulator and schemer, but there’s the sense of a performer of Heston’s stature being a little subdued and underplayed. The plot works on the Cardinal’s plan to provoke war between France and England by exposing Queen Anne’s (Geraldine Chaplin) love affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). Once the foppish King Louis (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed by Richard Briers) discovers that his wife has been unfaithful with a leading light of England’s aristocracy then conflict will surely follow. Milady travels to England to steal a couple of diamond studs from the necklace given to Buckingham by Anne, and d’Artagnan, who’s involved via assocation thanks to his burgeoning romance with the Queen’s dressmaker (Raquel Welch, showing good comic timing and adorability as a haplessly clumsy heroine), follows to resolve the situation.

That’s the story, and it’s one deftly told, but what remains in the mind are the fun performances, moments of good natured humour (the likes of Milligan, Roy Kinnear and Bob Todd are on hand to raise the film’s comedy levels) and sword fights. The latter are nicely done, deftly edited, Lester filming simultaneously from long shots and in close-ups and handing real swords to his actors to add to the authenticity. This led naturally to a variety of injuries suffered by the cast; few escaped from the shoot unscathed, and Reed took a rapier point in his wrist at one stage. With all this going on, it’s easy to ignore the attention to detail that’s going on all the time. The characters in The Three Musketeers might come with modern sensibilities and dialogue, but they’re dressed very well, and the locations – it was filmed in a variety of places across Spain – look suitably ravishing. Michael Legrand’s sumptuous score is a further bonus. This wasn’t among the many Oscar nominated pieces of work he submitted over the course of a highly successful career, but it’s a lovely musical accompaniment and does well to keep pace with the tenor of the action.

The Three Musketeers put in regular appearances across the TV schedules, and I’m surprised if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it at least once. All the same it’s ever a welcome presence, and it effortlessly bounds over the films released in 1993 and 2014 that both squandered the richness of the source material they were working from.

The Three Musketeers: *****

The War Lord (1965)

When it’s on: Thursday, 7 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

In my reading about The War Lord, I came across a quote from anongst the user reviews on IMDb that stuck with me – ‘This is the role Charlton Heston was born to play.’ Bold statement, but the more I thought about it the truer it rang. Heston was of course the star of some of Hollywood’s biggest ever movies, of which The War Lord is not one, with its more modest budget and smaller sense of scale, also the fact it remained unreleased on DVD until 2010. But it does play to the actor’s core strength, that of playing someone torn between duty or ‘path’ and his desires. This, essentially, is the film; Heston’s status as the eponymous war lord ensures that every decision he makes causes ripples for everyone around him.

The War Lord was directed by Franklin J Schaffner, a half-forgotten name now yet an Oscar winner in his day, for Patton. Looking through his credits, I was surprised how many of his films I had actually seen, from his best known work – Planet of the Apes, another collaboration with Heston – to The Boys from Brazil and the admittedly hopeless Sphinx. This one, however, which he directed with his career in television not far behind him, is a bit of a standout entry. Schaffner’s compositional ability to fill a wide canvas belies all that work for the small screen, opening up the grimy world of the Middle Ages whilst similarly being intimate enough to present those who lived in it as real people with hopes and dreams not so dissimilar to our own. As a surprisingly accurate insight into the medieval existence, it really is riveting, quite ahead of its time – light years ahead, for instance, of El Cid, a more celebrated Heston epic and a favourite within this household – and as removed from the romantic perception of the era as it gets.

The story takes place in northern France in the year 1060. Chrysagon (Heston) is a famed and experienced knight, in the service of Duke William, who is sent to hold a stretch of coastal land against the barbarian Frisians. In return, he gets to be overlord of his new territory, though it consists of little beyond a single stone tower and the nearby peasant village. Nevertheless, Chrysagon is a dutiful servant and, upon arriving sees off the Frisians, even capturing their chieftain’s young son. He then settles down to rule, along with his faithful, largely silent right hand man, Bors (Richard Boone), and his younger brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell). The relationship between the siblings is particularly tense. Draco is clearly jealous of his older brother’s reputation and does all he can to belittle him, but the truth, as it’s teased out along the way, is that he’s been carried by Chrysagon all along; everything Draco possesses is down to him.

