The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.

Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.

The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.

On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.

Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!

Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.

James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.

The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.

And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.

Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.

It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.

One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****

It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…

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The Reckless Moment (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 January (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a couple of Max Ophuls’s films from his American period. He reminds me a lot of Douglas Sirk, his fellow German director who came to the USA and, in his work, showed a mirror up to society and found it wanting. There was Caught, Ophuls’s study of the capitalist American dream, Barbara Bel Geddes achieving it when she marries Robert Ryan’s millionaire. It quickly becomes apparent that Ryan’s a rich asshole, a megalomaniac who’s surrounded himself with sycophants on the payroll and, in his eyes, Bel Geddes carries exactly the same status. So she runs away, into the arms of James Mason’s kindly and understanding doctor, and the film’s dilemma becomes one of choosing true happiness on modest means or an empty life of wealth.

Mason’s services were retained for The Reckless Moment, a title that makes better use of his talents as it was frustrating to see an actor of his intensity and range taking on a straight role in Caught. In this entry, the character he plays is complicated and interesting, a blackmailer who falls in love with the victim because she is from a level of society to which he can never aspire. The romantic undertones between him and Joan Bennett are palpable, but I’m not sure ‘romance’ is the appropriate word; instead Mason’s character slips from turning up on her doorstep with the aim of extorting money from her to helping around the house, carrying her groceries and interacting socially with her family. His effort to impress himself on a middle class family is quietly heartbreaking. You wonder what he’s experienced previously to give up on his lot in chasing a clearly lost cause.

And that’s just one element of a great thriller that takes a step into nightmarish Noir territory, presenting viewers with the sort of unresolvable dilemma that keeps the suspense ticking until its close. The central plot hook is familiar territory to Joan Bennett, who starred in The Woman in the Window five years earlier. When not walking around in daring see-through blouses, Bennett’s character became embroiled with Edward G Robinson when the pair accidentally murder someone and then attempt to cover their tracks, something you know will be a hopeless exercise because in these films, crime never pays. Just like in The Reckless Moment, she’s blackmailed for $5,000, five gees, an impossible quandary that feels like the start of a slide into despair and ruin.

The character Bennett plays in The Reckless Moment is very different from her glamorous role in Fritz Lang’s entry. Here she’s Lucia Harper, a respectable housewife living in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Balboa. It’s a typical 1940s small community, where everyone knows each other and added to that each other’s business. The world is presented as idyllic, though the Harper family, once you peer beneath the surface, is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Mr Harper works away from home, in West Berlin, and won’t be home for Christmas. While Lucia’s son, Tom (Henry O’Neill), is just an over-exuberant teenage lad, her daughter, Geraldine Brooks’s Bea, is a different prospect altogether. She’s chosen art school over going to college and here she has hooked up with older man Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Believing the age gap between Darby and Bea is intolerable, Lucia goes into the city to tell him to stop seeing her, only to get an insight into his true character when he says it will cost her, five gees to be precise. Lucia refuses and returns home, but Darby follows her and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s been clued in by Lucia about his blackmail attempt and brushes him off, but a tussle ensues and only finishes when she runs off and Darby is inadvertently killed. Early the following morning, Lucia discovers the body and the anchor he’s collapsed upon. You or I might contact the authorities at that point, but instead she tries to spare her daughter and the family’s reputation and dumps the corpse in some nearby swamps.

End of the matter? Yeah, course it is. The body’s discovered and the police start searching, though it’s clear that only a staggering leap of logic would lead them to the Harper’s door. Unwisely though, Darby’s loose and fast lifestyle led him into building a string of debts. He owed money to Nagel and Donnelly (Mason), and in collateral they possess a number of love letters Bea had written to Darby. The letters are incriminating, evidence of the link between the Harper family and Darby, and Donnelly turns up to see Lucia and demand five gees for their return, or he’ll take them to the authorities. Lucia flusters; she doesn’t have that kind of money. Her inability to just get rid of Donnelly is horrifying. When other family members show up and invite him for dinner or some chatter about the ‘old country’ (he’s Irish, like Lucia’s father), two things become transparent – the easy sociability of the household, in which people can only ever be there if they’re friendly, and Lucia’s rising sense of shame. And then something else – Donnelly responds. At first it feels like a ploy, as though he knows he’s an embarrassment to her and plays up to the family’s good-natured attention in order to turn the screw, but as the days pass it transpires his feelings run deeper than that. He buys her a gift when they meet at the shop. He pays and serves coffee to her at a moment of tension. Donnelly steadily becomes the husband figure in her life, ostensibly protecting her from the tougher partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), but in truth serving as surrogate in the absence of Mr Harper. The lengths he goes to in order to protect her become pivotal when Nagel shows up and he’s forced to decide between the racket and Lucia.

