Dances with Wolves (1990)

When it’s on: Monday, 1 January (1.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The received wisdom is that Goodfellas was the best film of 1990 but it lost out to Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut that told an all-too worthy story about the Frontier and helped to conceive one of the most infamous snubs in the history of the Academy Awards, up there with the time How Green was my Valley triumphed over Citizen Kane.

In the history of Oscar controversies, this is up there with the most notorious. While I’m not about to argue the merits of the two films involved, what I will say is that I love Dances with Wolves. I loved it when I first caught it at the cinema (with a very bored girlfriend – she didn’t last), and I feel the same way now. The version I own is the extended cut on Blu-Ray, which doesn’t add a lot in terms of plot development but does flesh the characters out a little more and, best of all, gives me more time to spend with this fascinating and lovingly made picture.

One of the contemporary notes I would like to make is that when it was made, the Western was to all intents and purposes extinct. There was the usual scattering of B movies, but mainly the genre was used as comic reference (Back to the Future Part III) or to indulge the young stars of the day (Young Guns II). It was a gamble, not least because Costner was untried and had given little impression he was ready to step up to the chair, only taking the job when established directors turned down the assignment. Handed a $10 million budget by Orion, he crowd-sourced a further five million from foreign investors and paid for the three mill overspend out of his own pocket. The story, based on writer Michael Blake’s research into Native Americans, chimed with Hollywood sensibilities of the time, the revisionist attitude to Vietnam that had produced the likes of Platoon and now took in the pushing back of the American frontier, and the inglorious fate of the people who were indigenous to it. While Western movies had long since abandoned the treatment of Indians as mindless savages, telling stories as far back as Broken Arrow that showed them in a sympathetic light, Dances with Wolves offered more, entering the homes of Sioux tribes and exploring in some depth their culture and language. The effort was to depict Indians as decent, honourable, and without the technology of the expansionists every bit as sophisticated and in fact better at protecting their environment.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Injured in battle and then performing an act of heroism in order to save his leg from being amputated, Dunbar is given his choice of postings and volunteers to join a frontier regiment. Turning up at the remote and abandoned Fort Sedgwick, he takes to the task of rebuilding it and holding on until the arrival of relief soldiers. Alone, he battles the solitude by exploring his new environment, keeping a diary of what he discovers. All the while the neighbouring Sioux tribe is watching him, attempting at one point to steal his horse in an effort to intimidate him, before eventually visiting him. An uneasy friendship starts. Dunbar finds himself respecting his neighbours, fascinated by them and their customs, making efforts to learn their language, and when he discovers the arrival of a buffalo herd he takes it as an opportunity to improve relations. The Sioux have problems of their own. As well as depending on the declining buffalo population for sustenance, they face attacks from the warlike Pawnee tribe, and are aware of the long-term threat of settlers moving west.

If Dances with Wolves has issues, then they begin with the stately pace at which all this takes place. Costner takes his good time in soaking up the natural wonders of the frontier (filmed largely on private ranches in South Dakota), while the critical development of his relations with the Sioux happen organically, over time and highlights all the barriers as well as the benefits to their friendship. This is either great or interminably slow, and while I’m happily of the former opinion I can understand that the film’s leisurely narrative has the potential to frustrate some viewers. Added to this is Costner’s performance. I have no problem with it and think he carries the film well enough, however in a story that aches for authenticity it’s possibly tough to watch this native Californian with his neat, modern West Coast dialect and wonder how he could be there at all. Dunbar’s mission as an open-minded adventurer who falls for the Sioux way of life also becomes difficult to take. Practically every white man apart from Dunbar is evil, morally corrupt against the implacable nobility of the Sioux, which is intended to generate an air of tragedy, the sure knowledge that ultimately the latter will vanish in their native form, but a bit more balance would surely have worked in its favour.

For all those elements, it’s still a film I really enjoy, and I’m happy enough to sit through more than three hours of it and even prepared to lump on the extra hour of director’s cut material. Whatever my issues with the ‘black and white’ treatment of its characters, I find the steady build-up of Dunbar’s understanding of the Sioux to be quite fascinating, intended to educate us at the same time as he learns things and doing it successfully. Graham Greene’s performance as the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird, is superb, rounded as the character’s conservatism is balanced with his wish for friendship with Dunbar. As Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the tribe and eventually Dunbar’s wife, Mary McDonnell produces some fine work, reluctant to endear herself to the Sioux’s ‘alien’ visitor and yet drawn to him. Rodney A. Grant plays Wind in his Hair, a young warrior who takes more time to get over his mistrustful instincts of Dunbar, and is also very good. The film has to convince us of the reality of these people, and does it very well thanks to casting Native American actors and breathing life into their customs and attitude. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, tribe elder Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) shows Dunbar the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, a symbol of the invaders who will eventually pass into history and leave them alone, but thinking this is going to happen again with the Americans is a fantasy, one of which Dunbar is only too aware.