In the meantime, life goes on as normal for the people of the village, a sense of their ways changing little no matter who rules them. What’s especially striking is the minimal impact Christianity has had on them; the local priest confesses he has had little success in changing their pagan beliefs. Chrysagon determines to be a good lord, demanding that his men ‘treat them softly’, but then it all gets complicated when he finds himself beguiled by a girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Egged on by Draco, he claims the right of ‘first night’ before Bronwyn’s married, the lord’s ancient privilege to sleep with a girl prior to her nuptials. The law’s roots are pagan, so the population agrees to his demand providing he hands her over the following dawn. The twist is that Chrysagon and Bronwyn turn out to be crazy about each other and he refuses to give her up, leading to tensions with the village that spill over into hostility. Bronwyn’s spurned groom, Marc (James Farentino), goes a step further and recruits the Frisians to their cause, with the promise of getting the chieftain’s son back. Suddenly, Chrysagon’s little force is besieged in its tower, an army closing in and no chance of escape.

Battle fans will be delighted with the second half of The War Lord, the result of strains that have been building carefully to this stage, between Chrysagon and Draco as much as his fractured relationship with the locale. Presented as a complicated yet largely good man who wants to do the right thing, Heston’s character is plunged into violent action as a consequence of his succumbing to desire and fully lives up to his title, at one stage defending the tower alone, weaponless and clad in a loincloth. Clearly there’s an element of him that abhors the killing, yet he’s so good at it, adept as a military commander, with the stoic Bors at his side, occasionally offering the merest nod of approval, a result of the latter’s role as someone who has watched Chrysagon mature over the years.

It’s all told against a backdrop of a world that has vanished, northern Europe in its largely pre-Christian state, trees decorated with lurid symbols to show the people’s closeness to nature and emphasising the contrast between them and their Catholic overlords. The score by Jerome Moross is as energetic as one would expect, though at its best when highlighting the tenderness of Chrysagon’s feeling towards Bronwyn.

The War Lord is a great film, punctuated by the complex characterisation of its central character that was a hallmark of films of this era (I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with The Lion in Winter, another entry that drew on its fully rounded people) and an attention to detail that is altogether superior.

The War Lord: ****

Ben-Hur (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben-Hur: ****

Earthquake (1974)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 February (1.20 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Ah, the 1970s disaster movie. Whilst films based around catastrophes have always been around, there was something about those made in the seventies that set them apart – the style, the big budgets, all-star casts, the gleeful willingness to kill off heroes and villains alike. They focused on anything that played on viewers’ real fears – air travel (the Airport films, which kicked off the whole sub-genre), skyscrapers (The Towering Inferno), ocean liners (The Poseidon Adventure). I have the guilty pleasure of rather liking The Swarm, the Michael Caine starrer from 1978 about pissed off killer bees from Africa (obviously) that terrorise America. Looking back at them now, these films may appear laughable, with their special effects that have dated as badly as the fashions, but they were big deals, especially during the first half of the decade. From a sociological perspective, it’s possible to argue they did well due to the sensibilities of audiences, rocked by the political catastrophe that was Watergate and uncertain of their country’s future, though I think that’s hogwash and the films just made a lot of money.

The king of the 1970s disaster flick was of course Irwin Allen, responsible for some of the era’s biggest apocalyptic treats, and Earthquake was Universal’s riposte to his antics. The ante was upped as Allen could very well produce tales of tall buildings or ships running into peril, but what if calamity was to befall an entire city, and not just any city but Los Angeles? That was the premise of 1974’s Earthquake, which promised to lay waste to LA courtesy of the San Andreas fault. The notoriously angry faultline last produced a ‘mega-quake’ in 1680 and is apparently overdue a repeat performance (there’s a film due out this year, San Andreas, which will tell precisely that story). The story goes that the film was conceived as a consequence of LA experiencing the tremors from the San Fernando earthquake of 1971, the delicious premise being of a disaster movie on a far larger scale than those conjured by Allen.

