Waterloo (1970)

This is a brief return to the site, because I was asked to take part in the Christopher Plummer Blogathon and had to say yes. After all, the Canadian enjoyed such a long and varied career. IMDb credits him with more than two-hundred acting appearances, stretching from the mid-1950s right through to his passing in 2021. He was always in demand, always gave his best, and even in certain films that weren’t very good, was ever capable of being great in them. I can’t imagine there are many people who don’t have a movie that featured him in their lists of favourites.

But what to cover here? There are some truly great performances, which for me includes his brilliantly nuanced Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree. You want to see the ordinarily cold and emotionally isolated great detective explode in righteous anger? Here’s the place to do it. We could also talk about his good work in less than stellar pictures – he was a memorable Aristotle in Oliver Stone’s flawed, watchable Alexander, and I love his gleefully villainous turn in Dragnet. I’m also a fan of The Assassination of Sarajevo, a Yugoslavian film about the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off World War One. Plummer plays the Austrian Archduke, a remote, aloof aristocrat who isn’t necessarily a bad person, yet has absolutely no interest in or connection with the people over whom he rules.

The choice comes down to two personal favourites, incidentally a pair of movies that cost fortunes to make and gained notorious reputations for failing at the box office and ruining their production companies. One is The Fall of the Roman Empire, the 1964 epic that was eventually remade as the more visceral and far less thoughtful Gladiator years later. Despite the latter’s Oscar wins and financial success, I will always maintain the earlier film is superior. Plummer gets the choice role of the Emperor Commodus, playing someone credited by the movie as precipitating ‘the Fall’, as a study in megalomaniac madness. He looks like he’s having a great time doing so, and he is by some distance the best thing in it.  You can read my extensive thoughts on it here.

That leaves the other pick, which is 1970’s Waterloo, a regular watch for me that extends back to a brief period back in my teens when I joined in with a group of wargamers. If it does nothing else, then Waterloo makes an attempt to recreate a full-scale Napoleonic battle by near enough recreating a full-scale Napoleonic battle. The film features an army of extras, literally an army in fact, as the Russian production company Mosfilm invested in the project, contributing a sizeable cash injection and thousands of soldiers (between 17,000 and 20,000, according to sources) from the Soviet army. The Belgian field of battle was replicated in Ukraine, with the topography worked upon, fields sown and buildings constructed to historical specifications. Underground piping was installed to help muddy the terrain. Endless numbers of costumes were designed to fit the fighting cast into either British, French or Prussian troops, according to the filming schedule of the day.

Waterloo covers the period at the end of the brief and violent Napoleonic era. It opens with the French Emperor being forced to abdicate, his return from exile on the island of Elba and recapture of the French throne, and the short campaign that led to his final defeat on the eponymous battlefield. He is played by Rod Steiger, and he’s the film’s main focus. Steiger puts in a shouty performance, playing Napoleon as a middle-aged man riddled with sickness and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s used to being the cleverest guy in the room, but he’s never faced a British army under the Duke of Wellington’s command, and not knowing exactly what he will face at Waterloo rattles him.

Plummer is Arthur Wellesley, the lordly supreme commander of Britain’s forces, which are the first to face Napoleon upon his return due to being stationed in Belgium at the time.  Although he was not the first choice to play the Iron Duke (Peter O’Toole and Michael Caine were under consideration), he turns out to be a characteristically great piece of casting. The real Wellington was renowned for his haughty demeanour, an aristocrat who publicly referred to his soldiers as scum, yet pragmatic in battle and extremely charismatic as a commander. Plummer gets it, turning his work into little less than extracting the actual Duke from the past and into the film. While I rather like Hugh Fraser’s portrayal in the Sharpe series, this is pretty much definitive. Wellington lives again.

After an hour of preamble, the film’s main set-piece is its recreation of Waterloo, effectively a war-game battle played with human beings rather than little models. If anyone ever wants to see how these things happened without the convenience of being able to travel to the period, then this is as good as it will ever get. Napoleon’s objective is to defeat the British before they can be relieved by the Prussian army, which is approaching the field of battle. Time is not on his side. Rain the previous day has made conditions less than perfect, and all Wellington needs to do is hold his position, delay the French until Field Marshall Blucher (Sergo Zakariadze) arrives with his black-uniformed Germans. This, however, is asking a lot. Despite his advancing years and illness, Napoleon is renowned as the premier commander of his time, bringing an uncanny knack for probing and teasing the enemy until he finds a weak spot and exploits it. Two critical holding positions for Britain are the farmhouse at La Haye Saint and the chateau at Hougoumont, from which he needs to dislodge them, and these two locations become the focus of the fighting.