It’s a fascinating study, part affection (Lucia’s a beautiful woman) but almost certainly more to do with the world she represents, a cosy and friendly environment that is obviously alien to the hard knock life he knows. This was early in Mason’s career as an American film star (he was a major British player, with certain wartime titles going on to be among the country’s most profitable at the domestic box office), but already he was establishing himself as a mature actor, lending credibility to his character and the relationship he establishes with Lucia. What could have been a straight melodrama gains heft as the dilemma they share is dealt with, as far as possible, in a relatable, adult fashion.

But it takes two, and Bennett as Lucia is simply electrifying. Having enjoyed some delicious femme fatale roles earlier in the decade (the character she plays in Lang’s Scarlet Street, again opposite Edward G Robinson, ranks among the screen’s ultimate honey traps; it’s very dark) as well as dominating the gossip columns with endless details about her private life, this role was a real gift. As a housewife for whom the family means everything, she readily shoulders responsibility for disposing of Darby’s body, deals exclusively with the blackmail levelled against her daughter (about which Bea knows nothing), maintains a busy and disorganised home, and frets over the household bills. Knowing she has to raise the five gees, she take it upon herself to visit pawn shops and loan offices, the latter almost a comic situation as she’s shoved inside a glass booth, this respectable woman, whilst in other booths we can see little episodes of anonymous financial desperation play out. She does it all practically, just because that’s her role and it what she does. There’s no collapsing under the strain; the only time we see her cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, particularly as it makes a refreshing change to find that she had the last laugh.

The Reckless Moment was not a success upon its release, and there’s a sense of it being hopelessly ahead of its time, its psychology too sophisticated for the audiences to whom it played. Ophuls responded by returning to Europe (he was a Jew who fled his native Germany when the Nazis arrived, and then moved across the Atlantic when his new home in France fell in 1940) and enjoyed arguably his most impressive creative period, certainly the most celebrated. The tendency to sidetrack the four films he directed in America is natural enough, but wrong. The Reckless Moment is brilliant cinema.

The Reckless Moment: ****

Odd Man Out (1947)

When it’s on: Friday, 1 June (11.35 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

At times, Odd Man Out feels like a warm-up for The Third Man. This seems certainly the case in Carol Reed’s depiction of the city, an unnamed Northern Ireland commune that may or may not be Belfast. Doesn’t matter. Odd Man Out’s location is as much a character as any of the human players, or indeed Vienna in The Third Man. Not as bombed about as the Austrian capital, it’s every bit as claustrophobic, closed, alleyed, ill-lit, and danger lurks around every corner. There are frequent shots of denizens shutting their doors, as if they’re keeping the perils of the night at bay. Who knows what might be lurking out there?

We do. This evening is occupied by the expiring Johnny McQueen (James Mason). Slowly bleeding to death, he lurches from one situation to the next, the authorities never far away and the city filled with people who either want to help him, exploit him, or can’t get rid of him quickly enough. The imagery comes thick and fast, never more than from the delirious mind of Johnny himself. Staring into the froth of a spilt glass of Guinness, he sees an accusing face in every bubble. In the studio of a demented artist, he’s confronted with grotesque portraits, all staring at him whilst a ghostly priest sermonises silently.

Johnny’s an IRA-like Republican chief who escaped from a jail sentence, only to swap internment at her Majesty’s Pleasure for incarceration in a safe house. Ordered to rob a mill in order to obtain party funds, Johnny is the ill-advised leader of the gang, ill-advised because he’s developed agoraphobia and, sure enough, things go straightforward enough until they’re making their getaway. Shot partly due to his own slowness, he winds up alone in the city, blood seeping from his shoulder, the entire police force after him and with the safe house a remote destination.