Beyond the story, a sympathetic treatment of Native Americans that for its time was relatively fresh, the film’s technical elements are superb. I have been playing the John Barry score while writing these comments, and it feels like a perfect fit. The music offers all the epic sweep of the frontier, but with heavy melancholic notes, like it knows as well as the viewer that despite Dunbar’s romanticism and the tribe’s nobility none of it will endure. The pushing back of the frontier is inevitable, and an entire way of life will be lost. Barry won the Oscar for his score, as did Dean Semler, the cinematographer who had the job of bringing the virgin frontier to life. Quite simply it’s a gorgeous effort, all untamed landscapes and endless skies, in every frame the big country that the Midwest was for its explorers. Added to that are the logistics of putting more than 3,000 buffalo on the screen and getting them to ‘act’ the role of being a herd that’s pursued by the Sioux. In an era when digital effects were too new to recreate the animals with any semblance of reality, those really are thousands of animals being made to stampede, which they would do for miles and represented a danger to the actors working with them, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in their path. And yet the effect is worth it; the sight is something you don’t see in real life anymore and was recreated brilliantly for the film.

So, a movie that perhaps isn’t perfect. Its sympathies are clear, bordering on hand-wringing, and when Roger Ebert described it as a ‘sentimental fantasy’ you know exactly what he meant. Though a fictional character, it’s possible that someone like Dunbar really did exist, enchanted by the Indian tribe to the extent of integrating himself as one of them, but the stark reality is that western expansion just swallowed up everything and everyone in its path, which ensures the film carries an air of sadness. And yet it’s also a great adventure yarn, made with care and attention to detail, its attempts at accuracy so painstaking that the occasional fault can be overlooked within the overall effort. Dances with Wolves can also be credited with breathing life back into the Western genre. As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, Westerns were at their best when reflecting contemporary American sensibilities, using the setting to hold a mirror up the values, beliefs and concerns of the time. During the genre’s Golden Age of the 1950s, the movies were a perfect counterpoint to attitudes in the USA, and Dances with Wolves continues that grand tradition.

Dances with Wolves: ****

You Only Live Twice (1967)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 June (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

…and ‘Twice’ is the only way to live!

You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond movies, and for the life of me I’m not sure why. It’s a crazy film, utterly preposterous in many, many places, with the central character by now so far from the human spy of the early entries and attaining superhero status that it lacks all credibility. Some bits make no sense, such as the scene where a chopper wielding a giant magnet lifts a car that’s pursuing Bond into the air, then dumps it into the sea. Bond watches the ‘drop’ from a video feed, but who’s filming it? There’s the infamous surgical procedure that disguises 007 as a Japanese man, not to mention the jaw-dropping pronouncement that in Japan, men come first, women second. Sean Connery’s clearly disinterested performance should send the entire affair crashing over the edge, whilst the final unveiling of Ernst Stavro Blofeld dishes up Donald Pleasance, more slightly creepy than the globe-striding megalomaniac who’s been lurking in the shadows for four movies. All told, it’s sheer hogwash.

But good hogwash. Several elements really ramp up the quality, beginning with John Barry’s score. An obvious choice he may be, but Barry’s a composer whose  music I’ll always listen to, and this is one of his finest pieces of work. Inspired by the Far East, his score for You Only Live Twice is as luxurious as thick chocolate, in love with the film’s Japanese setting and its sense of both wonder and action. Ken Adams was once again in charge of production design, and for this served up one of his finest creations, a hollowed out volcano that doubled as SPECTRE’s lair. It’s incredible to think that the cavernous set really looked that big. It had to, people running along the floor like insects, ninjas dropping in from quite a height. Visually, it just beats everything that came before out of sight. Bond spends quite a sizeable portion of the film searching for Blofeld’s base, and the message when he stumbles across it appears to be that whatever you could imagine, no matter the scale, what’s filmed will always be bigger and more spectacular.

After the aquatic (lack of) fun dished up in Thunderball, the volcano must have been an amazing feast for 1960s eyes and chimes perfectly with the film’s determination to pile up the visual treats. It’s all helped along by Freddie Young’s cinematography. The award winning Director of Photography (Young came to You Only Live Twice with Oscars for his contribution to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, two epics shot on an enormous canvas) is behind all those gorgeous shots of volcanic landscapes, the expansive Japanese vistas at sunset, orange rays spilling over Bond as he arrives on the shore.