Sure enough, having softened the British up with artillery barrages, Napoleon begins sending in the troops, blocks of blue-coated men in close formation who are being sent to their deaths. When a unit is ordered into battle, they are heralded by marching band music; I was surprised to learn that the tunes chosen by the film are pretty much historically accurate, as is the nature of the fighting itself. The first rows of men are decimated by musket fire, before they make it to close-quarter tussling and deadly bayonets become the main weapons. The battle progresses elsewhere, as the 70,000 strong French army slowly presses against and breaks the lines of their opposition. It becomes clear that Napoleon is on the brink of winning, however it’s really a race against time as, at a certain point, he realises the Prussians are close to relieving their British allies.

As a re-enacted battle from history, Waterloo does a fine job. Its attention to detail is so absolute that there’s little for nit-pickers to complain about beyond tiny changes made by the film, along with a dramatic intention to turn the ebb and flow of battle into a knife-edged contest of wills. On the whole, it’s an impressive effort. Certain moments, such as the film’s depiction of the charge of the Scots Greys heavy cavalry, are so well done that it recreates, almost perfectly, Elizabeth Thompson’s famous painting, Scotland Forever!, on the screen. Key instances, like the decision of the French Marshall Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) to instigate a mass cavalry advance of his own when he believes the British are retreating, is also shown, leading to one of the film’s more visually rich sequences as aerial shots depict horsemen riding into units of soldiers, all fighting for their lives.

We all know how Waterloo ended, of course, and its final moments are played out as a British victory, an exhausted Napoleon exiting the field in disgrace as he knows he’s finally run out of road. The battle was a close run thing, and was executed in bloody fashion, claiming the lives of close to 50,000 men, including many of Wellington’s generals and his closest staff members. Eyewitness accounts put many of the Duke’s actual quotes from the occasion into Plummer’s script, recreating his haughty, quippy speaking manner. By the end, he’s as emotionally shattered as his great opposite number, vowing never to fight another battle. And he didn’t. Waterloo marked Wellington’s final military campaign. A career in politics and the post of British Prime Minister were to follow.

The film was a colossal flop, a costly exercise in expansive, epic caprice covering a topic that the public had little interest in seeing. Director Sergey Bondarchuk had previously directed an adaptation of War and Peace, a Russian language version that isn’t to be confused with King Vidor’s massive affair from the 1950s. The 1965 take came in at a colossal length of around seven and a half hours, and won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and it was presumably this, and his ability to shoot enormous battle sequences, which made him an obvious choice for Waterloo. But whereas War and Peace is a sweeping romantic saga beyond the war scenes, Waterloo is about nothing other than the battle itself. While this has worked elsewhere, Zulu for example, it struck no chord with audiences whatsoever.

Does this make it a bad movie? For me, I would say not. Though it weaves a famous story about which everyone knows the outcome, and while some of the film’s occasional moments of humour are more than a little forced, its faithfulness to historical fact, enormous scope and the tension of battle make up for any shortcomings. To see Waterloo recreated, at the sort of scale that could only be replicated now using CGI, and the involvement of tactics and their outcomes, allied with the confusion and brutality of pitched battles, is dizzying stuff. Steiger and especially Plummer are the only real performances of note. Orson Welles turns up for little more than a cameo, and there are similarly fleeting roles for the likes of Michael Wilding, Ian Ogilvy and Virginia McKenna. Jack Hawkins appears, speaking nothing like he traditionally did, an unfortunate consequence of life-saving surgery that had removed the actor’s larynx, leaving his lines to be dubbed. The principles are both good however, lending authentic notes to real people , and the battle itself is quite like nothing else seen on the screen. Simply to see a filmed conflict where the armies do more than just charge at each other and the bravest wins, where strategic decisions are made and have real consequences, is a real treat. There’s intelligence here, and an appreciation for paying honour to what actually happened that ought to make it worth seeing.

