Reach for the Sky (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 June (1.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

When it was released, Reach for the Sky became a colossal hit in UK cinemas, the top grossing film of the year and sealed Douglas Bader’s status as a bona fide English hero. Certainly the tale of a pilot who lost both his legs after a flying accident, and then returned to the skies through sheer force of will, becoming a central figure of the Battle of Britain in 1940, is a winning one, and it’s told winningly. It starred Kenneth More, one of the highest profile British actors of the 1950s and an entirely appropriate choice for the film’s story. More was entirely capable of depicting Bader’s sense of determination and his mounting popularity as a disabled man leading other fighter pilots into aerial combat. It’s a great portrayal and it fits the character the film is trying to create perfectly.

Unfortunately, whilst the story of Bader’s recovery after his crash is heartwarmingly true, Reach for the Sky goes for a picture book version of his life that omits or plays down certain details. Had the film been made twenty or more years later, it would almost certainly have taken a ‘warts and all’ approach, perhaps highlighting his neglected childhood, the lack of love from his parents that transformed him into a fierce and competitive spirit, his rudeness to others, a notable amount of bad language and his tendency to exaggerate his own flying prowess, wildly adding to the number of ‘kills’ he actually made on his exploits. What we get is Boys’ Own Bader, a bluff and larger than life yet definably heroic figure who inspired others through his example. There are elements of that in reality, true, yet during World War Two it seems clear that the media, ever eager to find great Britons in order to inspire an exhausted country, bought into his image, and it’s this ‘heightened’ Bader that More portrays.

By all accounts, Richard Burton was the first choice for the role before he declined and it was offered to More, and you can imagine a quite different Bader emerging in the former’s hands. And yet More’s the better fit for the resulting film, bringing a real indomitability to his part that Bader must have needed to possess in overcoming his disability. In his playing, there’s little of the tortured soul that might have been brought out as a consequence of his accident, more a stolid resoluteness to get back on his feet – and eventually into a cockpit – that must have been an easy sell into British hearts. It’s great stuff, More’s impressive jaw never more lantern-like as he takes lick after lick in his early, post-amputation scenes and comes back fighting. There’s a world of contrast between this and, say, the rather pathetic figure Tom Cruise turns into after he’s fatefully shot down in Vietnam during Born on the Fourth of July; a different figure for another age, telling quite distinct stories.

Here, Bader’s such a dominating figure that the rest of the cast barely get a look in. Lyndon Brook, as his friend and the film’s narrator, does little but provide the voiceover. Dorothy Allison’s Nurse Brace gives one impassioned speech to Bader about feeling less sorry for himself when so many people have prayed for him, and then vanishes once he’s left hospital. His wife, Themla, is played by Muriel Pavlow, and simply plays the supportive spouse, ever fretting about his survival and moving out of his way as he attempts another gold shot.

Reach for the Sky was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to work with More a year later in the fantastic The Admirable Crichton, before making a couple of very high profile Bond adventures. As those 007 entries would show, Gilbert had no problem directing action scenes, something revealed here in the great aerial combat sequences. Some of it is stock wartime footage, particularly those depicting the German pilots reacting to attacks from the British, but much of the film follows actual Spitfires and Hurricanes, along with antique flyers from the 1920s that remain in preservation today. The aerial photography makes for some fine bits of shooting, Gilbert getting across really well the tactics deployed by Bader and how effective they were, something quite difficult when many scenes of this kind appear to depict aircraft almost randomly soaring across the screen.

I’ve applauded British war films of this era on these pages a number of times for their honesty and attempts at realism. In that sense, Reach of the Sky is a bit disappointing, showing an idealised central character that focuses entirely on his positive achievements rather than the less wholesome aspects. But it is likeable, with almost the perfect 1950s British actor hired to command the film’s image of Bader, and that’s never really a bad thing.

Reach for the Sky: ***

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The Admirable Crichton (1957)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 13 January (1.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The study of class difference has always fascinated UK cinema, in particular looking back at a past in which the gulf between patrician and plebeian members was brought into sharper focus within single households. The success of TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey prove that the interest has not waned, especially the status of the serving classes jarring with their wealthy employers. It’s little wonder that stately homes now open to the public attract millions of visitors. The glimpse into the kind of world that no longer exists, massive buildings housing single families and with labyrinthine quarters for the servants, is an almost surreal experience in the twenty-first century.

The Admirable Crichton was adapted from J M Barrie’s play, a comedy that was written and first performed in 1902 to enormous success. The first film version appeared in 1918, and since then it has been adapted for the radio and television, though this version from 1957 remains the best known. It was filmed in colour, with much of the action taking place on Bermuda to replicate the sun-kissed paradise in which our misfit heroes find themselves. Lewis Gilbert directed, and Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper’s eye for composition excelled in showing the attraction of the characters’ island home over its hardships. It really does look like a ravishing location on which to be stranded.