Roald Dahl’s screenplay job involved just two demands – the Japanese location and hollowed out volcano base. The rest was up to him, and Dahl just went for it, stuffing his script with spectacle and thrills. As daft as the magnet-wielding helicopter is, it’s certainly off the scale of what people might imagine. Little Nellie, Bond’s flatpack chopper, looks like great fun to pilot. SPECTRE’s plan to play the superpowers off against each other by sending a rocket into space that ‘eats’ their own vessels is just mental. There must come a point, even for an evil organisation, when they start wondering why they bother with all this – surely the cost of building the base and developing ships into orbit is so prohibitive that there’s just no point. Why not  spend a fraction of the cash on a limitless supply of assassins to do away with Bond? Or just invest the money wisely and live off the profits?

But so what, right? Where would the fun be in such a prissy evil plan, not when there are dead volcanoes in a rural part of Japan just waiting to be developed into domains of black-hearted deeds? There are better Bond films than You Only Live Twice, but few come with such high production values, such an aim to please and similar levels of guilty wit. It’s nothing more or less than splendid nonsense.

You Only Live Twice: ****

The Lion in Winter (1968)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 30 May (3.00 am, Thursday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys, but nowhere in God’s western world have I found anyone to love but you.

As a History graduate, I find it sad and surprising that Henry II doesn’t rank amongst the leading English monarchs for study. Perhaps it’s the fact that Henry spoke French. Maybe it’s the lack of a Shakespeare play on his life, or possibly it’s because his reign took place so very long ago, but anyone wishing to cover an endlessly fascinating time in medieval history would get it all with Henry Plantagenet. A man with boundless levels of both energy and rage, the King ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, making him the leading European, secular figure of his age. His longstanding legacy was his reform of justice in England, yet he’s best known for his involvement of the murder of his friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

That’s the subject of another film, Becket, which by a coincidence that guarantees a semblance of continuity also starred Peter O’Toole as Henry. The Lion in Winter concerns itself with the King’s later years, when his life was dominated by family squabbles. His marriage to the older Eleanor of Aquitaine added an enormous slab of land in western France to his holdings, yet their partnership was undermined by a series of kingly bits on the side, which led Henry’s wife to scheme and plot in order to advance their sons’ claims over his rule. As for the sons, history records them in a somewhat less than favourable light. Eternally leading revolts against their father, recruiting various lords to their causes and with Eleanor pulling strings behind the scenes. What a bunch. Henry’s longevity made things more frustrating for his offspring and it’s this degree of tension that’s captured in The Lion in Winter.

O’Toole returns as an older and more cynical King. He’s worn down by his sons’ machinations and has resorted to keeping Eleanor under lock and key. Christmas in Chinon gives them an opportunity to get together and bury the hatchet, but by and into whom is yet to be revealed. The actor was fifteen years younger than the 50-year old King he played, but this allowed him to accurately get across Henry’s energy. He was younger still than Katharine Hepburn, who was hired for the role of Eleanor. In an example of casting that fit like a glove, Hepburn was a perfect choice – beautiful, clever and still in thrall to Henry, despite his professed love for Alais (Jane Merrow), the French princess who is intended for one of the sons yet becomes the King’s mistress. For the remaining roles, stage actors were chosen – Anthony Hopkins played Richard, John Castle was Geoffrey, John was taken on by Nigel Terry. A fresh-faced Timothy Dalton played the young French king, Philip. Both Dalton and Hopkins were making their screen debuts.

Based on James Goldman’s play (Goldman also produced the film’s screenplay), The Lion in Winter is literary, favouring words over action. Long scenes take place in which people talk to each other, but it’s the things they say and the circumstances that matter. Henry’s sons are, to a man, instantly disownable. Spiteful, antagonistic towards each other and their father and continually vying for power and favour, they’re an awful brood. John is Henry’s favourite, but only because he appears the most docile and least likely to cause him grief. The warlike Richard turns out to be a mummy’s boy, a gay lover of Philip’s and wholly disinterested in anything that takes place off the battlefield. Geoffrey, apparently out of the running for the kingship, seems content to sit back and play Chancellor to the best candidate, but he’s the most dangerous and assiduous of the terrible trio.