As mentioned above, I have put this together as part of the Christopher Plummer Blogathon, hosted by my excellent friends at Weegie Midget and Pale Writer (you can see the list of people who are involved in the Blogathon here). While these pages have been more or less left to gently ride off into the night, my film blogging spirit remains true, and I am putting together material for something new, which is intended to go beyond the limits I originally set for Films on the Box. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

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: ****

Malta Story (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 March (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Clearly I like Malta because I’ve twice been there on holiday. It’s a fascinating set of islands. For such a tiny place, a pinprick in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been at the hub of civilised history since there was such a thing and it’s stuffed with attractions, from Neolithic temples to walled medieval cities and Baroque cathedrals, dating from the time when it was owned by the Knights of St John. Malta’s record during World War Two is something of a footnote within the grander scheme, but it was a key strategic location. Occupied by the British, it was pivotal in supplying and disrupting the war effort for either side in the North African theatre. As a consequence, it was heavily bombed by the Axis powers, flying night and day bombing raids from Sicily, ahead of a likely invasion that, if successful, would almost certainly have led to victory in Egypt for Rommel and the closing of the Suez Canal to the Allies.

One of the stranger things to visit in Malta are the Lascaris War Rooms. This is the British control centre from which the war effort was conducted. It might have changed a bit in the seven years since I went, but I remember struggling just to find it, the path taking me down, down down, through tunnels and gangplanks as though descending into some netherworld. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing, the city of Valletta far above, a somewhat plain door before me representing the museum entrance. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I entered, but the nondescript whitewashed tunnels and unassuming doors were probably about right for this place, with its grim purpose and teeth gritted lack of decoration. Still, really interesting stuff. I was given a walkman, which related the story of the war rooms and indeed the conflict as a whole whilst I wandered through the control rooms, stared at the enormous Mediterranean wall charts and the ‘battle boards’ upon which they would move pieces representing ships, planes, thousands of lives. I’d recommend it as a change of scenery, a reminder of one of the more crucial yet far less celebrated moments in Malta’s history.

The Lascaris War Rooms, along with Valletta itself, feature strongly in Malta Story. Brian Desmond Hurst was a director from East Belfast who had scored a considerable box office success in Britain with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, in 1951, now routinely considered to be the best version, but his career stretched back to the 1920s, back when he was working for John Ford on Hangman’s Horse. It was Ford who persuaded Desmond Hurst to take the job of directing Malta Story, cannily seeing it as ‘right up your street,’ and so the production moved to Valletta to begin filming. It was the director’s second visit to the island, his first coming in 1915 when he stopped off with his Irish Rifles regiment on their way to a fateful engagement at Gallipoli.

The film focuses principally on the Axis attacks on Malta, the struggle to fight off enemy bombers, the desperate need for supplies to make it through, the toll it takes on the Maltese who shelter from the ceaseless raids, cope with dwindling food supplies and listen to exhortations from Radio Rome on the wireless that beg them to surrender. The latter are represented by Melita Gonzar (Flora Robson), the matriarch who sees first hand the effect all this is having on her family and who lives in a bittersweet relationship with the British, the cause of their suffering. No Britons on Malta, no more war. When her son, who she believes has been captured and imprisoned on Sicily, emerges as a spy working for the enemy, the pain it causes her is excruciating. It’s a great role, wonderfully understated and surprisingly dignified, amidst the bombast of all those scenes depicting bits of the island being blasted. Much of the footage is carefully edited stock from the historical archives, mixed in with shots of the three Spitfires that were loaned to the production flying out in retaliation. It doesn’t matter. The scenes contain their own power. We know all about the London Blitz, but war was hell everywhere, no more so than on embattled Malta. When the island is collectively awarded the George Cross, in recognition of its suffering, it comes across as a curiously half-baked gesture.

These bits, spliced to give the film a documentary film, are Malta Story at its best. Jack Hawkins is on reliable form as the stoical British commanding officer, every decision given heft by the sense of realism over what failure will amount to. Wing Commander Bartlett is played by Anthony Steel, at the height of his fame following The Wooden Horse but nothing like a leading man. Despite that, there’s a touching element to the romantic storyline he shares with Renee Asherson’s operations room worker, like both are thrown together in an effort to find some personal happiness in the thick of the struggle.