Canadian director-producer Mark Robson was the creative force behind Earthquake, the culmination of three decades within the business that had seen him learn his trade from the likes of Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Robson approached no less a figure than Mario Puzo to write the screenplay, though the script was too character driven and large in scope for the film’s $7 million budget; magazine writer George Fox helped Robson to tone down its level of ambition. Big name stars like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and disaster mainstay, George Kennedy were attached to the project.

The story follows a number of ‘ordinary’ Los Angelistas as they go about their business, oblivious of the impending doom beneath their feet. Now and then, cutaways to workers at the Hollywood dam looking a bit concerned show exactly where the film is headed towards, but we open with Stewart Graff (Heston) and his wife, Remy (Gardner). Theirs is an unhappy marriage. He’s seeing the young widow of a dead work colleague, played by Genevieve Bujold, and she has long since turned to booze and pills to cushion the pain. A subplot written by Puzo made more sense of this, going on to explain that Remy at some point in the past had an abortion, which undermined the couple’s relationship terminally; however this was cut out by the time the script made it to the screen, meaning she just comes across as an old soak and he an adulterer (and he’s the film’s main hero). Meanwhile, Kennedy plays a grizzled cop who’s insubordinate ways have just earned him a suspension. He does the obvious thing and hits a bar, which is playing funky 70s tunes, where he shares space with an uncredited Walter Matthau as a permanently sozzled denizen in a pimp hat. He’s joined by Richard Roundtree’s stunt rider, along with Victoria Principal as, well, eye candy really. She’s lusted after by Jody (Marjoe Gortner), a convenience store manager, who also happens to be a fascistic National Guard volunteer.

Of course all this is preamble, slightly unnecessary preamble as surely no one turns up to watch a film called Earthquake in order to follow character development, let alone a motley crew of largely unlikeable people and besides, the narrative of introducing the cast and then letting them handle disaster was, by 1974, entirely routine. That said, when the quake hits it’s a doozy, dealing out death and judgement to the good and bad in a ten minute sequence of spiralling destruction. Some of the effects deployed are great, such as the collapse of the freeway; others, most notably the plummeting lift with its cartoon blood splashed onto the screen in order to preserve the film’s PG rating, are terrible. To jaded twenty first century eyes, much of it looks like the clever use of models, matte paintings and simply shaking the camera that it obviously was, though a note of admiration goes to an era of film making when they couldn’t just spit this stuff out of a computer. Sure, the shots of buildings spewing masonry onto antlike people below doesn’t compare with the CGI-induced Armageddon of something like 2012, but Robson and his crew didn’t have access to anything like the current technology forty years ago, had to resort to every trick up their sleeves and did a creditable job most of the time.

What works well is the random selection of who lives and who dies. Too often, these films worked on a moral selection process, allowing the heroes to make it whilst the villains suffer a terrible death, but the quake makes surprisingly nonjudicial choices over who cops it. It builds to a surprisingly bleak conclusion, in which there are no real winners, just those left to speculate over the ruins that were once a sprawling metropolis. Heston is a solid enough lead, as always, and the corrosive spark between his and the Gardner character work better than his wooing of Bujold, perhaps because the pair had memories of a difficult working relationship on the previous decade’s 55 Days at Peking, when she spent much of her time on set drinking and subsequently earning his ‘professional’ ire. No such problems here, with Gardner (looking much older than Heston, despite the year’s difference in age between them) working hard to create a character who elicits some sympathy.

Missing from televised versions of Earthquake is the Sensurround process that came as part of the film’s box office draw. In cinemas, Sensurround used various sound devices to boost the effect of the quakes, making it feel as though the audience was experiencing tremors along with the stars. It must have been a lot of fun, certainly adding to the events taking place on the screen.

Earthquake: **

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: ****