The film’s about him, but it’s also about all the other people whose lives are touched by Johnny’s flight. There’s his gang members, slowly picked off by the police as they search for their missing leader. Kathleen Sullivan plays the girl from the safe house, in love with Johnny and looking for him as she’s tailed by a police officer. The officer (Dennis O’Dea) is sympathetic to Kathleen’s story and questions Father Tom (WG Fay), the local priest who appears to know everyone. Father Tom wants to persuade Johnny to give himself up, and believes he might be able to get to him via a poor man (FJ McCormick) who claims to know where he’s hiding. The poor man, Shell, wants money for turning Johnny in, but also has to deal with the attentions of an eccentric artist (Robert Newton). The artist wants nothing more than to paint Johnny, in order to capture on canvas the soul of a dying man, yet has to share time with a failed medical student (Elwyn Brook-Jones). And so it goes on, an endless map of distinct characters with hopes and dreams of their own, all linked via their interaction with Mason’s pained fugitive. Despite the lack of screen time he gets, Brook-Jones’s ‘nearly doctor’ grabs our sympathies for his obvious medical talents, his posh dialect hinting at a better alternative life and leaving us to wonder how he ended up sharing with a pair of losers.

Robert Krasker would eventually an Academy Award for The Third Man, yet the distinct cinematography that made such good use of light and shadows is in evidence here. Under Krasker’s glare, every alleyway offers haven in its shadows, each open space appears threatening. Mason’s brilliant also. Already a British star thanks to a string of wartime hits, Odd Man Out brought his distinctive blend of nobility and villainy to a wider audience and led to a string of roles that both contained real depth and allowed him to fill them with personality. My abiding memory of James Mason is of his face, fixed in a rictus of pain, which throughout Odd Man Out is very nearly his standard pose.

Odd Man Out: ****

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****

Rommel, Desert Fox (1951)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 May (3.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Desert Fox is an almost staggeringly brave film, considering it told the story of a World War II German officer sympathetically at a time when Nazis were routinely depicted as monsters. This is no ordinary Nazi, however; it’s the tale of Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel, known as the Desert Fox for his exploits in the North African theatre of war. The film depicts his successes against mounting odds and his gradual disillusionment in the German high command.

Rommel is played by James Mason, himself no stranger to difficult, edgy roles. Glossing over the Fox’s reputation for his harshness to subordinates and gambling with his men, he comes across as a respected and brilliant field commander, pragmatic and charismatic. His story becomes the subject of Desmond Young, playing himself as a captured allied soldier who briefly met Rommel and, after the war, wrote his biography. Young questions why Rommel died in 1944, and after discussions with whoever would talk to him pieced together the Marshal’s role in an assassination attempt on Hitler.

Mason plays his character’s growing dissatisfaction with the Führer to marvellous effect. At the beginning, as his command in North Africa becomes a fight he can’t win, he’s bewildered by an order from Hitler demanding ‘Victory or Death’. By the time he’s leading troops in France against a mounting tide of Allied troops, the same order comes and he realises ‘the Bohemian Corporal’ is now a liability.

Desert Fox’s attempts at realism end with Luther Adler’s portrayal of Hitler, where it’s made clear he’s a bellowing, pontificating madman. Perhaps the very suggestion the Führer could be put on screen as a rational human being who ordered the lives of willing millions was a step too far. Strangely, whilst the other actors playing Germans speak with English accents, Adler gives Hitler’s voice the kind of comic German twang that wouldn’t look out of place on Allo Allo.

Another criticism of the film is that it’s just too short. Much of Rommel’s success in North Africa is dealt with via a mixture of archive footage and Michael Rennie’s narration, which ensures the episodes we get show him always on the losing side. Everyone who discusses Rommel runs over his abilities, yet thanks to the lack of desert foxcraft we have to accept this on reputation alone. To be fair to Mason, he acts with restrained dignity, playing the Field Marshall as an assiduous figure who possesses consideration for his soldiers, very much a good man who has the misfortune of batting for the wrong side.

Desert Fox was received lukewarmly, whilst veterans of North Africa criticised its sensitive depiction of their old nemesis. In response, when 20th Century Fox released The Desert Rats two years later, Mason appeared once again as the Field Marshal, only this time playing a much nastier piece of work.

Rommel, Desert Fox: ***