The tale is told nominally from the perspective of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness). A photo reconnaissance pilot, used to flying high over the enemy in order to take shots of potential targets, is on his way to Alexandria but finds himself stranded in Malta when the carrier plane transporting him is hit by a bomb. Ross does his work out of Valletta instead and comes across a train carrying glider parts into Sicily, elements proving there will be an imminent attack. Showing himself to be useful, he also comes a Maltese girl, Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Melita’s daughter, and the pair fall in love, though their relationship is played against cultural clashes between the British and the island’s natives, and worries over what they will do when the war is concluded.

Guinness specifically asked to play Ross, asking Desmond Hurst to be allowed to take on a romantic lead due to being ‘fed up with playing funny little men’. Better known on screen as a comedy actor, there’s a reason why he got few parts of this type. The actor’s scenes with Pavlow are strangely uncomfortable, lacking in chemistry and played very stiffly, whereas when he takes to the skies he appears much more at home. Little wonder perhaps, that Ross simply disappears from the film for large parts when there’s all that juicy war footage to focus upon. He should be the heart of the film; instead, he’s its weak link.

Malta Story: ***

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: ****

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 5 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Years ago, Mrs Mike and I went on holiday to Luxor. She was five months’ pregnant (the perils of booking well in advance) so we didn’t get to hazard the peril-strewn train journey to Cairo and the pyramids, but I saw them anyway. 20,000+ feet in the air, flying over the endless Saharan desert with its thin strip of blue, and they were easily visible, amongst the few man-made objects I can imagine being able to recognise from that height. Without wanting to wax lyrical, even from such a distance they were still pretty awesome.

It’s that sense of awe that Howard Hawks attempted to capture in Land of the Pharaohs. The film was a flop, forcing Hawks into a self-imposed exile from film-making for several years, but it’s possible to see what he was trying to achieve. It’s a paean to the achievement of constructing something so monumentally vast and so ultimately futile. Hawks blew his budget on depicting the sheer scale of the pyramid building operation. Thousand of extras were hired to dress in contemporary garb, many wearing nothing more than loincloths. Shown working in the quarries, hauling enormous slabs of granite across the sand and toiling on the superstructure, no expense was spared in filming the massive labour that went into knocking up an ancient tomb.

Land of the Pharaohs clocks in at around half the time of most epics. The money clearly went on the extensive building scenes, Hawks filming in Cinemascope for the first time and filling the frame with hundreds and hundreds of bodies. It’s an impressive sight, as usual far more jaw-dropping than anything similar shown now because the camera’s picking up a real army of people, no matter how ant-like they appear on the screen (which presumably was the whole point); it’s the closest we will ever get to seeing how life really was around the time of the pyramid-building pharaohs. Hawks even tries to gauge the morale of the workers. At first, they’re happy to answer the call of their king, their god on earth with whom they have a living covenant. They sing while they work. But as the months turn into years and the pyramid refuses to near completion, the happy graft becomes hard toil. Singing gives way to drums and whips.

The entire effort of the film seems to go on this aspect, leaving the rest of the plot to be filled in around it. James Robertson Justice is the enslaved builder, Vashtar. His son, Senta, is played by Dewey Martin as a corn-fed American youth. Both work for Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who orders the building of the pyramid essentially because that’s what he does. Clearly having grown up in the traditions of the Pharaonic dynasty, it’s natural for him to expect this monument to his own glory. Unfortunately, Khufu’s prowess in battle is matched by his lust for women, a fatal flaw when he grows close to Joan Collins’s Princess Nellifer. ‘Nelly’ has ‘wrong ‘un’ written all over her and the young Collins is perfectly cast as a vain gold-digger.

Everything’s building up the the last scene, the sealing of the pyramid. As the pharaoh’s most loyal retainers wait inside the central tomb with their master, all around doors are sealed, slabs of stone slamming into place. For this sequence, Dimitr Tiomkin’s dramatic score is cut, leaving only the sound of enormous slabs sliding and shutting, heard by the people trapped within. It’s a moment of claustrophobic excellence, disturbing and frightening and quite out of kilter with everything that’s happened previously.

Land of the Pharaohs: ***