The eponymous Crichton (Kenneth More) is butler to Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), senior politician and owner of the vast Loam Hall. A practising Liberal, Lord Loam believes that his three daughters should acquaint themselves with a future in which all people are treated equally, and arranges gloriously awkward sessions in which the family and servants mix, to everyone’s bemusement. It’s the era of Suffragism, but Crichton cares little for the equalising of society, nor his master’s efforts to simulate this within the home. He’s the perfect butler, managing the staff with a firm but fair hand and believing strongly in the prolonging of tradition. One of the daughters is arrested for being involved in a heated Suffragette rally, and to avoid scandal Crichton suggests the family take a voyage to the South Seas. All goes wrong when the cruise runs into stormy waters, the boat sinks and the survivors find themselves on a beautiful but entirely uninhabited island. Along with Crichton and Lord Loam are the three daughters, two young male aristocrat friends, and Cockney girl Eliza (Diane Cilento), the maid known as ‘Tweeny’ because her serving role sees her move between roles.

Whilst the strandees aren’t in any real danger, it’s clear they have no idea how to cope with their new environment – Crichton asks the noblemen to tie their rowing boat to a rock, but they wrap the rope around a turtle instead, which duly ambles off into the sea and their vessel floats away. It turns out only Crichton has any practical knowledge and, after some initial tension, he emerges as the group’s leader. Two years pass. The roles reverse, Lord Loam serving Crichton in menial duties and being renamed ‘Daddy’, whilst the Butler now goes by ‘Guvnor’ and has used his skills to build houses, source food from the sea and create a reasonably comfortable life for them all. The men all love Tweeny, but she loves her Guvnor, a problem exacerbated as Crichton falls for Daddy’s eldest daughter, Mary (Sally Ann Howes). This culminates in a wedding ceremony between them, yet before the nuptials can be completed the spy a passing boat. Do they light the beacon and get rescued, returning to civilisation, or will they stay where they have found a semblance of happiness and equality?

Renamed Paradise Lagoon for the American market, the film was made as a vehicle for More, a genuine British box office draw in the 1950s and at his best in roles that emphasised his stolid masculinity. More was initially reticent about taking the part, but comes into his own when the action moves to the island and his practical skills and natural charisma come to the fore. He’s supported by a fine cast, veteran Parker nearly stealing the picture as the befuddled Lord who engages enthusiastically in becoming the servant once his circumstances change. Cilento has the film’s heart as the adorable Tweeny and, for this viewer, was a far better match for Crichton than Mary, a British alternative to Grace Kelly whose aloof persona never really cracked.

The Admirable Crichton is a perfectly enjoyable comedy-drama, strangely unthreatening to modern audiences who have the more visceral survival tale of something like Cast Away with which to compare it, yet entirely likeable. Furthermore, it’s a delight to me to come across a movie in which so much takes place and it’s all over in just over ninety minutes, points made succinctly, characters suitably developed; economic film making it its finest.

The Admirable Crichton: ***

Moonraker (1979)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Poor old Moonraker. It’s routinely lambasted as the poorest of all the Bonds, the ultimate expression of spectacle over Ian Fleming’s concept that, the legend goes, caused so much soul-searching on the part of Cubby Broccoli that its sequel, For Your Eyes Only, was deliberately rebooted on a back to basics platform. The intention of Moonraker to cash in on the success of Star Wars is perceived as shameless and opportunistic, ruining Bond’s good reputation at the cost of squeezing a few more bucks from the craze for science fiction. How could they do that? What happened to the nice, down to earth stories of yore, the ones with hollowed out volcanoes and so on?

The trouble is that the film’s accusers have it about right. Fleming’s Moonraker had nothing to do with space and was instead a nuclear rocket; as the script developed layers of his plot were lopped off so that, in the end, little remained beyond the name of the story’s villain, Hugo Drax. The film appears to have been conceived almost as a compendium of 007’s greatest moments, taking in the likes of Venice and Rio in an attempt to deliver the last word in lavish entertainment. The ‘dream team’ of writer Christopher Wood and director Lewis Gilbert was retained after the success of The Spy who Loved Me, whilst Jaws (Richard Kiel) returned also to resume his popular tussles with Moore’s agent. The whole show had to build up to scenes set in space, and the plot was therefore engineered to have Bond uncover Drax’s scheme to destroy all human life, only keeping a number of ‘perfect specimens’ in a station located above the Earth’s atmosphere, to which 007 will eventually travel for the climax.