At its heart, the film is really about the fractured relationship between Henry and Eleanor. The pair spar verbally like old pros, but there’s affection also and mutual understanding, which relates to a past in which they were obviously crazy about each other. The script and Anthony Harvey’s intelligent direction get the characters just right. Eleanor really was that worldly, the consummate survivor with similar levels of inner strength and fragility. Even at 50, Henry was still a ball of energy, willing to incarcerate an entire family that sickened him in favour of starting all over again. As good is the depiction of the medieval world as a place of muck and darkness. The King kicks chickens out of the way as he enters his castle. His clothes aren’t the multi-coloured splendour one might expect of royalty. This is a lived in Chinon, a city of stone and shit that makes one wonder the states of squalor the peasantry had to look forward to.

The Lion in Winter won three Oscars, for Hepburn, Goldman, and John Barry’s score. The latter, incorporating monastic choruses with Barry’s traditional, brass-heavy overtures to sublime effect, is a thing of utter beauty. The main theme plays over shots of cathedral grotesques and is heavy with portent, but the real joy is perhaps the music that accompanies Eleanor’s arrival in Chinon, a melancholic piece that hints at her former loveliness and the wasted years she’s put in.


The Lion in Winter: *****

From Russia with Love (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Beset with production difficulties throughout its shoot, From Russia with Love did all it could to undermine Broccoli and Saltzman’s wishes for annual Bond films. Just about everything that could go wrong did exactly that, topped off with the suicide of supporting actor Pedro Armendariz, who took his own life rather than fall to the ravages of the advanced cancer he discovered he had whilst on set. And yet From Russia with Love turned out to be amongst the best of the Bonds. Distinctly low key, and relying on the strength of its cast over the spectacular thrills and gadgetry that would come to define the series, it’s a great couple of hours’ cinema that may delight viewers who come to it expecting the same old nonsense from 007.

The story begins with a nice thread of continuity from Dr No. SPECTRE is riled by Bond’s quashing of Julius No’s machinations and resolves to rid itself of the spy. To this end, a plot is hatched that takes advantage of East-West relations. Bond (Sean Connery) is despatched to Istanbul, where he’s to bring home both Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful Russian secretary working on the Cold War front line, and the Lektor decoding machine she promises to bring along. The hook for Bond is that Tatiana is reported to have fallen in love with him. But the mission is an elaborate trap. Bond is rushing into the path of SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), a man so tough he can take a knuckleduster to the abdomen without flinching. Believing his trip to be a success, Bond travels west on the Orient Express with Tatiana and the machine, oblivious to the fact his every move is being tracked…

There’s much enjoyment to be had from 007 going about his business, whilst in the shadows Grant watches. This is shown to best effect as Bond waits for his contact at a station, stood outside the train. Whilst he paces nervously (and ‘nervous’ is the operative word; the film suggests that Bond has an idea something’s afoot but only has the hairs on the back of his neck to go off), Grant can be observed through the window, keeping perfect pace with his prey. Later, the pair meet over dinner, the assassin posing as a Secret Service contact – after killing the real one – and attempting to lull our hero into a false sense of security, whilst Tatiana gets the spiked drink. His cover’s blown when he famously orders red wine with a fish course; a true British agent would never make such a working class error and Bond’s instantly onto him. The fight sequence that follows takes place in, of all places, a cramped train compartment, neither participant at their best in such close quarters, which leads to some fine, brutal action. Ultimately, Grant’s origins as a petty thief are his undoing. He has the better of his opponent and it’s only when Bond offers him money that he pauses.

Stunts and thrills are kept to a minimum, indeed it seems as though the film’s budget is blown on its last twenty minutes as Bond and Tatiana race to Vienna, pursued by SPECTRE helicopters and gun-toting speedboats. Otherwise, the most exciting sequence is the attack on a gypsy camp led by a Soviet agent, which Grant observes from a distance and chillingly offs anyone who stands in Bond’s way. In place of explosions and bullet dodging, the film offers suspense and a fine, slow burning pace, directed by Terence Young with an eye on the climactic fight between the spy and his would-be assassin. Also delightful is Lotte Lenya’s SPECTRE stooge, the lesbian Rosa Klebb, who gets her own opportunity to take Bond out after he’s dealt with everything else in his way.

Connery puts in some of his best 007 work, his vulnerabilities exposed more than once in From Russia with Love (we wouldn’t again see Bond show any such emotion until On her Majesty’s Secret Service, by which stage Connery was off-duty), whilst Bianchi comes across as adorable because the script gives her character time to grow on our affections. It’s impossible to round this piece off without a mention for John Barry, who enjoyed his first gig as the primary composer on a Bond film. His 007 arrangement makes an appearance here, most notably in the gypsy camp sequence, and it elicits all the adventure and fun these films tried to offer.

From Russia with Love: *****