It’s undoubtedly very silly, with an emphasis on fun and stuntcraft, the action never pausing long enough for viewers to ask the obvious questions concerning plot holes, or indeed wonder why Drax would even bother wiping out humanity when he’s a very rich man who could, if he so chose, lock himself away in a Kanesian Xanadu and keep the rest of the world at bay, not to mention the convenient way Drax is Bond’s first point of investigation (what are the odds?). However, Moonraker did incredible business, being the first Bond to take over $200 million at the box office and initially enjoying more good reviews than bad. Clearly, the negative opinion is something it’s shouldered over time, turning a film that tries earnestly to entertain into the franchise’s pariah.

A deserved reputation? Well, yes and no. The good points begin with Michael Lonsdale, the French actor hired to play Drax as the production moved to Paris in order to bypass tougher tax laws that had been passed in Britain. Lonsdale plays it cold, gifting Drax with the kind of single-minded megalomania missing from so many flamboyant Bond villains. Check out his rather brutal killing of Corinne Dufour, or the way he tells his manservant to ensure that ‘some harm’ comes to Bond. There’s no feeling in his voice, nothing, just the deadened necessity of getting the job done. In the book, Drax was a Nazi, which justified his brusque attitude to the human race. Here, he has no excuse, and he’s all the more chilling for it.

Then there’s the cash that was lavished on making sure this was the most extravagant of movie experiences. You need a carnival scene? Hey, why not set it in Rio’s Mardi Gras, the biggest celebration of them all? After a classy European location? How about Venice? Want a set piece using glamorous backdrops? Would the Iguazu Falls suit? The latter features in Moonraker to serve a brief stunt, but was hit upon because, at the time, little had been filmed there previously, giving the dramatic Falls a fresh and awe-inspiring appearance. Other scenes flickered seamlessly from location shots to those based in the studio, from Bond standing outside a pyramid in Guatemala to entering a Ken Adams set. It’s all brilliantly executed, the action in Brazil particularly well put together.

Naturally, the action is leading to the science fiction showdown and Drax’s space station, in reality a model situated in Pinewood. For the film’s space scenes, the crew went for the archaic method of filming something, say a shuttle, rewinding the film and shooting something else, the stars perhaps or Earth, and overlaying the images. It works really well, even during its ultimate test of the space battle between Drax’s cohorts and United States marines, all equipped with laser rifles for that authentic Star Wars feel. Adams designed the awesome space station interior, with its clinical, austere look that reflects Drax’s philosophy, but the best bit in the film – and for me, one of the finest ‘money shots’ in the entire series – comes earlier. Bond and Dr Goodhead (Lois Chiles) are on board a space shuttle, heading on automatic pilot for some fixed point, and then the station emerges, lit gradually by the morning sun and rotating serenely, John Barry’s score reaching a suitably grandstanding crescendo.

The downside is a script that tries to inject humour into any given moment. The film’s meant to be a bit of fun and scenes played for comedy are generally welcome, but too often the laughs are heavy-handed and not very funny. When Jaws’s parachute fails in the prologue and he tries vainly flapping his arms, that’s fine because he’s a character largely played for comedic effect and we expect nothing less, and besides Kiel had an under-appreciated sense of timing. Elsewhere, some of the musical cues are just rubbish and hammer home for audiences a visual gag played fairly subtly, such as when the theme from The Magnificent Seven appears to absolutely flat effect. Then we have the reappearance of Victor Tourjansky and the worried glances at his plonk, and even a pigeon performing a double-take.

It’s bottom of the barrel stuff and simply jars with the excellent – and sometimes genuinely life-threatening – work that went into the stunts and the immense care taken over location shooting and Adams’s thrilling sets. Otherwise, it’s refreshing to see Bond treat his lady loves with more than casual disregard, also the moments in the film where he actually looks as though he’s in some peril, as in the centrifuge chamber. Chiles makes for a decent heroine, and if little else works for viewers, then the closing joke, in which Q suggests 007 is attempting re-entry, is one of the better ones.

Moonraker: ***

The Spy who Loved Me (1977)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 July (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

More silliness from the Bond franchise with The Spy who Loved Me, which abandons any lingering pretensions of seriousness with an adventure romp based on spectacle, explosions, glamour and set piece thrills. It should be an expensive mess. Double the money was plugged into it than was lavished on its predecessor, The Man with the Golden Gun, upsetting a normal trend of responding to diminished returns with lower budgets, and that cash is on the screen with a visibly more lavish affair. And somehow, against considerable odds it works. The film’s a blast. It never gets dull and every scene is stuffed with a sense of playfulness. For once, Roger Moore seems wholly appropriate to the proceedings, an arch Bond for a totally knowing piece of work.

The film had a troubled birth, which explains the atypically long three year gap between releases. It was the first to feature Cubby Broccoli as sole producer, following the financial problems experienced by Harry Saltzman. In charge and able to take the franchise in directions according to his own vision, Broccoli called for fast paced action and fun, a thrill ride for the whole family, and wound up with something very similar to You Only Live Twice. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the director hired was Lewis Gilbert, responsible for the very same 1960s entry with the massive volcano. Gilbert wasn’t the first choice. The reliable Guy Hamilton turned it down and there were serious thoughts about approaching Steven Spielberg, at the time a young gun whose entire reputation and future credibility rested on some picture about a shark…

Gilbert and the crew started work on The Spy who Loved Me without a finished script, which was becoming an epic tale in itself. Whilst the film shared its title with Ian Fleming’s novel, the production was allowed to use no more than the book’s title. At the same time, legal rumblings with Kevin McClory, who owned the rights to Thunderball, stopped the production from including SPECTRE or Blofeld in the film, leading ultimately to the appearance of the very Blofeld-esque Karl Stromberg, played by Curd Jurgens who probably turned out to be the best unofficial Number One they ever had!

After soliciting any number of writers (those claiming to have had a hand in the script include Anthony Burgess and John Landis), the finished screenplay was put together by Bond veteran Richard Maibaum, with Christopher Wood hired by Gilbert  to iron out the bits that fell foul of the legal department and to make the lead character different from that played by Sean Connery. Wood showed up with a lurid and fascinating background in writing. Desperate to escape from the drudgery of his job in advertising, he wrote a series of sex novels under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, each with the title ‘Confessions of‘. Hired for The Spy who Loved Me, the suggestion that Bond’s encounters with women would go down the route of entendre-driven sordidness (which is often enough where it was heading in previous pictures) were happily wide of the mark. 007 beds, as is always the way, but his relationship with Russian counterpart Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) is surprisingly well developed over the course of the picture.

As the title of the film suggests, the story isn’t really told from Bond’s perspective at all. Fleming’s novel left him out of much of the action, whilst the film focuses strongly on Amasova, the Russian spy who is ordered by the collaborating Secret Services of Britain and the USSR to team up with Bond. One of the picture’s strongest cards is that it develops Amasova into a strong, independent character. She’s clearly Bond’s equal, fully capable of outwitting him, and it’s a great relief after Solitaire and Goodnight (simperers, the pair of ’em) to come across a ‘Bond girl’ who isn’t written into the plot solely to collapse into his arms. The edge to her character is that in the film’s first act, Bond shoots a Soviet agent whilst escaping their ambush; the dead man is Amasova’s lover. When she discovers 007 is responsible for killing him, she tells him that once their mission is over he too will die. It’s a great moment, made better for being taken seriously by Bond, who gives the impression of falling for Amasova himself. An earlier conversation between the pair even raises the spectre of his dead wife, and the raw spot that mentioning her opens for him.

The plot takes Bond and Amasova from Egypt to Sardinia and eventually to Stromberg’s submersible lair, which looks like something from The War of the Worlds. The Egyptian scenes are especially good. Like a tour of the Nile, the action tracks from the pyramids, through Luxor’s Karnak Temple and finally to Abu Simbel, as the two spies cross swords with each other and Stromberg’s henchman, the steel-teethed Jaws (Richard Kiel). Jaws is a cracking baddie, more than just a heavy and with a fantastic sense of comic timing. He also comes with a Hammer attitude to attacking his victims, slowly moving in for the bite. So successful was he over the course of the film that in between this mission and the next, Jaws transferred his services to the employ of Hugo Drax and awaited his next appointment with Bond…

Ken Adam was once again on hand with his fantastic sets, outdoing even his volcano base from You Only Live Twice with the massive interior of Stromberg’s tanker, constructed on a newly built Pinewood sound stage and storing more than a million gallons of water. The set seems all the more impressive by the fact it’s really there, with real actors running around within it. Equally breathtaking is the model work that went into creating a miniature of the tanker’s exterior. The initial intention was to use a redundant tanker donated by Shell, but insurance costs for running the vessel were prohibitive and the production instead built a 65-foot model. As an illusion, it’s extremely well done, the crew even replicating the ship’s lengthy tailback for maximum authenticity. And then there’s Stromberg’s aquatic base, Atlantis, all curves and domes, a successful attempt by Adam to develop a lair that contrasted sharply with the cramped, linear offices occupied by M.

I’m no fan of 007’s gadgetry, so the Lotus Esprit that converts into a submarine did little for me, and besides it feels a bit like cheating to have Bond pursued into a dead end by Caroline Munro’s sexy villain, only to play yet another Joker. Bah! Not just that, but the daft comic scene where the Lotus drives out of the sea and onto a beach, watched with disbelief by Victor Tourjansky who looks from the car to his bottle. It was the first of three Bond cameos by Tourjansky, doing the same thing in each successive film. Being charitable, I agree it’s a good natured gag, though it’s always sat uneasily with me to think of a supposedly secret agent – note the secret – showing off so brazenly. Having said that, I hope when I see something incredible happening before my very eyes that I have my trusty wine bottle by my side.

The Spy who Loved Me: ****